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Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways

Kate Saffin, Heather Wastie
Alarum Theatre
The Cruising Association, Limehouse

Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin Credit: Alarum Theatre
Heather Wastie Credit: Alarum Theatre
Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin Credit: Alarum Theatre

The huge mobilisation of men to fight in the Second World War created labour shortages across British industry. This was a continuous problem on the canal boats where pay was relatively poor. By 1941, boat workers felt so disgruntled about the pay and conditions that they took illegal strike action for a week.

The government and canal boat owners tried various ways to fill vacancies including encouraging Southern Irish workers to take the jobs. Between 1943 and 1946, they also employed forty-three women to work the boats.

In groups of three, these women would take heavily laden boats across the country in a three-week round trip, for which they were paid three pounds a week.

Alarum Theatre affectionately celebrates the work of these women in two pieces that comprise the show Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways.

In Isobel’s War, devised and performed by Kate Saffin, a woman drinking a cup of cocoa looks through the contents of an old wooden crate containing her mother’s possessions from her wartime work on the canal boats.

As she reads her mother’s diary of these experiences, she becomes her mother Isabel and, in a forty-five minute monologue, tells us about those years on the canals.

We hear how she came to be interested in applying for this work, the practical clothes of trousers and jumper she wore, her own mother's slight disapproval (after all, she should be focusing on having children) and the people she met during her travels.

The most memorable of these are the Carter family whose boats seem to pop up at awkward moments for Isabel’s boat. Despite this, the Carters shift from initial irritation with the women to fondness and respect.

These moments were among many in this piece that had the audience laughing.

Heather Wastie’s slightly shorter Idle Women and Judies mixes very effectively her own poetry about the women boat workers with the actual words of some of the women. Occasionally, she would sing a few of the lines and later in her performance when she sang a more complete song she had the audience joining in on the chorus.

Standing centre stage in bright blue overalls and headscarf, Heather Wastie is always upbeat and as she admits can give a bit of a romantic view of the life with “horse drawn boat under a starry sky.”

The show is gentle and engaging, its view of social history determinedly rosy, but it does give us a good sense of the contribution women of the waterways made to the wartime industry.

Alarum Theatre is taking a fifteen-week journey along the wartime canal route from London to Birmingham and back in a narrowboat crewed by women performing the show “at waterside pubs, village halls, gardens, an historic pumphouse and even a community wood.”

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna