The title of this ramble may seem provocative, particularly to our modern senses, but it was a name used by the young women themselves who were called up in WW2 to work on barges. As in many other professions, there was a shortage of men, as many had been conscripted into the military. By the end of 1939 more than 1.5 million men were in uniform and their places had to be filled to keep up with the war effort, as well as all the other needs of the country.
We’re probably all familiar with the ‘Land Girls’, as they were known, and the young women who were working in factories and munitions. My own aunty Margaret worked in the Rolls Royce engine testing bays in Barnoldswick. But a more obscure need was for workers on canal barges, and this is where ‘Idle Women’ worked. As explained by the Canal and Rivers Trust, this was an “undeserved nickname”, derived from the initials ‘IW’, proudly displayed on the badge given to the women who volunteered to work on the Inland Waterways.
Not for the faint-hearted
Contrary to the nickname, it was a job in which there was absolutely no chance to be idle. Advertisements from the department of war and transport stated that the only requirement was for the applicant to be of “robust constitution”. No previous experience was needed and few had any. Even though their numbers were modest, their work certainly was not: they were required to shovel and carry their heavy loads just like the men before them and, unlike the Land Girls, they never received any official recognition.
If they were assigned to the larger canals, say from London to Birmingham, along with managing the main diesel-powered narrowboat with its cramped accommodation, the three-person crew would also have a butty boat, a bit like a trailer on a wagon, both boat and butty crammed with stuff that required lifting or carrying. On this particular route, steel would be carried to Birmingham and coal on the return journey, with each load weighing as much as 50 tonnes.
This job was definitely not for the faint hearted. The round trip took three weeks, and work on board usually comprised an 18 to 20-hour day. For this they were awarded £3.00 per week, though they then had an option of a week off – unpaid, of course.
Conscription for men – and women
The first National Service (Armed Forces) Act was imposed immediately after war was declared on Germany, 3 September 1939. The act imposed conscription on all males aged between 18 and 41.
There had been a similar recruitment campaign for women to join the Land Army during WW1. They were also expected to carry out work previously almost exclusively carried out by men. Early in WW2 women between the ages of 17½ and 25 were again asked to volunteer; however, large numbers of women were needed in all aspects of industry and so the second National Service Act of December 1941 widened the scope of conscription to include unmarried women and childless widows aged between 20 and 30.
A subsection within the women’s land army was known as the ‘Lumber Jills’ – another group virtually unheard of today. These were young women also of ‘robust constitution’. Officially called the Woman’s Timber Corps (WTC), they were charged with providing wood for building barracks, ships, aircraft, fencing, telegraph poles and charcoal for the manufacture of explosives and gas masks. Between 1942 and 1946 over 8,500 Lumber Jills worked in forests and sawmills, providing timber for our military.
Contributions by women on the military front and all across the home front
By 1944 there were over 80,000 Land Girls doing work that they had almost certainly not done before. This was alongside over 640,000 women in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), plus many more who served as nurses, drove ambulances, transported unarmed aircraft to their squadron stations and worked behind enemy lines in the European resistance.
But it wasn’t just in the unfamiliar, difficult and dangerous areas of the military that women were making their mark. On the ‘home front’, women – and men – were urged to contribute what they could for the war effort. They gave up their treasured pots and pans, took in evacuee children, dug for victory and raised funds for various charities and schemes by any means at their disposal.
One idea was to adopt a particular piece of military equipment – ‘adopt a spitfire’ and so on. In November 1941, the city of Leeds took on a very ambitious project and decided to adopt the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. The target was to raise £3.5mn for repairs; in the end the people of Leeds had raised over £9mn, more than covering what was required to build a new ship.
The total number serving in our armed forces today is around 200,000, which includes 40,000 volunteer reserves. That is less than a third of the number of women serving in the WRNS, WAAF, and ATS in 1944. This says something about the more peaceful times – in our country at least – in which we are fortunate to live.