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My Grandmother, Molly Traill, and the Boatwomen Training Scheme

In 1941 my grandmother, 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. This idea had sprung from the work that she and two other women were doing on the Worcester and Birmingham canal on a boat, the Heather Bell, owned by one of the women. My grandmother had considerable sailing experience and did a course on the maintenance of Petter diesel engines. The Ministry was impressed and persuaded the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company to pioneer the scheme. Molly 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 and the Severn Carrying Company.

The 70ft long boats worked in pairs, one a motor and one a butty, usually with a crew of three. The cargo was mainly coal and grain, but included munitions, steel, cement, aluminium, sugar, cotton bales, wool bales, peanuts, raisins, flour and tinned food. One cargo contract note in my grandmother's scrapbook reads: "This box contains 14 only Bombs, M.L. 2" Smoke Mark II empty, parkerised. Complete with Tail Units and Retaining Caps". If you had just had a load of coal and your next cargo was grain, you had to clean the hold out very carefully. Work was physically demanding and life on the canal boats was cramped and uncomfortable. Cleanliness was a problem and it was difficult keeping your clothes dry as the lock gates had to be operated whether the sun was out or it was pouring with rain. In the winter it was not uncommon to be delayed or stranded by ice, which would pack up behind the lock gates and prevent them from opening. Getting hold of food was not easy as rations tended to be kept for the existing local clientele by shopkeepers, rather than for those passing through. But they managed to get eggs and milk from certain farmers who they got to know. 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, but they quickly learned how to cope and compete on an equal footing.

My mum remembers going for trips with my aunt on my grandmother's two working boats Bainton and Dodonna. She has inherited the Dodonna's water can and a stool in the elaborately decorated folk art style used on canal boats, and I have a stool, which my grandmother had made and painted for me in the 1960s.

Molly kept a scrapbook of her life on the canal boats, containing correspondence from the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company and the Severn Carrying Company officials, and the Ministry of War Transport. Unfortunately the scrapbook does not have any of the correspondence that she sent, only that which she received. The scrapbook also contains her Transport and General Workers' Union - Waterways Group union card for 1943. There is a letter from the canal company ticking her off for not carrying the full 50 tons of coal, as she only loaded 42 tons, 6 cwt. It also contains a ration card, photographs, and news clippings. One of these photographs is in the Images and Documents Collection on this website [url?].

There is a telegram from the BBC in December 1942 asking her to give a talk entitled 'Women's work on the canals' in the 'Women Can't Do It' series on the Home Service. I presume that this was not recorded and preserved, but there is a clipping from the Listener in which she talks about it in a lot of detail. The talk was part of a Ministry of War Transport campaign to encourage recruitment for the Boatwomen Training Scheme. The scrapbook has clippings from various magazines about life on the canals, including The Lady. One headline, from the Daily Sketch, reads: "Bargee Girls Are New Women's Force: Young, Pretty - and Hardy".

Having devoted so much energy to setting up the scheme she eventually came into conflict with the Ministry and the canal companies over the expansion of the schemes. My mother remembers her campaigning over the working conditions for women on the boats and writing letters to the Times, which is not exactly the method organized labour would normally use. But the final letter from Phillip Noel Baker, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport, in which he 'sadly' has to dispense with her services, seems to imply that she had made herself unpopular with the canal companies. So she left the canals on a sour note, leaving behind the many schemes she had worked hard to set up. She was always a strong minded individualist and, in the end, she was effectively sacked for being a troublemaker.