To mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we spoke with local historian Jill Oakland about the little-known story of the efforts of the Inland Waterway women or 'Idle Women' who volunteered to operate canal boats carrying vital goods and supplies during the Second World War.

Jill was set to deliver this talk at the Centre, but had to cancel in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. We didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to highlight these incredible stories, which is why we worked closely to produce the following blog post.

Happy VE Day from us all at Canalside Heritage Centre. 

Who were the ‘Idle Women’? 

In 1939 many boatmen joined the armed forces leaving the women and the older men to run the boats. The Ministry of War Transport realised that vital supplies such as coal and food could be transported along the canal and began to recruit boaters.

Daphne March and Molly Traill had been working on Heather Bell transporting goods as varied as coal, flour, and even Spam to Nottingham! Molly went to the Ministry in 1941 to suggest that they recruit women to help, and eventually, the Women’s Training Scheme was initiated.

Why were they called ‘Idle Women’? 

The nickname derived from the I W initials on their cheap, blue badges which stood for Inland Waterways. However, the boat people, born and bred on the canal system referred to the group as the ‘Idle Women’, and the name kind of stuck.

Do we know who the women were and where they were from?

There were approximately 48 women altogether, all aged between 18 and 35. Before the war, the women worked in varied professions including, teaching, factory work, acting, and making aeroplane parts. Some took to working on the boats like ducks to water, others didn’t last a whole trip. Most of the women can be identified in photos and film clips, but a few can’t. It is thought that there were never more than 11 crews working at one time.

Most of the work was done for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. The main trainers were Kit (Eily) Gayford and Daphne French. Before the War, Kit was a pastry cook, a dance teacher, and a public health lecturer.

We know most about the women who wrote books. Eily Gayford wrote ‘The Amateur Boatwoman’, Susan Woolfitt wrote ‘Idle Women’, Margaret Cornish wrote ‘Troubled Waters’, and Emma Smith wrote ‘Maidens’ Trip’.

Susan Woolfitt married Sir Donald Wolfit (Shakespearean actor and director) in 1935. They split (hence the different surname spellings), their two children were evacuated to boarding school, and Susan joined the training scheme.

Margaret Cornish was previously a clippie in Oxford and a teacher. Her local authority ordered her to evacuate to an unknown destination with pupils or resign. Margaret resigned and joined the scheme. Emma Smith (Elspeth Hallsmith) worked for MI5 but hated being confined to a small room. She left and transferred to the scheme.

The propaganda crew was EvelynAudrey&Anne, spoken as one word. They became the most efficient crew on the scheme. Audrey Harper (24) was the steerer on the motor, Sun. Their butty was the Dipper. They performed before Ministry officials and appeared in a Pathe News film. They were the inspiration for the 1944 film, Painted Boats. They didn't enjoy stopping to perform for the Ministry men and the film crews. Evelyn Hunt previously worked for the Camouflage Directorate, Audrey abandoned nursing training and Anne was an Oxford science graduate.

There were a few that didn't last long including, the 'Dresden Chinas', two sisters who sunbathed and spent more time focused on their immaculate appearance than anything else. Others include Bash, formerly a factory worker with 6 hard-drinking brothers, who thought the other girls were too ‘stuck up’, and Mary, who had wrongly been released from a mental health institution. She was taken away in a taxi never to be seen on the boats again.

How did they contribute to the war effort? What work did they have to do?

The girls crewed in threes, but sometimes events meant that they had to manage with two. Each crew carried two loads in a motor (diesel engine) and a butty (no engine), which was towed on a snubber (70-foot rope). Mostly they picked up cargoes of steel or other goods from London, sailed to Birmingham where they unloaded and went to Coventry for coal. Coal was taken to factories and mills and some of it went to London. A round trip could take two or three weeks. They worked 12 to 14-hour days and the boats never stopped. The boats also carried cement, grain, flour, and other foodstuffs.

What was life like for the women? 

Life was hard. The cabins were tiny. Two shared the motor cabin and one had the butty cabin. Keeping their bedding rolls dry was difficult. Space was so limited that it was possible to light the primus and make a hot drink without leaving bed! They washed in a small basin unless they moored for the night near a public bath, and toilet facilities were ‘bucket and chuck it.’

Unlike Land Girls, they had no extra rations. The girls had emergency ration cards, which made shopping difficult when many shops operated on a ‘regulars only’ policy. If they were lucky, they got fresh milk & eggs as they passed farms. One would cycle fast to get the goods and join the boat at the next lock.

The women took turns at lock wheeling (going ahead on a bike to prepare the lock) and steering. Whilst steering the butty, it was possible to read or prepare dinner at the same time.

Did they get any recognition for the work they did?

There’s not a lot of information on this, however, Kit Gayford was awarded MBE in 1945 for training the girls.

So, what happened to the women after the war? 

After the war, they all went their separate ways. Olga Kevelos became a motorcycle racing champion, winning her first gold medal in the 1949 International Six-Day Trials. She also drove Formula III racing cars at Brands Hatch. Audrey Harper married a diplomat and lived in Rhodesia and Tasmania. Emma Smith worked for Laurie Lee whilst he was writing ‘Cider with Rosie’ and wrote novels herself. 

Sonia South married an illiterate boatman, but the marriage didn’t last. She later (1952) married Tom Rolt who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. Sonia was part of their first delegation to the Ministry of Transport. She campaigned hard to improve conditions for the boat families. The couple also worked to preserve and run the Talyllyn railway and Sonia advised on the restoration of SS Great Britain and some National Trust properties. Sonia worked for the Landmark Trust, advising on furnishing and libraries. Sonia was vice president of the Inland Waterways Association when she was awarded OBE in 2011. She died in 2014.

And, how are they remembered today?

The Canal and River Trust have photos and articles on their website and the Pathe Newsreels can be viewed online. There is also a BBC interview with Emma Smith, by Sophie Raworth at Nottingham.

Some of the women have attended reunions, including watching a travelling play on a canal boat that commemorated their work in 2017. There is a plaque at the Stoke Bruerne Canal Museum to commemorate their work, which was unveiled by Sonia Rolt in 2008, and a plaque in memory of Kit Gayford on a mile marker 79 miles from Braunston.

Beauty and the Barge

This British Pathe film reel from 1945 shows three 'Idle Women' working for the Grand Union Canal Company.


  • 'Troubled Waters' by Margaret Cornish
  • 'Amateur Boat Women' by Eily Gayford
  • 'Idle Women' by Susan Woolfitt
  • 'Maidens Trip' by Emma Smith


Thank you to Jill Oakland and the Beeston and District Local History Society