The Idle Women: Recreating the Journey 

In 1942 Eily (Kit) Gayford, already an experienced boatwoman, spent several months with working boat couple Ciss and Albert Sibley learning the craft of working a pair of loaded narrow boats before going on to train many others. The women, known as trainees at the time (the Idle Women nickname came much later) worked for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company and their usual route was a three week round trip from London to Birmingham, returning via Coventry.

This summer we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Kit’s own training by recreating that journey. We are travelling with an historic boat, NB Tench, owned by a woman (Alex Bennett) and crewed by women. We’ll be performing Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at waterside (and nearby) venues.

The routemovietone

We will start in Bull’s Bridge on the site of the GUCCC depot (now a Tesco superstore) on April 22nd, head into London along the Paddington Arm and the Regents Canal to Limehouse Basin where they loaded war supplies for Birmingham. You can watch a few minutes of the women loading timber in this Movietone newsreel.

Then it’s back through London, up the Grand Union to Birmingham (mid June) where they unloaded before heading to Coventry for coal to bring back to London. In the early days of the scheme they then had to follow the same route the working boaters used to reach the Coventry coalfields, the much hated ‘bottom road’ (Birmingham & Fazeley canal). Later in the war the company agreed that all the boaters could return to Coventry via the easier Grand Union route. However, we will take on the bottom road in the interests of authenticity and because it will enable us to take the stories to a wider audience. And finally, back to Camden for the first weekend in August.

It looks like this… simple-map-recreating-the-journey

There will be two boats making the journey: NB Tench owned by Alex Bennett and Morning Mist, Kate Saffin’s slightly less historic boat. The boats will be crewed entirely by women (see below if you’d like to volunteer), in keeping with the work done by the trainees and we hope to be able to invite women who have no experience of boating to come and visit and perhaps join in a little of the journey.

Confirmed shows

Click on 2017 dates (or from the link on the home page) to see the full programme

Want to get involved?

There are lots of ways that you can be involved and support us on the journey, and they don’t all involve parting with your hard earned cash (although we won’t be refusing that)!

  • We are currently contacting possible venues so if you know of a pub or village hall on the route who might welcome us, please let us know. As soon as we have firm bookings we will be starting an interactive map so that you can see if your favourite watering hole is already booked.
  • Once venues are booked we’d love to hear from people in that area who are willing to help promote the show – to friends, neighbours, local groups – all those people you know but we don’t and might not hear about it otherwise.
  • We are fundraising to help cover the costs of NB Tench. And every little helps – you can make a donation here
  • Are you an experienced woman boater but you’ve never had a chance to handle a 72’ working boat? We’re hoping to be able to offer the chance to come and join us for a day or two as crew. Join our mailing list here.
  • Are you, or do you know of, charities or organisations that work with women in the areas we are passing through? We want to extend the audience and share the stories of these extraordinary women with women today. Our email details are below.
  • We also want to invite older people to contribute their  memories of the canal and the towpath both during the war and afterwards as the campaigning to save the canals began. Perhaps you know a local group or a residential home that might like to tell us their stories.

 You can email us admin [at] or sign up to our mailing list for updates and opportunities to join in or see the show