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Kate Saffin: Idle Women Of The Inland Waterways

By | Published on Thursday 27 April 2017

I love history, and social history, and artworks and performances that are all about that sort of thing, so when I heard about Kate Saffin and Heather Wastie’s touring double bill about the UK’s ‘Idle Women’, I naturally pricked up my ears.

To find out more about the content of the show, and its performers, I spoke to the aforementioned Kate Saffin, writer and performer of ‘Isobel’s War’.

CM: Can you tell us what to expect from the format of the show? It’s a double bill, isn’t it?
KS: It is! A mix of theatre, poetry and music. The first half is my solo play ‘Isobel’s War’ with Heather’s ‘Idle Women and Judies’ plus other pieces and songs in the second half, including a rousing finale that the audience join in with. It’s a very long chorus but they always manage to learn it and belt it out with great enthusiasm.

CM: Who were the Idle Women, and what did they do?
KS: They were a group of young women who worked on the canals during the war. Boating was a reserved occupation because the canals were proving vital to the war effort, but for young men the forces held much more appeal than working with their mum and dad on the boats. The result was plenty of spare boats, plenty of cargo but not enough good crews.

The Women’s Training Scheme recruited young women, who had about six weeks training – twice round the route that we will be following – before working a pair of 70’ boats with 50 tons of cargo in teams of three.

CM: Where does the nickname Idle Women come from? It doesn’t seem very nice!
KS: It’s based on their national service badge – which had the letters IW for Inland Waterways on. There are all sorts of stories about how the nickname came about, the most common of which is that the boatmen called them that. Not true. For a start few of the boatmen could read or write, and most who worked on the Grand Union (I was fortunate enough to know one in later life) would never have been that disrespectful to women. It came after the war when… well, we reveal that as part of the show so you will have to come and see it to find out!

CM: You’re touring it along the waterways the shows are focused on, aren’t you? It sounds as though you will be performing in some rather interesting spaces?
KS: The idea to follow the route that the trainees worked (the nickname Idle Women came after the war) came while we were touring last summer – it was the first time we had worked together and it was going well; our audiences were growing and we were being asked to perform for various clubs and events in the autumn.

Once we thought of it, it seemed the perfect tour: recreating the journey. We had also noticed how the audience loved hearing about ‘their’ bit of the waterways so over the winter we have been reworking some pieces and adding new material with the aim of highlighting a bit of the story for each area we visit.

Quite a lot of our venues are pub gardens alongside the water – several of which are mentioned in the various accounts by the women. We’ve also found lots of quirky spaces, such as the canal museums in London and Stoke Bruerne, a community wood in Leamington, an old paper mill in Apsley, a pump house in Titford and the Ragged School museum in Mile End.

CM: How did you get interested in this subject, and what made you want to create a piece of work about it?
KS: I read several of the accounts written by the trainees soon after I moved on to my boat in 1999 – and had the idea of writing a play about one for some years. I was intrigued by the life they had taken on; I wondered if I could have done that? I was also hearing first hand stories of them from my boatwoman neighbour, Rose Skinner, and was struck by the impact that these women had on the very closed world of the working boaters. The boating families were very reserved and suddenly there were young women who smoked, wore trousers and challenged authority. That had a big impact on the reticent working boatwomen.

In 2014 the Canal & River Trust commissioned Heather to write and record a 6-minute audio piece inspired by some of their archive recordings. They sent her a selection and as soon as she heard Emma Smith she knew this was the subject she wanted to write about.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the focus of your part of the show, ‘Isobel’s War’?
KS: Isobel is a fictional young women who is a little tired of being expected to sit at home with her mother being a good little wife, while husband Hugh goes off to win the war. She wants to do her bit and spots an advert… It is a story of defying convention as much as a story about life and work on the boats. At the same time, it was important to me to share the stories accurately and almost everything that happens in the play happened to someone somewhere.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your co-performer Heather Wastie?
KS: Heather is a poet, musician and actor. She was Writer in Residence at the Museum of Carpet, Kidderminster in 2013 and Worcestershire Poet Laureate 2015/16. Her book of poems and songs, Weaving Yarns, about people who worked in the carpet industry, was published in 2015. She has just completed a children’s song cycle for the Weaver’s Cottages in Kidderminster, commissioned by Worcestershire Building Preservation Trust. She has also worked as poet and actor for National Trust property Croome Court in Worcestershire and is currently appearing in the Nationwide Building Society television ads, performing her own work.

Her poems are ‘found’ pieces, so called because they are made up primarily of words found in archive recordings, books and online. Words are chosen which follow a rhythm and use the original spoken or written text where possible to maintain authenticity.

CM: What themes do the two pieces have in common, and in what ways do they differ?
KS: Isobel’s War is a solo play about a fictional woman telling true stories; Heather’s work is a collection of poems and songs, performed from the point of view of different women in each piece. Although our styles are contrasting, each contributes to creating a kaleidoscope of images, stories and impressions spanning both the work the trainees took on and the world of the working waterways that they burst into.

CM: A lot of your work seems to have a waterways theme – why is that? When did your interest in this begin?
KS: As I mentioned, I’ve lived on a boat since 1999 and was fortunate to have as my neighbours on the bank two of the last of the working boat couples, Jack and Rose Skinner. Rose told me many a tale beginning ‘when we was boatin…’.

I also read ‘Ramlin Rose: the Boatwoman’s Story’ by Sheila Stewart – another fictional character telling true stories and a remarkable social history of boatwomen during the last century. The waterside is increasingly being redeveloped but when I first lived on the boat, the canals were still quite secret places, often ignored and providing new and intriguing glimpses of towns they passed through.

Heather’s interest in canals began as a child when her family bought a 14-ft cruiser and then 70-ft ex-working boat Laurel. She was involved with her family in campaigns to save the canals which at that time were in an appalling state. Her father (Alan T Smith) was awarded an MBE for his services to Inland Waterways.

The ‘Idle Women’ are all, bar one, gone now and as we have worked together (and heard many stories from our audience) we have found ourselves thinking about the period after the war and how soon the bearers of those stories will be gone. We are starting to think about that period when the waterways were nationalised (as part of the railways, although one account has it that the ministry didn’t realise it had acquired the canals as part of the deal) and began to fall into disrepair, were threatened with closure and the campaigning began…

CM: What’s coming up after this? And what plans do you have for the future?
KS: We are already getting inquiries about performances in the autumn.

You can see ‘Idle Women Of The Wartime Waterways’ at various locations throughout the summer, but imminently in Little Venice and at Rembrandt Gardens from 29-30 April, Perivale on 3 May and Uxbridge on 5 May: see this page here for all the tour dates and detailed locations. The show returns to central London later in the summer, with a date at The Pirate Castle, Camden, on 5 Aug.