In 1942 Eily (Kit) Gayford, already an experienced boatwoman, spent several months with working boat couple Ciss and Albert Sibley learning the craft of working a pair of loaded narrow boats before going on to train many others. The women, known as trainees at the time (the Idle Women nickname came much later) worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company and their usual route was a three week round trip from London to Birmingham, returning via Coventry.
Over the summer of 2017 we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the start of the training scheme by recreating that journey. We travelled with an historic boat, NB Tench, owned and very kindly lent by a woman (Alex Bennett) and crewed by women. We performed Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at 48 different waterside (and nearby) venues.
We started in Bull’s Bridge on the site of the GUCCC depot (now a Tesco superstore) on April 22nd, headed into London along the Paddington Arm and the Regents Canal to Limehouse Basin where they loaded war supplies for Birmingham. You can watch a few minutes of the women loading timber in this Movietone newsreel.
Then it was back through London (although without the 50 tons of cargo they would have had), up the Grand Union to Tyesley in Birmingham where they unloaded before heading to Coventry for coal to bring back to London. In the early days of the scheme they then had to follow the same route the working boaters used to reach the Coventry coalfields, the much hated ‘bottom road’ (Birmingham & Fazeley canal). Later in the war the company agreed that all the boaters could return to Coventry via the easier Grand Union route. However, we took the bottom road in the interests of authenticity and because it enabled Heather to write a special song about the hated route and meant we could take the stories to a wider audience. And finally, back to Camden for the first weekend in August.
Later in the year we did a short run of shows on the Oxford Canal – not a regular route for the trainees but some did make deliveries to Jericho.
Here’s a map of all the shows we did.