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Christmas on the Cut

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Winter 2010

John Pyper

John Pyper considers hand-made cards sent by the wartime trainees – the ‘Idle Women’ – and trainer Kit Gayford’s diary entries for Christmas 1942

In December 1942 Eily Gayford (‘Kit’ or ‘Kitty’ in her life on the boats) was approaching the end of her first year with the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, training women to work pairs of boats as part of the war effort. With Molly Traill she had initiated this scheme under very harsh winter conditions during the previous February. First they had gone on a trip, much delayed by ice, with a pair of boats worked by a boatman and his wife, and then they had together taken a pair with two trainees. However in May they had split up, each to take a pair with two or three recruits on training trips until they in turn could take on a working pair. Kit’s boats at this time were the motor Battersea and the butty Uttoxeter.

Her Christmas trip in 1942 is well recorded in her diary and is anticipated in the entry for 10th December describing their return to Bulls Bridge depot, which she simply calls “the Bridge”, from the previous trip:


Let go & got to the Bridge about 11. After great discussions it was decided that our Xmas leave was off & that I am to let go on the 16th with M[arjorie] as my mate again & with Audrey & Evelyn so we shall all have Xmas on the cut.

Finished the day by jumping into the cut coming out of Molly’s cabin.


A week later, after a short leave, they are back at Bulls Bridge to embark on the trip.


Thursday 17th December

Back at the Bridge by 10. All sorts of odd jobs & things to see to.

let go at 3.05. Marjorie my mate again & Audrey & Evelyn as the crew. We passed Alperton at 3.40 & tied up at Lock Bridge [probably the bridge by the stop lock at Paddington] at 6.10. The old man here was pleased to see us again & we went off to the pub.

On our way down we saw our first body in the cut. A man with just the top of his head showing. We didn’t take any notice.

Friday 18th December

Let go at 8 & tied up at the dock at 2.40. A very long wait at the City Lock as one was being repaired.

We loaded but did not get clothed up as it was too dark & pouring with rain. We had a good session at the Queens Head with Joe, Mr Lap & Mr Dunn. Marjorie & I joined the Union [Transport & General Workers Union].

We loaded round steel billets which had come from America. 23 [tons] in the motor & 27 in the butty.

Saturday 19th December

Clothed up & Joe came down & fixed & trimmed the cargo in the butty. Cleared the lock at 11.45 & had a good run up to Lock Bridge which we made about 5.45. We were lucky as besides the locks closing at 5 until Monday morning we found that Paddington stop closes at 8 on Saturdays & only opens for one hour on Sundays, 5–6 so we might have found ourselves stuck there till Monday morning.

The others all went home for the night.

Sunday 20th December

Let go at 8.40 & had a marvellous run up to the Bridge with no obstructions. An hour and a half to Alperton & 2 on to the Bridge where we tied up at 12.10. Waited there while the fitter did something to the governor & we also got a lot of water out of the butty. Like a fool I had not put in the pump box when they loaded so old Barnet broke off a floor board & cut a hole in the side cloth so that we could get the pump going.

We let go at 3.50, cleared Cowley 5.10 & tied up at Uxbridge at 6.

Have learnt that Cowley is only open from 4–5 on Sundays.

Although similar in style to those from Audrey, this card is signed by Evelyn. In view of the fluency and similarities in style of these three cards, it seems likely that they were all the work of Evelyn Hunt, who was an art student.

Kit Gayford Colllection

Kit Gayford Colllection

This attractive scene was sent to “Kitty” from Audrey. 

Kit Gayford Collection

Inside this carefully crafted card is a handwritten poem signed “ADH”, presumably Audrey Harper who was on Sun and Dipper at the time. The photograph depicts these boats descending the Braunston flight.

Kit Gayford Collection

Monday 21st December

Let go punctually at 8 & had a good road all the way to the Fishery where we tied up at 6.10.

We really were very lucky with the locks being for us all the way as we have no bicycle & these are such long pounds to walk.

Tuesday 22nd December

Let go at 8.10 in pouring rain, but it cleared later. A message for me at the Cow Roast to ring up the Bridge. Quite thought it was some crisis but was very surprised to find it was to ask us to tie up at Booburn [Bulbourne] & all go back for the depot party! This we did! The party was at the Red Lion in Southall & we got them to let us have a bedroom which was a great relief as otherwise we should have had to trek back to the depot. Mr Miller was there & everything went off excellently. We all had a jolly good time. So to bed where the 4 of us all packed into a huge double bed.

Not much comfort but very acceptable. Marjorie is staying behind as she is off to start with Daphne on the 28th.

Wednesday 23rd December

We were called at 7.30 & left at 8.15. A very bad fog so we were longer in getting back & after packing up Marjorie’s things we let go at 12.25. All Mathus [Marsworth] were for us & 4 more so wewere lucky. Audrey & Evelyn did awfully well & we came along to Leighton without a hitch. We were all dead tired when we tied up at 5.30. Did a little shopping, odd jobs & bed.

Thursday 24th December

Let go at 8 in moonlight. All went well till the top of Stoke 3 when the gears jammed in reverse. As the locks were for us we breasted up & bow hauled down to the bottom. I then went to see if I could phone from a house nearby & found a nice couple living there & the house charmingly furnished. The fitter came quite soon & we let go at 12 just as a pair of Fellowes [Fellows, Morton & Clayton boats] were coming out of the bottom lock. When they caught us up at Talbots the captain started to have words with me but as we were really in the right he eventually sweetened. However we let them pass in the next pound. In the Finney pound Audrey & Evelyn went on the motor & I had a pleasant afternoon in the butty with my wireless on the cabin top listening to a carol service & washing my clothes. We got to Cosgrove about 6 but decided to go on to the top of Stoke so that we would not have so far to go tomorrow. This we did completing the journey by moon light & tying up at 9.45.

Another card sent to "Kitty" from Audrey.

Kit Gayford Colllection

Kit Gayford Colllection

Probably a printed commercial card, but none-the-less evocative, this was sent by “Angie” although it is not certain who this was.

Kit Gayford Colllection

Friday 25th December

Went off to church at 8 but of course no service because of the black out. Let go at 9.30 & had a lovely run – no boats to meet because of the Bugby [Buckby] stoppage, & a lovely sunny day. Church bells ringing in fact quite ideal! The crew had asked me to dinner with them so we decided to tie up at Stowe Hill for it, listen to the King, & then go on to Bugby bottom. However we found May & John tied up at the Alcotes domicile & they asked us in after our dinner. We had soup, veal & vegetable in the motor followed by pancakes & coffee in the butty. Then the King & over to the Alcotes. When we said we must be going they were so disappointed & begged us to stay that we could not refuse, so after going back to make up our fires we went back to them for tea. After that we all went up to the Globe where there were a lot of soldiers & a lot of beer. At closing time back we went to the cottage, plus about 7 soldiers, where a good time was had by all. Old Bill & his Mrs were so charming & friendly & we all thought it a great privilege to have had our Xmas with them all.

Saturday 26th December

We managed to let go at 9.30. Old Bill having come over to see if we were all right & set us off. Cleared Norton at 1 & tied up at the Boat at the top of Itchington at 6.15. A very quiet pint at the Boat & early bed.

Sunday 27th December

Let go at 8.15 & soon after starting the locks we let a pair through & found they were the Fellowses again. We are such friends now that they offered me 2/- [10p] for letting them through. It is evidently what is always done. We got to the top of Warwick at 3.30 & were all so tired we tied up. A few minutes later another pair did the same & later on 2 more. A lot of odd jobs. Evelyn went home & Audrey came to supper with me.

Monday 28th December

Let go at 8.30. Had the first 8 against us but then our luck changed.

Cleared the top at 11.10 & soon after we had started the long pound we saved the life of a sheep which had fallen in the cut. I don’t think I could have got it out without the help of a soldier who happened to pass. Knowle at 2.10–3 & tied up at Tyseley at 6. A lot of boats here so I don’t think we shall unload tomorrow.

Tuesday 29th December

A morning of odd jobs & shopping. Unclothing in afternoon & then to tea & pictures with some friends of Audreys out at Solihull. A bitterly cold day.

Wednesday 30th December

More shopping, washing & collecting fire wood.

They started to unload us at about 12.15 & at 3.45 we let go & absolutely surpassed ourselves at swinging the boats. The whole drill went like clockwork – such a pity there was no one there to see us. Tied up at Catherine de Barnes at 5.15 so that Audrey could phone her people.

Thursday 31st December

Snow on the ground but thawing. Let go at 8.12, all well till we got the butty helm out on the sill of the 4th lock at Knowle. My first experience of that mishap but the lock keeper got it back for us.

Hatton exhausting as usual & we tied up at 3.50 at Leamington. Audrey left for her home to collect a bicycle & Evelyn went to see friends. She brought two back to see the boats at 6.30 & they asked us to go to the Crown at 8.30. This we did & home again at 11.45 after visiting the friends where Evelyn used to share a house. All these people work at the home of camouflage.

Heard the New Year in on the wireless.


In a conversation with Kit in 1982 she recalled this Christmas vividly but with a little uncertainty about some details. She particularly remembered rushing off to the church at Stoke Bruerne hoping to find an early morning service, but the blackout regulations foiled this possibility: so “we let go at our leisure and went through the tunnel and thought we’d stop in this bridgehole [Stowe Hill] to have our Christmas dinner. I remember sitting in the cabin and hearing George V [VI in fact] giving his Christmas speech - “. . . and some of you – in Madagascar, and Columbia . . .” and Audrey adding [in a deep voice] “. . . and Uttoxeter.”

The page from Kit Gayford’s diary for Christmas Day 1942. In 1942 and 1943 she used old empty Bristol Aeroplane Co Ltd diaries for 1940 and 1941, presumably given to her by a member of her family, which had close connections with flying and the RAF. For most days she carefully changed the day and year (but not always as in this case).

Kit Gayford Collection

Several photographs were specially posed (on 29th or 30th March 1944) to publicise the work done by the ‘Trainees’, who became known as the ‘Idle Women’ from the ‘IW’ on their badges (which in fact stood for Inland Waterways). Here on Sun and Dipper (from left to right) are Kit Gayford in her distinctive hat, Audrey Harper, Evelyn Hunt (who all feature in this story), Mary Vanderpump, Frankie Campbell Martin and Anne Blake. Sun was fleet number 88 and the pair featured in the photographic card signed “ADH” from Boat 88.

Kit Gayford Colllection

She recalled May and John Sidwell’s pair tied there, and the parents in the cottage: “It was one of the cottages where they left their washing for the mother to do and picked it up on the way back.” She remembered they all “gravitated to the cottage after the pub” and enjoyed a long and very sociable evening there.

From her diary, which she kept throughout her service on the boats [see ‘An Amateur Boatwoman’s Diaries’ in January & February 1998 Waterways World], it seems she had leave to go home for all the Christmases that followed. However her collection includes a number of Christmas cards she received from friends on the canal, both amongst the trainees and the professional boatpeople. Some of these, from Audrey and Evelyn with whom she enjoyed a close friendship, are particularly artistic and provide appropriate illustrations to accompany this account of a Christmas on the cut 68 years ago.

The Trainees

These biographical notes on some of the Trainees mentioned were compiled by Mike Constable:

Marjorie (McPhee)

Marjorie joined the Training Scheme in late August 1942. Her first two trips were with Brigit and Roisin, the first ‘Trainees’ to start boating on their own. In November she joined Kit as her ‘mate’ and was acting in this capacity during this Christmas period before going off to captain her own pair. She later captained the pair Anthony and Alphons.

Audrey (Harper)

Audrey was a Warwickshire farmer’s daughter. Her boyfriend was a local doctor and she was a nurse when she joined the boats, unusually at Tyseley. Audrey was the longest serving ‘IW’ beside Kit and assisted in the children’s film made using Kit’s pair in the late Autumn of 1945. She married Ken Williams in June 1946 in the parish Church at Wootton Wawen with several of her former boating colleagues present for the ceremony. Unusually Audrey was given a pair (Sun and Dipper) as soon as her basic training was completed, without serving as a ‘mate’ with another trainer.

Evelyn (Hunt)

Evelyn, an art student, had joined the Camouflage Directorate, at that time operating in Leamington Spa. During lunch breaks she had seen the boats passing and decided to join them. She trained with Audrey, getting her coveted IW badge on 13th January 1943. Initially teamed up with Nanny White, a young mum with a very small infant, Audrey and Evelyn were later joined by Anne Blake and these three girls formed the best known female crew of the war. Evelyn later married the Head of the Camouflage Department when his first wife passed away and was to become Lady Monnington. She painted the illustration used by Tom Rolt as the dust wrapper for his book Green and Silver in 1949, and seems the most likely person to have produced the delightfully painted cards illustrated here.