Alarum Theatre – Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways

Kate Saffin & Heather Wastie commemorate the lives of women
recruited to work on Britain’s canals during World War 2



A little-known piece of canal history is being celebrated by Alarum Theatre during their 2017 summer tour.  In 1942 the Women’s Training Scheme was started to enable young women (from mostly middle class backgrounds) to learn to handle 72-foot narrowboats with 50 tons of cargo and thus help the war effort by moving essential goods round the country. This was just another wartime example of women stepping up to the mark  to replace men who had gone into the armed forces by taking on jobs no one thought they could do.  (In this case, however, it shouldn’t be forgotten that generations of women from the working boat families had been doing their bit on the canals for years).

Alarum Theatre’s show Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways tells some of the stories of these women on a four-month summer tour (mostly using canal-side venues) which re-traces the London-Birmingham-Coventry -London route that they worked. London Grip caught the one-off performance at the Canal Museum in London on April 26th; but the full itinerary (April-July) can be found at

The show is in two parts.  In the first half, actor and storyteller Kate Saffin plays half a dozen parts in telling the story of Isobel (a representative imaginary character rather than a real person) who volunteers for training and enters the rough-and-ready world of canal boat people.  She meets with predictable misfortunes of course – getting stuck in locks or getting separated from her boat and crew– but she perseveres and becomes a competent steerswoman enjoying cordial relationships with the families who have lived their entire lives on the canals.  Kate Saffin brings all her characters convincingly to life, from the initially diffident and likeable Isobel to the overbearing boatman Mr Carter.

The second part of the show features poet and musician Heather Wastie.  She has used archive material – both books and sound recordings – to assemble ‘found poems’ which are skilful and rhythmic arrangements of words actually spoken by the so-called ‘Idle Women’ who worked the canal boats.  In the process of delivering these engaging narrative poems she also explains how the rather unflattering term ‘Idle Women’ came to be applied.  The evening closes with a couple of rousing songs with Heather Wastie accompanying herself on the accordion. In the second of these – which lists the many shortcomings to be found on hard-worked canal boats – she also enlists some  support from the audience enthusiastically joining in the choruses.

Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways makes a delightful evening and if you find this show is coming to a canal near you then make an effort to catch it!