A year ago I was travelling up north and listened to two lovely elderly women chatting about a mutual friend who had been an idle woman in the war.
It seemed more than just a mean remark because it was said with such jollity. Well, into the fray I had to barge.
It transpired that Idle Women was an ironic term for those wartime women who were recruited onto a scheme to work cargo carrying narrowboats and their towed butties (engineless narrowboats) along our inland waterways, from Limehouse Basin to Birmingham to help the war effort. But why Idle Women?
Inland Waterway badges were awarded on completion of training, the initials IW leading to the misnomer. We had such a laugh.
My fellow passengers talked on, I listened. I knew nothing about these idle women who had to be not only robust, but willing to endure hardship day after day, just as did the ‘boaters’, those families who traditionally worked the narrowboats. It wasn’t just the steering, but the lock-wheeling, the injuries, the weather conditions, the dreaded bucket, because there were no toilet facilities in the tiny cabins.
They toiled between London’s Limehouse Basin and Tyseley Wharf in Birmingham. To get there, endless flights of locks had to be worked, in order for the boats (length 70 ft) to climb and descend the terrain. There were three women to each pair of boats. Two to steer, one to roar along the towpath to prepare the locks ahead of the boats’ arrival. They took turns to lugg open the gates, closing or opening the sluices, and so on, and so on. Day after day they did this, whatever the weather; breaking the ice in winter, shielding eyes as the sun beat off the roof of the tiny 9’ by 6’ cabin at the back end of each boat in which the women lived.
On the return run from Birmingham, having delivered their load, the women would head off down The Bottom Road, a private canal that the Inland Waterways officials deemed must be used. Sadly because this canal was antiquated, the butty could not be towed by the motorboat through the locks and the short pounds (the stretch of water between the locks) because it would tax the banks. So instead the remaining two ‘robust Idle Women’ bow hauled the butty like the horses of old, along the soot drenched mucky towpath, for interminable hours until they reached the Coventry coalfields where they were loaded with coal.
Blisters, bruises, cuts, exhaustion were the absolute order of the day but sometimes canal-side pubs broke the hardship.
And what of the traditional boaters? If the new women proved their worth they were accepted, and helped but if they didn’t, they were not.
I was as fascinated by the traditional boaters as I was by the waterway girls. I researched this hardworking illiterate culture at the same time as the waterway girls. How could you acquire even literacy skills at school when you were never in one place for more than a night? How could you keep your children safe on these movable homes? I found that often one couldn’t. How could you acquire painting and craft skills? Well, they did.
I loved all of them, the new women and the traditional: their mutual stoicism, their unsung courage, the melding together of the two cultures, the romances which occurred, the things these new women learned from the experience.
Thanks to my chance meeting with the lovely women I met on the train it had to be written about. It was. I hope the homage is sufficient.
The Waterway Girls by Milly Adams is published by Arrow on 7th September 2017