Idle Women by Susan Woolfitt

Much has been written about the "Idle Women" who operated working narrowboats during World War II. I had read The Amateur Boatwomen by Eily (Kit) Gayford some time ago and also read Emma Smith's Maidens' Trip, so to a certain extent I knew what to expect when I recently bought a first edition of the original of this genre. Idle Women was originally published in 1947 by Ernest Benn.

Others, notably Sarah of NB Warrior who provides a great review, have commented that it is probably the best written of the Idle Women books. I couldn't agree more. It is a joy to read and her family background (her children are away at boarding school) makes the whole book more evocative. One particular paragraph, a single-sentence paragraph, struck me so much since it evokes both the waterways at work and Britain at war. It is so good I think it deserves quotation.

Kit Gayford, who was the trainer for the Idle Women and Susan Woolfitt were on their way from Bull's Bridge to Limehouse on Regents Canal. It was one of Susan's first trips.

"There is a perpetual bustle about the canal down here: barges with their super-intelligent horses and lounging lightermen, other Grand Union boats, easily recognisable in their red, white and blue; green and orange 'josser' boats; more horses; barges shining with black coal; on the towpath men and bicycles and children; in the streets women with shopping bags, small children shoving smaller ones in front of them in rickety prams or swinging in public playgrounds ; the clang and rattle of trams, the thundering roar of a train as we pass under a railway bridge, the pop-pop-pop of our own engine ... on the other side tall houses and strings of washing, blocks of flats, factories, wharves, timber-yards, rubbish dumps, a hospital, a school; more horses and barges, goods yards, marshalling yards; a sudden jet of boiling water from a factory steaming and spurting into the dirty cut water, a cemetery, a Lock hospital, a barge loaded with timber, a piercing whistle from yet another train, more barges, more horses, more boats . . . and in the midst of it all our own particular pair of boats, our home at night, our work by day, threading in and out of the noise, dirt and smell with a definite job to do, on National Service and playing its own tiny part in the upheaval of the world's titanic strain and stress."

I think that says it all, doesn't it.

M & M Baldwin's 'Working Waterways' series includes Idle Women, and the book is still available on Amazon.

Photo from the flyleaf of Idle Women - GU Boats going up to "Brum" and coming down from Coventry.

The photograph originally appeared in an evening newspaper and inspired Susan Woolfitt to become a canal boat-woman. It was Susan's daughter Harriet who suggested the title Idle Women for the book. As they say, the rest is history.