Willow’s History: Idle Women in the North

I wrote before that we didn’t think that Willow had been one of the boats which had been trialled with FMC in the north. But I was wrong. There were gaps in the Health Inspection records, which I put down to it being in wartime and such things being lower priority. However, it turns out that during the war, Willow had some very interesting adventures up north, as part of a trial arrangement with Fellows Morton & Clayton (not, as we said before, a loan).

Yesterday we were sent this photo by Mike Constable, which he had taken (with permission) of a photo in the scrapbooks of a woman called Molly Traill.  It was marked as having been taken in 1943, so it’s the oldest photo of our boat we’ve found yet!


Molly pushed for the wartime scheme to train women to work narrow boats, carrying essential cargo whilst the men were away fighting. She and Eily “Kit” Gayford trained the new recruits, who were nicknamed the “Idle Women” after the I.W. (Inland Waterways) armbands they wore.

The trainees mainly worked on the Grand Union canal but later on the scheme was extended to northern canals, and this photo was taken on the Shropshire Union Canal near Chester. The two boats are Ash and Willow, on a trial arrangement with FMC to borrow pairs of “Tree Class” Severners to be worked by the women as double motor pairs, a curiosity in itself (although these Severner motors were known to work in pairs, as S&CCCo had in 1942 disposed of many of their wooden butties).

We don’t know who the women in the photograph are yet, although Mike is working on finding out more. We are sure that the notes he took are correct and that the boat behind Ash is definitely Willow, because you can see the end of the W on the cabin, and also because Willow has a very large dent in the cant  which is evident in this photo!

So which other boats went north during the war? Our source who has been looking at the Health Inspection records for us has identified a few gaps: In 1942 Ash and Pine are missing, in 1943 Elm, Fir and Willow are missing, in 1944 Ash and Elm are missing and in 1945 Ash, Beech and Pine were missing. It may be that these were the boats which went to work for FMC, or it may be that the Gloucester Inspector simply did not inspect them. But the dates of Willow’s gaps in the register tie up with the date on the photo.

We’re tremendously excited by this, not only because it is always amazing to find photos of your boat’s past, but also because Willow was part of the “Idle Women” story, and it’s a fascinating one. We have such admiration for these women who mostly came from middle class backgrounds and had a hard time being accepted by the working boatmen and women, but worked hard and were eventually respected for what they did. Several books have been written by the trainees who worked on the Grand Union, bad sadly none of the northern girls have written memoirs. None the less, we are sure there is more to be found out about these girls and the Severners’ involvement. It also means that if we ever get Willow to Stoke Bruerne for the Village at War weekend, I know exactly what my costume will be!

Some of the “Idle Women” Photo: Canals and Rivers Trust archive

Categories: History | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Willow’s History: Idle Women in the North

  1. You have every right to be chuffed…I would have been ecstatic if I had discovered that information about an historic boat I owned. Well done and keep digging!

  2. Pingback: Willow’s History: Idle Women in the North (II) | M. B. Willow

  3. Pingback: Willow’s History: Idle Women in the North (II)

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