Women Trainees of World War II

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2021

Dr Barbara Hately and Bob Moore, of the University of Sheffield History Department, provide insights on the female volunteers who worked canal boats during WWII

In the years leading up to World War II, the sight of women working on the cut was nothing new. They had been a presence within working boater families since the beginning of the canal age. The change wrought by the war was to introduce a new element – of women from outside the traditional boating community. How they were recruited, trained and then deployed on the network is an intriguing example of wartime exigency and how women broke through gendered employment barriers. Labour shortage By the 1930s, Britain’s inland waterways were in severe decline, having largely been unable to compete with the railways and now faced with the rapidly expanding road transport industry. Goods tonnages had fallen year on year and the bulk of canal transport was limited to short haul coal transportation from pitheads to large-scale consumers. The industry was also suffering from a shortage of manpower and in 1937 the Ministry of Labour had mounted a special driveto fill vacancies for ca…

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