Blog: Tracing the route of the not-so ‘Idle Women’ who navigated the waterways in World War II

February 2016. I had completed an MFA in creative writing. My efforts at reworking a play didn’t seem to be making much progress and The Royal Court hadn’t called…

So, I decided that I should just get on with making some work and, as I’m a long time liveaboard boater, the waterways seemed the obvious place to do it. I’d also been wanting to take my boat to Chester for at least a decade so I sat down to look at possibilities and came across Worcestershire Poet Laureate, Heather Wastie, and her audio piece Idle Women & Judies, which looked at women who worked on the boats during World War II. Incidentally, the Idle Women weren’t idle at all. They were a group of young women who worked on the canals during the war and when they finished their six weeks training (two 70 foot boats, 50 tonnes of cargo, two round trips from London to Birmingham) they received their National Service badge, with IW on it, for Inland Waterways. After the war one of the trainees, as they were more usually known, wrote an account of her time on the boats and called it Idle Women. It stuck.

Back to February 2016, I had a solo play Isobel’s War that I had written in 2009 and Heather said she would like to read it. After we had looked at each other’s work we decided that putting the two pieces together had the makings of a great show. So, we started looking at venues along the Staffordshire and Worchester canal – near Heather’s home and exactly the route I was interested in exploring by boat. We felt this was a Very Good Omen. We came up with 10-12 possible venues within reasonable commuting distance of her home near Kidderminster. At this point we still hadn’t actually met…

Fortunately, when we did, and sat down with maps and canal guides to refine the route and the venues, we found we worked well together. Which was probably just as well as I had already provisionally booked several places and she had talked to several more!

We had a great time over the five weeks of our first tour last summer, despite losing the first show to flooding and being rather tentative and apologetic in our ‘how about you put something in our hat’ requests. Audiences grew as word spread and we started to get requests so we went on to an autumn tour. Oh, and we got much better at parting our audience with their money, we even got them laughing as they handed it over.

Somewhere in the middle of the summer I had The Brilliant Idea, so brilliant, and so obvious that I couldn’t think why I hadn’t thought of it before. It was, quite simply, to follow the route that the wartime women trainees worked regularly, to recreate their journey. And when we discovered that 2017 would be 75 years since the scheme began, that sealed it.

The Idle Women: Recreating the Journey will follow the route the trainees regularly worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. We will start at Bull’s Bridge at the GUCCC depot (now better known as the giant Tesco in Hayes) and head through London to Limehouse basin where they loaded, then back through Mile End, Hackney, Camden, Little Venice and West London to rejoin the Grand Union. Then its north to Birmingham where they unloaded their cargo of war supplies (often steel or timber) before going on to the Coventry coalfields for fuel to bring back to London.

They took three weeks, we’re taking a little over three months, with lots of stops en route to perform our double bill Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways. You’ll find us in pub gardens, historic waterside buildings, a community wood, several waterway festivals, even a lockside with a working boat on hand to include as part of the set. Last year we found that audience members often stayed to tell us their own stories of the canals and we’re hoping to hear a lot more of those this year.

Over the winter we have been working with new sources and we’ve added new material. In each area we’ll be highlighting the parts of the story that happened there – bringing the history on your doorstep to your door.

A big part of the journey will be travelling with an old working boat – it isn’t exactly the kind that the women worked on, but very similar. It’s owned by a woman and will be skippered and crewed by women. We have a skipper but we’re looking for volunteer crew, so if you’re a woman, reasonably fit and active, and you’d like to come and see what life might have been like had you been born a century ago and answered that advert in the 1940s, sign up to our mailing list and look out for the information about volunteering!

The tour runs until August 5 at various locations. Details and tickets can be found here.

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