The truth about the 'Idle Women' of the canals: Some extraordinary wartime volunteers are together again after 45 years. Angela Lambert joins them
Monday 06 July 1992
Daphne French is 86, but full of gusto. Her hair is beautifully waved, she is trim and fit, and remembers everyone. 'Hello Helen]' she greets another. 'Well, we haven't fallen off our twigs, though I'm not so good on my feet as I used to be.'
These are just three of the women who joined forces 45 years ago, to become the so-called 'Idle Women'. They all answered an advertisement in the national press in the early Forties and found themselves, after six weeks' training, operating the boats which each carried up to 50 tons of essential supplies along the nation's waterways.
The nickname was derived from the initials IW on their badges. This stood for Inland Waterways, but the territorially jealous boat people - born and bred to the canal system - called them idle women. Women they were - although many were not yet 20, which meant that in the eyes of their parents they were definitely still girls - but idle they were not.
Olga recalls those days. 'It was absolutely hard work with no respite at all. From the moment you cast off in the morning, you just kept going till you were 'locked out' - meaning that the lock had been shut - or darkness made it impossible for you to go any farther. We worked an 18- to 20-hour day, and nobody ever stopped.
'There were three women to manage each pair of boats and, unlike the Land Girls (the old rivalry still rankles, after 50 years) we didn't get any extra rations. We subsisted on cocoa with condensed milk, national loaf and peanut butter. I don't know how we managed to live and keep as fit as we did. I was always hungry . . . all the time. We used to gather swedes and potatoes from the fields as we passed.'
National Service for women began in 1943 when those who were not married or in some essential job, had to volunteer for war work. Many entered the services; others became Land Girls. A few were attracted by an advertisement placed by the Department for War Transport, asking for volunteers to work on the waterways. No boating experience was demanded, but young women who applied had to be 'of robust constitution'.
After their initial training, they might be transporting Spitfire or machine parts from the London docks to Birmingham; then they would cross to Warwickshire to collect coal and take it back to London. After a round trip of some three weeks, they had the option of a week's unpaid leave. Between 1943-46 some 45 women, aged from 18 to about 35, worked on the canals and waterways of England.
Helen Skyrme is 85. 'My sister saw the original advertisement,' she remembers, 'and I was sick of living in the depths of the country, bored to tears, so I answered it. I had sailed a bit in Hong Kong and Shanghai (my husband was in the Navy; he was an anti- piracy officer) and I'd gone up the canals along the Yellow River. I came back to England during the war. I had been making Spitfires and had got fed up with that. Working on the boats was just as hard, but the conversation was much more elevated.'
The reunion was organised to celebrate a play that has been written about these women's war work. It is performed by a company called Mikron Theatre, which has travelled the waterways for the past 21 years, presenting its works at canalside venues: usually the upstairs room of a pub. The play, Imogen's War, is written by Mike Lucas and Sarah Parks of Mikron, using material drawn from half a dozen diaries and books written by the women themselves.
One of them, Margaret Cornish, has brought her diary along. 'I've always been a diarist,' she says, 'though there are bits of this I wouldn't let anyone see.' She starts to read: 'I was lucky to get off with a broken cartilage and I'm missing an awful lot, stuck down here in the cabin. However . . .' She breaks off. 'Hmm, that bit's a boyfriend; I'll skip that]'
She continues to read: 'I've been frustrated by the flu as well, but finally emerged today. I was on the motor when the light gave out. The only thing to do was to keep steering hard ahead and hope I was going straight. Life is very far from being monotonous on these boats.'
Margaret had been a teacher before she volunteered for the waterways. 'What was important, I found when I began, was knowing how to live rough. So many people weren't used to it, and for them it was very hard . . . lighting fires, using buckets for loos, cooking on black ranges, sharing a tiny back cabin with someone else. Some of the volunteers couldn't stick it.'
How had the experience affected her life? 'It gave you a kind of underpinning,' she says, 'so that whenever, later on, you went through stressful situations, it didn't seem to matter much, because the reality had been here (she taps her diary) on the boats.'
The work on the canals was obviously arduous, but was it ever dangerous? Olga replies: 'I don't remember any serious accidents, but near-misses, yes, all the time]' Helen again: 'I do remember one night I was told, 'Whatever you may see, don't breathe a word.' Well, at dead of night a boat went past, no lights, and it was the gold from the Bank of England being taken through the Manchester Ship Canal on the way to America.'
Helen offers a different memory to Margaret's, another kind of perspective: 'I remember once, I'd been coaling all day, and I did think in a vague sort of way how astonished my grandmother would have been to see me sprinting up the towpath in my trousseau nightie . . . .'
The boat women are lined up on a nearby narrow boat for a photograph. 'Don't kick the bucket]' shouts Daphne, as they clamber aboard. 'Terribly bossy]' says one of her former trainees. 'Always was]' says another.
They settle down to watch the Mikron Theatre's performance. It is moving and vivid. Handkerchiefs appear surreptitiously. The applause afterwards is thunderous. 'Hooray]' says the old lady beside me, fervently. 'Marvellous] Absolutely wonderful]'
Afterwards I buttonhole Olga again, to ask what she did after her momentous war. 'I went to university in Paris for a year with the girl I crewed with, and had a smashing time. We bicycled all over Paris - I was incredibly fit and strong by then - and after that travelled quite a lot in Europe. On the back of that knowledge, I started a travel agency based in Birmingham.
'Then in 1948 I began competitive motorcycle racing. I rode for most of the English factories, and some foreign ones . . . trials, scrambles and racing. I'm the only woman to hold two international six-day gold medals.'
Had her wartime work changed her life significantly? 'I came from a Greek family. It would have been unheard of for the daughters to go out to work or do the things I did, so it was thanks to the war that I did them. Working on the boats was a very good grounding, physically and mentally, for everything that happened subsequently.
'Who can imagine what would have happened, without the war? I would probably have stayed at home and tried to get a husband, to win a measure of freedom - which would have been out of the frying pan and into the fire. But then, who can tell what would have happened without the war, full stop?'
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