Women’s History Month: from the TUC Library Collections


Boatwomen Training Scheme, 1943. In 1941, Frances Marian ‘Molly’ Traill approached the Ministry of War Transport with a scheme to train women boat crews to help the country with its shortage of manpower on the canals. The Ministry was impressed and persuaded the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company to pioneer the scheme. Molly Traill and Eily Gayford were recruited as trainers when the scheme launched in February 1942.  The scheme was later extended to other canals such as the Leeds and Liverpool.

The boats worked in pairs, one a motor and one a butty, usually with a crew of three. The cargo was mainly coal and grain. Work was physically demanding and life on the canal boats was cramped and uncomfortable. The women had to put up with resentment and petty acts of aggression and practical jokes from the men on other boats and those employed in the warehouses. Volunteers, usually middle-class, were scarce and hard to retain. Having been trained most women themselves became trainers. Estimates as to the number of pairs of boats crewed by women on the Grand Union Canal vary from 15 to 30 at any one time, but only six women stayed for the full duration of the scheme from 1942 to 1945.

In early 1944 the Ministry took over the scheme’s sponsorship and started a recruitment campaign. Newspapers, magazine articles with photographs of women already in action, talks on the radio and a Ministry of Information Film were used as a means of encouraging women to put themselves forward for training. This photograph is one of those used in the publicity campaign.

The TUC Library Collections have a large research collection relating to women working on the Home Front during the Second World War. A selection of posters, photographs, documents and oral history interviews with veterans of the Home Front can be found on our website The Workers War.

This image and information comes from the TUC Library Collections held at London Metropolitan University. For more information, see their website.