This page includes all the material we have come across in our research as we developed the stories we tell in Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways. ‘Idle Women’ refers to the group who worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. The scheme began with Molly Traill and Eily Gayford spending several weeks with Mr and Mrs Sibley in 1942 before taking on their own pair of boats and then becoming trainers. However, they weren’t the only women. A key one was Daphne March who worked a family owned boat, the Heather Bell, from Worcester throughout the war. We know from letters that the Ministry of Transport wanted her to start a scheme on the Grand Union but she wanted to stay on the Birmingham and Worcester carrying to Tipton and then going on to Cannock for coal to take back to Worcester.
There was also a smaller scheme started in 1944 on the Leeds and Liverpool – there is evidence of a number starting training but only a handful lasted any length of time, perhaps just two boats. One was worked by Nancy Ridgway (nee Smith) who later recorded her memories and wrote a book, giving us glimpse into the very different world of the L&L Short Boats (generally referred to as barges).
Idle Women Susan Woolfitt
Maiden’s Trip Emma Smith
The Amateur Boatwomen Eily Gayford
Troubled Waters: Memoirs of a Canal Boatwoman Margaret Cornish
There are also references to the trainees from the point of view of a woman born and bred on the boats in Ramlin Rose; the boatwoman’s story Sheila Stewart
And on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal…
Memories of a Wartime Canal Boatwoman Nancy Ridgway (ed Mike Clarke and Timothy Peters)
The TUC Women’s History Network: Boatwomen Training Scheme
Molly Traill’s report on NB Willow’s blog
And an account of Molly Traill’s involvement with the trainees and boating by her grandson
When Evelyn died her stepson, Tom Monnington, found her wartime diary among her possessions and donated it to Stoke Bruerne museum in 2008.
There were a number of newspaper and magazine pieces in 1992 when there was a reunion at Batchworth and 2008 when the women’s work was formally recognised with the installation of a plaque at Stoke Bruerne.
In 1944 David Scherman made a journey with Audrey Harper, Evelyn Hunt and Ann Blake and took several hundred photographs for LIFE Collections. Until recently a limited number of these could be found on the Waterways archive but in June 2017 a French radio station released over 70 of them. You can see them here.
There is a collection of pictures of Daphne March working with her mother on Heather Bell on her niece’s blog (copyright Imperial War Museum).
During the war there were several newsreel films made for the cinema about the trainees.
Beauty and the Barge (British Pathe) And definitely a period piece!
Another Job For Women (British Movietone) At least the narrator of this one knows the women are on boats not barges.
Worker and War Front no 15 (Ministry of Information 1945) A wartime magazine made to motivate and inform war workers, commissioned by the Ministry of Information in 1942 and exclusively screened in factories.
There are also several recordings of several of the women talking about their experiences after the war:
An extensive (8 reel) oral history recorded with Margaret Cornish in 2004 about her childhood, teaching, her pacifist beliefs as well as her time on the waterways (Reels 7 and 8) and available via the Imperial War Museum
Sonia Rolt, one of the trainees who later married Tom Rolt talking to historian Lorna Yorke in Stoke Bruerne
Longevity seems to be a feature of these remarkable women, two are still alive and several lived into their nineties or beyond. At least one, Miranda, reached her centenary, dying in January 2017, aged 100.
Emma Smith (1923-2018)
Author of Maiden’s Trip, Emma died on April 24th 2018. All the major broadsheets carried obituaries for her:
Sonia Rolt (1919-2014)
Sonia stayed involved with the waterways after the war for the rest of her life. She married a boatman, George Smith, although sadly that ended in divorce. She then married Tom Rolt, the author of Narrowboat, and a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association. All the major newspapers carried obituaries; rather than try to select we suggest you search ‘Sonia Rolt obituary’.
An interview with Sonia Rolt
And more about her life and work on the Tom Rolt website
Here is a link to some colour footage of Sonia working with George shortly after the war.
Audrey Williams (nee Harper) 1921-2013
Audrey was part of the crack trio known as AudreyEvelynAnne who worked together for three years. After the war she married and moved initially to South Africa and then to Tasmania where she spent the rest of her life.