The role of the inland waterways and their boatmen in the two World Wars is often overlooked. At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the boatmen were an isolated, illiterate community. Those who became directly involved in the Great War left little behind in terms of personal accounts, letters home or diaries. The educated classes, of course, recorded so many of their exploits and tragedies, and much of our knowledge of the period comes from these sources.
So what did the boatmen do? In 1914, there was no military conscription, and boatmen were seen as undertaking an important reserve occupation. They were vital in the movement of heavy goods, especially iron and coal, which were essential to war production. But although military service remained voluntary, public feeling grew against fit and able men who seemed to be shirking the war - especially among women who had lost husbands, sons and brothers.
Part of Geddes’ reforms were for the two inland waterways leading to the British Sector - the Pas de Calais to Ypres, and the River Somme from the Channel coast to the Front at Peronne - to be taken over and run by British boatmen. They would enlist as sappers in the Royal Engineers, Inland Waterways and Docks. Some boatmen who had already joined the Army were pulled out of the line to join the sappers, as Geddes did not want their talents wasted as cannon fodder. Others were recruited from the major canal carriers like Fellows, Morton & Clayton, whose boatmen were already experienced in operating steam-powered boats
Popularly known at the ‘Idle Women’ - a play on the initials of the Inland Waterways badges they wore – they worked in teams of three, operating a pair of narrow boats known as a motor and butty, the first towing the latter by rope. They would complete round-trips of about three weeks, often working gruelling 18-20 hour days, sometimes in freezing and foggy weather, to deliver the essential wartime supplies. They slept, ate and washed in tiny cabins on board. While their stories are less well-known than those of the much bigger Women’s Land Army (WLA), the Idle Women have acquired the status of heroines among many modern canal enthusiasts.
Photo credits: Tim Coghlan/Canal River Trust.
We are Dan & Mary-Ann Griffin. Husband and Wife. Parents to Isabelle & James.