The ‘I Dig Canals’ project

We’ve done it! We have completed nine months of work capturing stories which are fascinating, touching, funny and occasionally heart stopping… like the moment when Sheila spotted her small son floating past the window as she did the washing up!

Sheila Smith with Richard Parry, CEO, Canal and River Trust and the project team at the launch on October 7th 2019

We’ve had a wonderful team of volunteers and a first class project manager in Nadia Stone, who says:

I learned SO much: the immense work that went into saving the canals, the sheer grit of the women we interviewed, and the passion Kate and Heather have for accurate historical theatre.

The training we received from Julia Letts –  a very experienced oral historian and BBC radio producer – was excellent, and we worked with our favourite film maker, Erin Hopkins, as well as a talented young designer, Laura Ndjoli. The Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust agreed to be our address in the project area (the National Lottery Heritage Fund struggle a bit with having a boat as Project HQ!) But they went way beyond that – offering us space for a temporary exhibition, for training and events. We were very sad when the pandemic meant we had to cancel our final celebration event there.

The real core of the project was gathering oral histories: some short ones at festivals and reminiscence events and 19 long form oral histories – 40-90 minutes in length. We’ll be presenting these to the Waterways Archive at Ellesmere Port. They will be available for anyone to access, but you’ll need a few days spare – there is nearly 18 hours of audio to listen to.

The Waterways Archive at Ellesmere Port is delighted to be able to add these memories to the collection to record a story that is so important. Cath Turpin, senior volunteer, Waterways Archive

One of the volunteer tasks was to help us trawl archives at Ellesmere Port and Kew, comb through back copies of Broadsheet (Staffs & Worcs Canal Society) and Navvies (Waterway Recover Group), and study minute books from the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society to learn more about the work women undertook from the beginning of the restoration story just after the Second World War to the 1970s.

We have created a book, a short film and a series of 15 podcasts to share many of the stories, just in case going to Ellesmere Port to listen to all 18 hours is a bit impractical! Just click on the Soundcloud or YouTube logos.

We held an online launch for the book and the film on May 31st. Over 70 people joined us from all over the country (with a few from even further afield).

The book is available, price £8 plus p&p (discount for bulk orders) from this page on the website

Here’s some of the wonderful comments our audience made:

What a lovely film. Well done all!! Really pleased to see the original voices used so beautifully with the animation and photos, unique and perfectly illustrated. Julia Letts, oral history trainer

Thanks for delivering such a great project. Well done – and for an innovative launch event. Richard Parry, CEO Canal and River Trust

I loved the way everyone made light of so much dedication and hard work, as if it was almost insignificant, but in fact it saved a hugely important part of our national heritage. Tim Eyres, audience member

Many of our volunteers were watching too:

That was so emotional really got to the heart of the subject. Feel proud that I was an incy wincy part of the project. Hope I can contribute again in the future. Jane Lowthion

Julia about to practice recording…

Seeing all the photographs of the women as well as the clips of the groups coming together was very touching and these mixed with the words show the real power of oral history. Julia Fallon

Well done and I really enjoyed being part of the project hearing the stories and seeing the file. Thank you to everyone. Sarah Jackson

It’s outstanding. I feel very privileged to be on the edges of your team, and ‘I Dig Canals’ is a great example of what imagination and determination linked to talent and skill can do. Fabian Hiscock

Here are some of the reviews we have received for the book:

It is rich with detail, conveys the grittiness and romance of life on the canals and gives the women involved a great way of capturing and sharing their memories. A balanced, enjoyable, easy to read book which gives a voice to amazing womenTraci Dix-Williams, Chief Executive – Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust

…a glorious stew of memories, poems, maps and childhood recollections, all painting a gloriously frank picture of the triumphs and trials of canal life. Michelle Madsen, Poet & theatre maker

I Dig Canals is a wonderful evocation and celebration of the vital part that women volunteers played in the saving and restoring the canals of the Black Country and the wider network. Keith Hodgkins, Chairman, Tipton Civic Society

Paul interviewing Heather on the Black Country Radio bus at the Stourbridge festival

The pivotal role of volunteers in both saving and restoring the Black Country’s canals was quite well-known, but the involvement of women and children in this work was much less appreciated – until now! From the clever pun in its title, to the frankness of the memories it has preserved, the I Dig Canals Project, leaves no-one in any doubt that women’s role in restoring these canals was just as important. Dr Paul Collins, Historian; Presenter – Black Country Radio

I’ve led projects directly associated with the canals (working as Artistic Director for Leaps and Bounds on the Wrosne project, and more recently with the National Trust and Canal & River Trust, through the Roundhouse project) … The focus on real women, families, connections, celebrations and situations, not only gives a fascinating historical account, it does something more important, these stories offer hope and a roadmap for future community activism, offering an insight into the power of collective community action. Rachel Sharpe

We’ll sign off with a huge thank you to the National Heritage Lottery Fund for making this project possible. Our next steps will be to start exploring ways to present all these wonderful stories in performance, on stage when we can but one thing about a pandemic is that it makes us all look at everything in new ways, so we’ll be trying out some different ways to connect with our audiences.

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