The Idle Women: Recreating the Journey

2017 marks the 75th anniversary of The Idle Women – the nickname for the women who managed the working boats during WWII.  Now, 21st century ‘Idle Women’– former Worcestershire Poet Laureate Heather Wastie and writer/performer Kate Saffin – are recreating their journey, from London to Birmingham and back to London via the Coventry coal fields over 15 weeks, with over 50 performances along the route.



22/06/2017- Dog and Doublet- Dog Ln, Sutton Coldfield B76 9JD (7:30pm)

24/06/2017- Braunston Marina- The Wharf, Brindley Quays, Braunston NN11 7JH (5pm)

25/06/2017- Tamworth Cruising Club- Kettlebrook Rd, Tamworth B77 1BS (2pm)

28/06/2017- The Samuel Barlow- Alvecote Marina, Robey’s Ln, Alvecote, Tamworth B78 1AS (7:30pm)

29/06/2017- The King’s Head- Old Watling St, Atherstone CV9 2PA (7:30pm)

This double bill tells the stories of the young women who took on the challenge to manage a pair of boats and 50 tons of cargo. By the beginning of WWII, the inland waterways were in decline.  However, the war brought a brief renaissance as boats were a more economical means of moving war materials and supplies.  Whilst there were plenty of boats, there weren’t enough good crews.  The Women’s Training Scheme taught young women the basics of boating over two three-week round trips (London-Birmingham-Coventry-London), and helped to keep the canals running during the war.  Isobel’s War is a solo play written and performed by Kate Saffin based on the experiences of the wartime trainees.  Isobel doesn’t think that rolling bandages and serving tea in the leafy suburbs of Oxford counts as proper war work, then she spots an advertisement and encounters a world she didn’t know existed.  Idle Women and Judies is written and performed by Heather Wastie – it started as an audio piece (commissioned by the Canal & River Trust) based on the wartime memories of three women. Wastie has now added a collection of short poems and songs celebrating the work and adventures of the women.

‘The stories, or at least the existence, of the trainees are known to many boaters and waterway enthusiasts but few beyond the towpath know they even existed never mind what they did.  We are recreating this journey to celebrate their achievements, recognise their contribution to the war effort and explore their relationships with the indigenous boaters.  We think it’s important to make this journey with these local stories so that we can share the history that is on the audience’s doorstep – or at least the nearest bit of towpath or the pub.’

 Accompanied by an historic narrowboat ‘Tench’ crewed entirely by women, Wastie and Saffin are touring our canals this summer, stopping off to perform this inspiring double bill at waterside pubs, village halls, gardens, an historic pumphouse and even a community wood.

Would you like to join in? Crew for a day, two days, a week? Get some experience of handling a full size working boat? Or just like to stay in touch and hear about our plans and shows in your area? Get in touch!

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Praise for Idle Women 2017

 ‘Both women are exceptional storytellers, their performances brimming over with personality and linguistic virtuosity.’

-London City Nights, 5/4/17

‘Idle Women of the Waterway Waterways makes a delightful evening and if you find this show is coming to a canal near you then make an effort to catch it!’

-London Grip, 5/4/17

‘…eye opening, very funny and touching in equal quantities…what better way can there be to learn and think about something new than in the warm, hard-working hands of Kate Saffin and Heather Wastie?’

-Frost Magazine, 5/4/17

‘A powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war.’

-Theatre Things, 26/4/17

Audience Comments 2017

‘A great show. Touching, funny & illuminating – a window onto a wartime world of some remarkable women.’

’Thoroughly exceeded my expectations.’  Helen

’One of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in a long time – Fabulous.’  David

‘Revelatory evening, and morning visit to the narrowboats – after living near the canal for 40 years it has come to life.’

‘A really great show told with so much fun, feeling and historical information transporting everyone back in time.’


You can watch an introduction to the tour (made by boatwoman and film maker Erin Hopkins) via our crowdfunding site. Because we do need funds! Our Arts Council grant will enable us to offer the show in more venues, especially in areas where it isn’t as easy to get to arts events. However, that won’t be paying the costs of the boat so the crowdfunder is to help keep Tench fuelled and running as part of the tour.

Want to know more about the trainees? We have a page of resources and links where you can find out more about the books, articles and film about them.

Thank you to ABNB boat brokerage who supported our autumn tour and will be supporting us the 2017 tour with advertising, flyers and posters.