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Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

I’ve been reading novels, memoirs and other texts from the Second World War recently. It was a time when social norms were upended, and people were called upon to take up activities that they would not have dreamed of a few years before. And they hoped would never be required to again. Such upheaval is fertile background for novels and other writings. 

I published a post called Novels from the Home Front in WW2 in November. You can find some interesting fictional choices there. I particularly enjoyed Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), republished by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her wartime diaries. I am working on a short story set during the war so it was also research for me.

Originally published in 1948, Maidens’ Trip has the subtitle A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal. I read several reviews of Maidens’ Trip and I thought I would be interested to read about more wartime experiences. It finally got to the top of my tbr pile. I was looking forward to more wartime research.

Maidens’ Trip 

The account of the ‘wartime adventure’ is partly fictional but based on Emma Smith’s years as a boater. She describes it as ‘part fact, and part fiction’.

When, fairly soon after leaving the ‘cut’, I began to write the book, it seemed to me that the best method of describing the couple of years I had spent working narrow-boats on the Grand Union Canal towards the end of the Second World War would be to condense them into a single trip. For this imaginary portmanteau trip I invented as my two companions Nanette and Charity. I also, for the sake of balance and objectivity, exercised the novelist’s right by largely inventing the third member of the trio, named as myself, (sixty years on I deny ever having been so bossy). (vii Preface)

She assures the reader that everything that happened in the book took place. She reinforces this authenticity by frequently referring to ‘we’ but always referring to herself as Emma.

In 1943 three young women (18 years old) become crew of a motor longboat and its butty on the canals, plying their cargo of steel from London to Birmingham and returning via Coventry with coal. 

While the work was hard and at the beginning unfamiliar, it also provided freedom for these young women. And their enjoyment of their outdoor adventure is a recurring theme. We read no references to ‘home’. Their companions become the boating families and as they adopted the boaters’ life they developed friendships and affection for some of the families.

The work was dirty, hard and wet and twice one of their crew was nearly killed. It’s hard to imagine now but their conditions were pretty awful, sleeping in wet beds, always dirty and oily, and outsiders in the world of the boaters and the working men in the docks and locks. But with a heartiness and good grace they put up with terrible working and living conditions. Today we might assume that they felt obliged to do their bit for the war effort. But this was not their chief motivation according to Maidens’ Trip.

The war hardly intrudes, in fact. There is the mention of the blackout and occasional news shouted down to them by lock keepers. By and large they were not there  ‘because of the war’ although their cargoes of steel and coal were no doubt important. 

Recommended

I enjoyed the book for its references to some canals I used to know: Braunston and its tunnel, the Coventry and Birmingham canals and the London Docks. More than the familiarity of those canals I was attracted by the qualities of the young women who volunteered for this work. I think one appropriate word of the time is pluck.

It’s well-written too, despite the author’s claim to have written it very quickly. The decision to create one journey out of her experiences pays off. The rhythm of the journey, the flurry of working the  locks followed by the calmer more deserted stretches of canal, the tying up at night, the early starts with tea from water boiled on the primus, the days move by.

Immediately outside Leamington we passed by acres of allotments, the neat parcelling out of bean-sticks and cabbages on that flat unhedged and seeming, more especially in the failing light, a very attar of depression. One or two blurred figures, grey moth-like creatures surely with every spark of passion ground out of them, bent over spades or shambled down the nondescript paths. Yet behind them flared the giant sky, a citron yellow, massed with magnificent clouds which crowded together round the going sun, snatching up its dying heart to deck their black and purple edges. We passed them, these humble ghosts, like life rejecting death, and turned the bows of the Venus and Ariadne directly into the sunset, strong but tired, tired but still triumphant, and with several more miles to go and two more locks. (103)

The Silvers arrived. … The three old ladies all wore black hats of felt or crumpled straw, the sort of hats that grow on a head as naturally as an eyebrow above an eye. All three wore black button boots going high up round their ankles, and two of them had long black skirts with a motley of pinafores and jersies above. But the third, the one in the straw hat, wore a pair of men’s blue dungarees. She looked about fifty-five, but was probably short of forty, and her apparel was even more surprising in that trousers were seldom worn by the boating women – except the very bold or the very young – being considered unseemly. (104-5)

And reading her account of working as a team, managing the motorboat and its butty on a flight of locks – the bicycle, the windlasses, the pulling or pushing, the leaping, the tying, the shouting – leaves one informed and breathless.

I am ashamed when I think of how my generation told our predecessors they were so square, had made the world a mess for us, and we were going to do it better. Now I think we had everything to learn from these plucky young women. 

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith was first published in 1948. It has been reissued in paperback by Bloomsbury in 2011. 225pp

Related blog post

Tripping Over is a post on Stuck in a Book blog from 2009, but still valid and includes enthusiasm for Emma Smith’s book about growing up in Cornwall, The Great Western Beach. I liked his word ‘energetic’ for the writing in Maidens’ Trip.

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