Idle Women (Yarning Along 15).

I guess some might think us knitters/spinners/crocheters/crafters could be considered “idle” because we spend much of our time doing something considered “unnecessary” today. They would be wrong. Obviously we are not idle…. we are doing something. For many it is also necessary – a necessary creative outlet, a necessary meditative occupation.

So who were the “Idle Women”???

Most people are familiar with the “Land Girls” of World War 2. Well the Idle Women were the canal version of the Land Girls. Women who helped the war effort by working on the canals. The nickname comes from The “IW” (Inland Waterways) badge that they wore, however, they were very far from idle. They volunteered to operate canal barges which carried vital supplies along the British canal network.

It was incredibly tough work. The Department of War Transport’s only requirement was that they should be “of robust constitution”…. They weren’t joking! A crew of three women, often just in their twenties and coming from all walks of life, would handle a boat and a butty (an engineless boat towed behind a diesel powered narrowboat) that would carry heavy loads of up to 50 tonnes, often it was steel or coal, along the canal network. They would work very long days in all weathers for very little pay and often had to put up with abuse. This came from people who thought they lived on the canals – children (displaying their parents disdain for “water gypsies”) would often throw stones, spit or drop things off bridges at them (sadly it still occasionally happens today). It was also difficult to fit into waterways life with the true occupants of the canals.


In this picture the boats are moving away from you so the one in the foreground (Moon) is the butty. They are easily distinguished by their very large tiller (and rudder) for steering. The motorised narrowboat can be seen beyond the butty. (Thankyou to Ian Taylor on for the photos).

So why am I writing about this? If you know me, then you know my canal connections and passion. (I am ashamed to admit that this is something I only learned about recently. How come I didn’t know about it already!?!? But I am so glad to have learned it!!!) That is only partly the reason. The other reason is the book I am reading….The Waterways Girls by Milly Adams, which is set in this period.

It is fictitious but, so far, seems to be representing reality fairly well. It’s about Polly, an ordinary (Middle class?) girl, who is learning how to handle the boat and butty with Verity (Upper class? Don’t know much about her yet.) and Bet who is training them. The first couple of chapters seemed to spend a lot of time explaining canal terminology, which I guess is necessary (and reminded me of the beginning of many of the Harry Potter books!) but meant that it started a little slowly for my liking. Since then the pace has improved and I am enjoying it a lot. I have also discovered more books on the same topic which I will have to add to my reading list.

If you are interested in this subject and would like to know more here are some links…

Canal and River Trust – Idle Women – the land girls of the waterways.

The Independent – the truth about the idle women of the canals.

The Telegraph – the forgotten story of the idle women.Wuthering Heights


On to the other kind of yarn. Not a lot of progress to show sadly. I did ply my singles but that’s it for spinning (I have found other ideas for using my handspun though). Most progress has been made with the sock knitting. The second sock is now down to beyond the heel flap and turn. I am doing the decreases of the gusset (love that word!).

Do you remember I had been re-reading Wuthering Heights? Sadly it did not create the reaction I was expecting so I am wondering if I have got confused over time and it was a different classic book I remember loving. Wonder which one it was??? Ideas on a postcard please!!!

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along.


8 thoughts on “Idle Women (Yarning Along 15).

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