Anna Trench illustration - Paul Atterburyon Emma Smith, Maidens' Trip

Three Girls in a Boat

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In 1969, a friend and I rather rashly accepted a commission to produce from scratch a new set of guides to Britain’s inland waterway network. We were young, naïve, confident and in need of the money. Four years and 2,000 waterway miles later, the project was finished and the four books quickly became the standard waterway guides, still in print over forty years later.

It was an enjoyable, if frenetic, adventure and I gained a detailed knowledge of the history of canals and river navigation, and their place in the landscape, along with a thorough, if rather linear, vision of urban and rural Britain. I also developed an enduring passion for canals and canal life which, at its most intense point, drove me to buy my own canal boat.

Reading about other people’s canal adventures was an essential part of the learning process. There are a number of classic waterway books. Top of everyone’s list is Narrow Boat by L. C. T. Rolt. First published in 1944, and in print ever since, this is the perfect introduction to the rather secret world of canals and waterways. But it was by chance that I came across Emma Smith’s Maidens’ Trip (1948), complete with John Mintonesque dust-wrapper, in a second-hand bookshop in the early 1970s.

During the Second World War women, who from 1943 became subject to the demands of National Service regulations, were often put to work in rather unexpected areas of activity. Much of this has been well documented. However, one of the lesser known fields of female employment was canal boating, a reflection of the wartime importance of this method of transport for the movement of essential but not urgent cargoes such as coal, food, spare parts and raw materials. A number of women, generally young, fit and adventurous, responded to advertisements placed by the Ministry of War Transport’s Women’s Training Scheme. Most had little or no boating experience but, after some rather basic and brief training, they were

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About the contributor

When not appearing on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, Paul Atterbury lives by the sea in Weymouth and writes books. Subjects range from pottery and silver to the First World War, but railways and canals remain perennial favourites.

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