living a new life
1: only women of robust constitution are advised to apply
Several times I have heard it said that lockdown proved most people can work from home. This was true for myself as a freelance writer and my husband as a company director. Previously, my mother had been living with us, but when she moved into a care home and my sister took over as her main family carer, it allowed us to consider a different way of living.
Narrowboating runs in my husband’s blood, but not mine. We had talked about living on a narrowboat ‘one day’ without giving it too much thought, but it had suddenly become possible. For me, the idea was both exciting but also nerve-wracking. It was going to be a huge learning experience.
Very early on, my mother-in-law gave me Susan Woolfitt’s book, Idle Women. These were the volunteers of WW2 who kept the supplies moving on the canals. Prior to their recruitment, there was a belief in some quarters that women would not be strong enough. An official from the Transport Ministry suggested women would be unable to open a lock gate. Instead, they would ‘just have to sit down and wait till somebody came along to help them.' 1
Eventually, the Ministry of War Transport’s only requisite was that those who applied needed to be ‘of robust constitution'.1 Looking at alternative words for ‘robust’ you will find healthy and vigorous, strong, tough and forceful. Also, but perhaps less appealing, are full-bodied and stout! It makes you wonder what a woman needs to be in order to live and work on the canals.
Since we bought our fourth-hand boat, we have met and negotiated with many engineers and craftspeople. I have come to realise that there aren’t many women involved in the canal-side nuts, bolts, grease, saws, hammers and varnish of narrowboat work and wondered why this is. In June this year, CRT had an online piece celebrating women in leading engineering roles, which was encouraging, but there were no examples of women at a more local level.2
I did an O-level in engineering many years ago, hoping to make it my career. My experience of that single year put me off due to the completely inappropriate behaviour directed at me and that was just the tutor! This experience has always made me wary of openly taking on a role, or activity that is seen as traditionally male-led. If I bury my head in the engine bay of the boat, I am just waiting for a passer-by to make a comment. This is only my perception and I know it’s not everyone’s choice, but I wonder if this fear and wariness of other peoples’ responses is what keeps women from being a visible part of the local canal workforce or being the ones maintaining the boats.
Maybe for some, it’s about self-belief. ‘Can I, as a woman, carry out such and such a task?’ An inspiring piece in the Guardian online from last year, captured how skilled women are battling to find gender parity in the boat-building industry.3
They described being ‘outsiders’ and ‘made to prove themselves’, but also believed that anything is possible. I hope that as we travel, we will meet more women who are happy with having oily hands and paint-covered trousers. I know that I am loving the learning and I am growing in confidence and I am finally using the skills of that long-ago O-level.
1. Staveley-Wadham R (2021) Far From ‘Idle:’ The Women Canal Workers of the Second World War. The British Newspaper Archive. Available here
2. Canal & River Trust (2023) Celebrating our women in engineering. CRT. Available here
3. Larner C (2022) ‘We are outsiders’: the female boatbuilders of Instagram. The guardian.org. Available here