The ‘Idle’ Women

The work was arduous and unpleasant – drowned bodies and cargoes of weapons and gold bars concealed as more innocent freight.

By A. Butler

In 1943, aged 19, Olga Kevelos saw an advertisement inviting women to train for work on the canals. “She spent the next two years with all-female volunteer crews which ran the barges carrying vital war materials along the Grand Union Canal between London and the Midlands.”

She and her fellow crew members were nicknamed The Idle Women after the initials IW on their badges. Officially, IW stood for Inland Waterways, but the traditional boat people, alongside whom they worked, were jealous of the newcomers and gave them the name which stuck.

Olga Kevelos made it clear that life had been far from idle for this exceptional group of women.- “hard work with no respite at all… We worked an 18- to 20-hour day, and nobody ever stopped.” …“In all some 45 women took charge of the canal boats, which were worked in pairs, each pair crewed by three women. The volunteers would take the helm of massive barges transferring Spitfires or machine parts from the London Docks to Birmingham; on the return trip they would haul coal from Warwickshire to London.

The work was arduous and unpleasant – drowned bodies and cargoes of weapons and gold bars concealed as more innocent freight.  Living conditions were rough and the girls were often cold and wet, as well as hungry (not for them the extra rations given to the Land Girls). The weather could be appalling and their craft were frequently ice bound.”. 

Olga was just one of about 30 Idle Women working on the boats during the war.  Many joined following a recruitment drive, in 1944, by the Ministry of War Transport who advertised in the press and women’s magazines.  However, before 1942 the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company (GUCCC) at Southall gave the scheme a trial. 

Girls were given 6 weeks’ training before being let loose on the canals.  One of these, Eily Gayford, became a trainer of future recruits.  She was older than the new girls, and known as Kitty.  Her book, The Amateur Boatwomen chronicles her experiences.

Other women recruits, who have written of their time on the boats, are Emma Smith in her book Maidens’ Trip, Margaret Cornish in Troubled Waters and Susan Woolfitt in Idle Women.  Unusually, Susan was a married woman.  She had been married for 10 years to ‘Donald Wolfit’, as he liked to be called, when she joined up in 1944 as a result of the advert.  For her, it was an escape from a marriage that was turning sour.  The children were at boarding school and she wrote them many letters of her experiences.  Hers was the first book published in 1947.  However, many idle women remained interested in the canals. 

Susan was an early member of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA). Others idle woman have attended Waterway events until recently.  The scheme ended in 1946 with the return of the men after the war. Books mentioned are now published in paperback in the Working Waterways series and are available in London in the Canal Museum, near King’s Cross.

The Women Put Underground

By J Wilson

Word War One caused significant staff shortages on the London’s transport network as 17,000 tube, bus, tram employees enlisted for military service. With men fighting away from the country, it became essential for women to take on these roles, [1].

Maida Vale station opened on 6th of June 1915, (as part of the Bakerloo line extension from Paddington to Queen’s Park), and was the first station on the entire London network to be staffed entirely by women. As such, it was soon renamed the ‘Ladies Tube Station‘.

Women took over many roles which had previously been the sole domain of male workers, such as ticket collectors, lift guards, porters, painters and depot cleaners. The only position not filled by a woman was that of tube driver, a situation which remained until 1978, when Hannah Dadds became the first female to take the job, [2].

It was indeed a shock in 1915 to see women wearing a uniform and proving themselves so quickly in new roles. At that time there was still a common belief that women were incapable and did not have physical strength to conduct work outside the domestic walls. 

The fame of the underground ladies became even greater when a bomb exploded a couple of yards from Maida Vale station. As the trains stopped, women escorted passengers outside the station to a nearby shelter, with calm and professionalism, without showing signs of panic or hysteria.

The role of women at such a difficult time was fundamental to keep the transport network running. Workers could not have reached factories if they did not have a tube to get on.

The female workforce continued until about 1919 when many servicemen returned to London. Two decades later, following the outbreak of the Second World War, a similar shortage of labour opened up jobs for women again and this time they took on virtually every role, including manual labour and heavy engineering.

In 2015, to mark the centenary of the opening of the station, a number of celebrations were held. These included an exhibition chronicling the history of women in transport, with staff volunteers on hand to speak with customers about the history of the station and the role of women in transport, [3].





Maida Ladies of the Night

By Alice Sinclair

1930s post war liberation was a time where the possibility of employment was starkly unrealistic for many women. The ladies of the underground were returned back above ground to their places in the household.

For many women, the bleak reality of husbands not returning from the war efforts meant they had to be resourceful in order to survive. The houses in Maida Vale and Warwick Avenue were huge, spacious and expensive to run. This birthed the idea of renting out individual rooms.

Gradually the streets of Maida Vale and Little Venice were becoming just the right temperature for the red light scene.

Maida Vale and Warwick Avenue, for all their affluence, were never as popular, or as fashionable, as Hyde Park. It was, however, desirable, for exactly this reason.

It was a place of discretion. Gentlemen could walk down Formosa Street, or Randolph Avenue and, if a lady were to swing her keys casually by her side, it was an invitation to ‘tea’ – Mind you the tea may only last an hour (or even ten minutes).

The issue of prostitution was under scrutiny during this post-war period, yet public opinion was weighted against heavy-handed policing. The ambivalent attitude, however, did not mean that prostitution was acceptable in public. In fact, it remained a topic of opprobrium. The section of public concern focused, however, not on the policing of prostitution but upon police encroachment on the liberty of the subject. Due to this, there was a window for women to continue their work, and gain some independence by earning, and support their war-affected families.

Post-war liberation turned a little darker as it crept towards the 1960s. It was a time where the tentacles of London gangs crept into a multitude of places – including our leafy streets of Maida Vale and Warwick Avenue.

Gangs run by the likes of the Kray Brothers saw opportunity for financial gain. They rented hundreds of properties all across West London and the casual industry of independent women turned murky. It was a business run by men, and became a death sentence for women. The women would be overworked, exposed to disease, beatings and unwanted pregnancies, significantly shortening their lives.

However, things were (arguably) balanced by a London gang called  ‘The Forty Elephants’. This was a gang made up by a few dozen women who, equipped with a flair for entrapment and a sense of social purpose, managed to terrorise London’s rich and metropolitan elite for the best part of a century.

The Forty Elephants were based in Elephant and Castle. There is no evidence in the Archives suggesting that they used houses specifically in our area of W9W2. However, they did hire rooms all over London to lure powerful and high profile men. This enabled them to penetrate powerful social circles whom they bribed heavily. The gang was run by Alice Diamond, she stood at 5 foot 10 and wore diamond knuckle dusters. We rather like her!







TFL plans are a Further threat to already dangerous Pollution levels

Transport for London will soon be closing down London’s iconic Victoria Coach Station and are considering, amongst a number of options, relocating it to Royal Oak. 

Victoria coach station was opened in the 1930s and attracts Millions of Visitors a year. If moved to our area, that is a lot of people, potential for an increase in traffic volume and air pollution in the midst of a residential zone. Together with the reported changes to Heathrow flight Approaches over London this could be significantly alarming for local residents. Especially as there are a number of primary schools so close by; and air pollution levels are already at dangerous levels. 

There is also concern that it will certainly change the character of the area. So, What can we do? And how can we take action at this early stage? Please take the time to make your views known to our elected representatives to encourage them to continue to oppose exploration of this proposal by TFL
To sign the Labour Petition, follow this link:
To sign the Conservative Petition, follow this link:

A public meeting is being held on the 5th of March (tonight) to bring local people up to speed with the campaign. It would be great to see you there!

TONIGHT, Starting at 7.00 pm, Porchester Hall, Porchester Road, Westminster W2 5HS.