The Women’s Training Scheme started in 1942. Young women learned to handle a pair of 72 ft narrow boats with 50 tons of cargo – just another example of women stepping up to the mark and taking on jobs no one thought they could do (although generations of women from the working boat families had been doing just that for years).

As the war approached in the late 1930s the Government seriously underestimated how important the canals were going to be as part of the wartime transport services. They stopped the call-up of experienced boaters (over 25 years old), but did nothing to prevent them leaving the canal for other employment or to join up (which probably looked more exciting for many young men on the boats than working with your dad and boat loads of coal!).

Eventually, realising their mistake they made several futile attempts to recruit more crew but it was only when Daphne March began recruiting women to help her run the boat Heather Bell on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal that it seems to have occurred to anyone that women might be able to do the job. The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company apparently asked Daphne to move to the Grand Union but she wanted to stay where she was. She suggested two women who had worked with her, Eily Gayford and Molly Traill, as suitable trainers. They spent some time with a working boat couple, Ciss and Albert Sibley, before starting to train others.

Around 100 women started the training – many didn’t last long; but around 45 completed their training and worked for a period in teams of three with a motor boat, an unpowered butty, and 50 tons of cargo. Estimates as to the number of pairs of boats crewed by women on the Grand Union Canal vary from 15 to 30 at any one time, but only six women stayed for the full duration of the scheme from 1942 to 1945.

And, unlike the working boatwomen who had had little or no schooling, these were often very well educated and articulate women – so they kept diaries and wrote books about their experience, leaving us a wonderful collection of stories about their time on the water.


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