A double bill of theatre, poetry and songs (including some you get to join in).

ISOBEL’S WAR by Kate Saffin

Isobel’s War is based on interviews and existing accounts of the young women who worked on the boats during the second world war.

Isobel is 23 and feels there must be more to life, and doing  your bit for the war effort, than rolling bandages and serving tea at the local infirmary while her husband goes off to win the war. She spots an advert for the Women’s Training Scheme, and without telling either her husband or her mother, applies. And is accepted.

Isobel is fictional but draws on the written accounts, interviews and conversations Everything in the play happened to someone somewhere although I have changed a few places and the order in which things happened for dramatic effect. I particularly wanted to show something of the impact these young women had on the very reserved boating community; for that perspective I drew on the many stories one of the last of the working boatwomen, Rose Skinner, told me as well as the wonderful account of life on a working boat Ramlin Rose; the Boatwoman’s Story by Sheila Stewart.

It is easy to think that the experience of training and working on the boats shaped the lives of every young woman who took it on because we have a number of written accounts by those, such as Eily Gayford, who continued to live on a boat and Susan Woolfitt who was a regular speaker about her experience (and responsible for the nickname Idle Women). In reality there were many who lasted only days, or even hours, before grabbing their kitbag and legging it to the nearest station. At least one crept away at the dead of night! And there were many for whom it was a great experience but not one that defined the rest of their lives. I met Iris who I met as a very sprightly octengenarian,  she went on to train as a nurse and talked about nursing as much as boating during my visit.

Isobel is one of those who went back to ‘ordinary’ life, didn’t write books or speak of it much – as many women didn’t, regardless of their war work. It was simply doing your bit and then getting on with whatever life served you. Until your daughter has to clear out the attic…

Kate Saffin
Kate Saffin
Heather Wastie
Heather Wastie

began as an audio piece, commissioned in 2014 by the Canal & River Trust.

Splashed across the Evening News
“Idle boats in need of crews”
so young girls, greenhorns
applied and went off for interviews ….

It is based on the wartime memories of three women: Emma Smith (author of Maidens’ Trip, A Wartime Adventure on the Grand Union Canal), Nancy Ridgway (who worked on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal) and Daphne March (who operated her family-owned boat Heather Bell  in the Midlands). The 6-minute recording (longer in live performance) broadly tells the women’s story, from recruitment to redundancy, using their own descriptions, condensed into the form of a poem.

This piece opens the second half of the Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways show and is followed by a series of poems and songs re-telling accounts from books and articles by Eily Gayford (The Amateur Boatwomen), Margaret Cornish (Troubled Waters) and Susan Woolfitt (Idle Women). Audiences have the opportunity to join in with a bit of banter along the way as well as singing the choruses of Heather’s infamous earworm songs!


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