Wartime Labour Shortages

From the Archives: NarrowBoat, Winter 2020

Joseph Boughey

Joseph Boughey examines the difficulties of recruiting boat crews during World War II

Much has been written about the female wartime trainees who were introduced to the Grand Union Canal to try to counter the shortage of crews and the failure to use the full capacity of canals and carrying boats. This article draws on the work of the Canals (Defence) Advisory Committee, which met between 1939 and early summer 1941 (the files are to be found in the National Archives, under reference MT52/43-53). This official committee discovered severe labour shortages that were exacerbated by the outbreak of war, and provided details of carriers, experiences and explanations. The documents record little progress towards resolution of these problems. By January 1940 the Grand Union Canal had lost much traffic to rail, and the closing of the Leicester Line was being considered. Boat people were leaving the cut for better pay and conditions in war industries, and D.W. Milford, regional secretary for the Transport & General Workers Union, asserted that the “former nomadic form o…

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