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Authors: Margaret Mayhew

The Boat Girls

BOOK: The Boat Girls
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About the Book

It is 1943, and three very different girls are longing to do their bit for the war effort.

– her life of seeming privilege has been a lonely one. Brave and strong, stifled by her traditional upbringing, she falls for a most unsuitable man.

– timid and conventional, her horizons have never strayed beyond her job as a bank clerk in Croydon until the war brings her new experiences.

– a beautiful, flame-haired actress who catches the eye of Frances's stuffy elder brother, the heir to an ancestral mansion.

The three become friends when they join the band of women working the canal boats, delivering goods and doing a man's job while the men are away fighting. A tough, unglamorous task – but one which brings them all unexpected rewards.


About the Book

Title Page





Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one


About the Author

Also by Margaret Mayhew


The Boat Girls
Margaret Mayhew

To the valiant captain and crew of
the narrowboat

James, Tilly, Ella, George,
Charlie and Sarah.


My thanks to Olga Kevelos for giving so generously of her time to tell me about her experiences working on the narrowboats in wartime. I am also very grateful to David Blagrove, boatman and author of a number of excellent books and videos about the canals, for all his help, as well as for his kind permission to quote from his song ‘The Chestnut Bloom'.

The books written by former boat girls Eily Gayford, Susan Woolfit, Emma Smith and Margaret Cornish have all given fascinating accounts of what it was like to be an ‘Idle Woman', as well as much useful information.

And I thank my editor, Linda Evans, my husband, Philip Kaplan and, finally, James, Tilly, Ella, George, Charlie and Sarah – the captain and crew of the narrowboat
who took me along for a trip.


At the outbreak of the Second World War, the inland waterways of this country were taken over by the Government and all canal companies came under the control of the Ministry of War Transport. Canal work was classed as a reserved occupation but there was, nonetheless, a shortage of skilled boatmen, and the wartime importance of that system of transport was soon realized. Canals could save valuable space on the railways and evade the constant attacks suffered by east coastal shipping from German U-boats and E-boats.

In 1942 The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company agreed with the Ministry to implement a scheme for training women to handle pairs of narrowboats and help maintain a steady movement of vital supplies between London, Birmingham and the coalfields round Coventry. Advertisements were placed in newspapers and
magazines and the women who responded, and survived the gruelling training, still had to learn to work alongside the real boat people whose families had lived on the canals for generations and who inhabited a very different world.

O thou who didst make for the Children of Israel a highway through the Promised Land, we pray thee to bless the highways of this country, especially its canals and waterways. We would remember before thee all who trade thereon. Be thou to them a Father, a Saviour and a Guide. Bless all who work amongst them for their spiritual good. Guide them by the light of the Holy Spirit that many souls may be won for Christ. We ask this for thy own name's sake.

Prayer for canal boaters:
Revd W. Ashbury Smith, 1940


at Averton in Dorset for more than three hundred years. The first of them, a swashbuckling seafarer called John de Carlyon, had made a fortune as a buccaneer during the seventeenth century, preying on galleons on the Spanish Main and relieving them of their rich cargoes of gold and silver. He might well have ended up on the gallows, but, instead, had given up buccaneering and settled down to a respectable life on Dorset acres acquired through a shrewd marriage to a landed widow. He had built a large and very beautiful house of golden Ham Hill stone in a protective fold of undulating countryside, only five miles from the sea, and had added a church beside it. His first-born son and heir, given the name Vere at his baptism in the church, had later called his own son John. Thereafter, down the centuries, de Carlyon heirs were named, alternately, John or Vere.

The family fortunes had flourished. In the eighteenth century a Vere de Carlyon who had inherited some of the bravado and charm of his seafaring ancestor had found favour at court and been rewarded with a baronetcy. His heir, Sir John de Carlyon, had brought back an Italian wife from his Grand Tour who had further enhanced the beauty of Averton by creating formal gardens in the style of her native country, while her husband contributed stable blocks and a dovecote.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sir Vere de Carlyon had given the house a classical front, a fine new staircase in the hall and a charming stone orangery in the gardens, but after his death a succession of profligate heirs had squandered the major part of their fortunes so that by the finish of the century, Averton had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory. The house and outbuildings had been neglected, the gardens allowed to grow semi-wild. At the end of the First World War, the family – now plain Carlyon – were struggling to keep their heads above water. Sir John Carlyon, who had fought courageously in the trenches of Flanders, had come back a broken man and, after the early death of his wife, had withdrawn from life to spend his days pottering about the old orangery, raising orchids. His only son and heir, Vere, had
joined the RAF three years before the Second World War. He had been posted to Bomber Command and reached the rank of Wing Commander by the age of twenty-five. His sister, named Frances like other Carlyon ladies before her, was seven years younger and incarcerated at boarding school until the summer of 1943 when she returned to a near-empty home. Except for Mrs Crocker, the elderly cook, and an even more elderly gardener, Didcot, assisted by a young lad, the Averton staff – such as they had been – had gone off to war. A Mrs Briggs, also well past her prime, came from the village on her bicycle to fight a losing battle with dust and cobwebs.

In September, on her eighteenth birthday, Frances presented herself at the local recruiting offices for the women's army, navy and air force, only to be told by each one, in turn, that recruiting was temporarily suspended. She waited impatiently throughout October and November and the recruiting officers grew used to, and tired of, the sight of her appearing before their desks. A volunteer job dispensing tea and buns in a canteen in Bridport occupied her for a while, but the other helpers were all old women and there was a battleaxe in charge.

‘I thought I told you not more than
sugar is allowed per person, Miss Carlyon, and only
bun. There happens to be a war on, in case you're unaware of it.'

She carried on slipping extra rations to service men and women when the battleaxe's back was turned, but then there was a row over her breaking some cups and another over the way she slopped the tea into the saucers and another about chatting too much to the customers. ‘Careless talk costs lives, Miss Carlyon. We never know who may be listening.' After a few weeks she left and went back to pestering the recruiting offices.

Aunt Gertrude, her father's sister, phoned from her flat in London to invite herself for Christmas. A First World War widow, her chief pleasures were cards, cigarettes, Gordon's gin – which she drank with warm tap water – and betting on racehorses. She was a lethal bridge player, unbeatable at most card and board games, and won considerably more than she ever lost with her bookmaker.

‘Any hope of Vere being home, darling?'

‘I shouldn't think so. We haven't heard from him for ages.'

‘Too busy killing Germans, I dare say. How's your father these days?'

‘More or less the same. He spends most of the time with the orchids.'

‘Personally, I can't understand what he sees in them, but it keeps him happy – that's the main
thing, isn't it? How about you, Frances? What are you doing with yourself?'

‘Waiting to join up – but nobody seems to want me.'

‘Who have you tried?'

‘WRNS, WAAF, ATS. They've all stopped recruiting for the moment.'

‘Well, I dare say they'll start again soon. Get Vere to pull an RAF string for you.'

‘He wouldn't do it. He'd say I had to go through the proper channels. You know how stuffy he is.'

‘He can seem it, I grant you, but it's a fault on the right side.'

Frances carried her father's lunch tray down the draughty stone passage leading from the kitchens to an even colder hall, and out of a side door to the pathway that led to the orangery. Every day it was exactly the same lunch: a shrimp-paste sandwich and a thermos of unsweetened tea. He had countered all Mrs Crocker's efforts to vary the sandwich filling simply by leaving anything different untouched – like some picky old dog.

The graceful eighteenth-century orangery stood apart from the main house at the top of the three-tiered Italian pool garden. It was easily the best-kept building at Averton and by far the warmest. Most of the coke ration went on feeding the voracious furnace which kept it at around
seventy degrees, while the temperature in the house rarely rose to fifty except in high summer. The orchids came before everything else, and her father would have mortgaged the estate for a rare blue one.

Visitors were not encouraged inside. They brought in bacteria, fungi, algae and pests, and breathed germs over the plants, and whenever Papa was occupied with the delicate business of sowing seeds with sterile test tubes and pipettes and eye droppers, a large KEEP OUT notice was pinned up on the side door and the lunch tray had to be left outside. He was liable to post it at other times, as well, but there was no notice to be seen this time so Frances balanced the tray on one arm, opened the glass door, went in and shut it very quickly behind her. Draughts, as well as microbes, were death to orchids, who lived like pampered creatures in their hothouse world. Beautiful they might be, but they never touched her heart. They were too perfect; too still – as though they weren't living things at all. They had none of the charm of, say, roses rambling over a garden wall, or daffodils nodding in the wind, or even common daisies studding the grass.

The orangery orange trees had gone with the Great War. Instead, long wooden benches held rows and rows of orchid plants. She could see her father bent over one at the far end, absorbed
in some delicate task. The summer-flowering kinds were dormant but there were others that produced their blooms in winter – exotic apparitions among their sleeping fellows and, to her eyes, all wrong in the grey English light of December.

She watched her father for a moment, unnoticed. As a small child, she had heard him crying out in his sleep at night – inhuman shrieks of terror that had made her cower under the blankets. Just nightmares, her mother had explained. Nothing to worry about. But the nightmares had gone on through the years and they still happened, though less frequently. Once upon a time, he must have been a normal person, only she had no memory of it. He was perfectly kind and very sweet, but talking to him was like trying to communicate with a ghost – someone who had already departed. According to Aunt Gertrude, he had been badly affected by fighting in the war – shell-shocked it was called – which was a polite way of saying that he had gone to pieces. He had been engaged to her mother before he had left for the trenches and soon after his return they had got married in spite of the shell shock. Mama had helped him get better and the orchids had been her idea. She had bought him a few plants as a hobby, and books to read and learn about them.

Frances had been twelve and in her first year at boarding school when Mama had died. The headmistress had sent for her and had told her to sit down before giving her the bad news. Apparently, it had been very sudden and quite unexpected – the kind of thing that almost never happened to anyone. She had sat there in stunned silence while Miss Moorehead had explained that Mama had been bitten on the leg by some unknown insect and the bite had become infected and spread uncontrollably. The hospital had tried to save her but nothing could be done. The inquest had recorded that her death was from septicaemia. Frances had gone home for the funeral and then been sent straight back to school afterwards. The other girls had kept staring at her and then looking away, as though she had caught some disease and might somehow contaminate them.

BOOK: The Boat Girls
11.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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