Maiden’s Trip by Emma Smith

published 1948

Mrs. Hutchins, who was made our friend by the patronage of her son, leaned her tall bony figure out from the butty as it swept by. She was handsome in the old style, with ear-rings, and a waist you could span with your hands strapped in by a man's wide leather belt, and with a full black-stuff skirt down to her ankles. Her bare arms were as strong as her husband's; her head was padded with an intricate number of plaits. Beside her in the hatches were two of Amos's sisters, beautiful little girls, wild-haired, with black fierce eyes slanting up towards their ears and the lips of angels.

….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 and young – being considered unseemly.

[But Emma Smith herself] if working would most probably be barefoot and wearing dungarees – not a skirt and sandals.

commentary: The problem here is that I just want to run the photographs from the Imperial War Museum, and quotes from the book. What else is there, really, except to say how I came to read it.

My mate Lissa Evans posted online a list of books with great female protagonists – appropriately enough as that is what she writes herself – the sublime Old Baggage is the latest. She said this about her list:
The novels I’ve chosen all evoke aspects of that feeling: they all feature women (and in one case a small girl) from other eras who don’t do what they’re supposed to do—women who have decided to grab the tiller and steer the course of their own lives. Every one of them makes me want to stand up and cheer.
I had already read all the books but one – and strongly recommend the list to anyone looking for a good read and a good heroine – so naturally had to fill the gap with the last one: Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith.

This is how Wikipedia describes the book:
In 1943 Emma Smith [aged 19 or 20]) joined the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company under their wartime scheme of employing women to replace men who had gone off to fight. Freed from a middle-class background, Emma and her new workmates joined the boating fraternity and learned how to handle a pair of 72ft long canal boats, carrying cargoes of steel and coal north from London to Birmingham and Coventry.
The book is an interesting hybrid, a kind of enhanced non-fiction. She clearly explains that it is not a verbatim record of what happened. What she seems to have done is taken all her experiences over several years, and described them as if they all happened on one long voyage. She has also invented ‘portmanteau’ companions, Nanette and Charity, who I guess represent a number of different people, and she usually refers to herself in the third person.

The story is full of anomalies – the three young women start the voyage with very little idea how to operate the boat, but by halfway through are plainly very experienced.

This shouldn’t work at all, right? It should be a disaster as a way of writing, but it actually does work, like magic. Smith completely mesmerizes the reader, you just want to keep on going, sliding along like a canal boat on a beautiful day. She was obviously a natural born writer, and structure came to her automatically.

The dialogue is wonderful, very funny and very realistic in an artless way that is rare.
'I never understand how ladies manage,' he said.
'Ladies. . . .?' cried Nanette.
'Wot, ain't you ever seen a tattooed lady?'
'No, never.' 
Nanette folded her arms on the tiller and leaned her chin above them. 'I wouldn't mind marrying a pilot,' she said. 'It must be much easier to go on loving a man who's always in danger.' 
'If I had an aeroplane of my own,' said Charity, not bothering to listen to Nanette, 'I should never take anyone else up with me. I should just go up alone, every day, for hours and hours, and fly about in the sky on my own with no one to interfere. I say, I'm glad I scrubbed those hatches; how clean and white they look, like new wood.'
The whole story is dreamlike: they are living a hidden life, like a weird fairytale, sailing through the country, right in the middle of everything, but largely unseen.
How wonderful, thought Emma, that we can pass, anything, everything, all the time. And for a moment exuberance came into her mouth like a taste, and her tiredness lightened. Everything, she thought, we leave behind; nothing can grab hold of us; wretchedness may degrade and hold prisoner others, but not us – we spin by like a humming top and are free.
And yet they are aware of what they are doing:
Nor did we at any time forget that while we rose and went to bed at whatever hour suited us, struggled and sweated with wet ropes and dirty cargo, ate what we pleased, wore what we fancied, and generally did as we liked, most girls of our age were in uniform and their lives severely ordered. Independence in fact, then out of bounds to so many, was the touchstone of our joy. We exaggerated its outward appearance, travelling on trains like utter ragamuffins, and remaining needlessly dirty when abroad in London or on leave. For we considered we were lucky, and that our sisters and most of our friends, compared to us, led lives of unqualified misery. Rather naturally, our sisters thought the same of us.

This is a marvellous book, I whole-heartedly recommend it: I am sure I will read it again.

This link will take you to several pages of pictures of canalboats in wartime, and the people who operated them: I was completely spoilt for choice, do go and take a look at the ones I haven’t room for. All pictures, and the link, from the Imperial War Museum collection.

Miss March pushes her narrowboat the 'HEATHER BELL' off from the canal bank during a journey carrying flour from Worcester to Tipton during 1942. © IWM (D 7646)

Mrs Skinner in her cabin: “boatwomen not only act as mates to their husbands [helping to run the boat], but also do the housework and cooking". © IWM (D 21798)

Mother and daughter drinking tea on the canal. © IWM (D 21788)

Making tea. © IWM (D 7634)

Swinging the boat round © IWM (D 7642)


  1. What an interesting approach to telling a story, Moira! It sounds as though the story is all the more authentic for being taken from real experiences like that. And the characters sound interesting, too. I do give authors credit when they find innovative approaches to drawing the reader in...

    1. Yes indeed Margot - and it show that you should always give people a chance, as I would have been quite suspicious of that approach before I read the book!

  2. I'm so thrilled (though not surprised) that you loved it so much - and especially pleased that you quoted the passage that ended '... most girls of our age were in uniform and their lives severely ordered.' The life on the canal that the author describes is physically extraordinarily tough, and yet all through the book is this thread of utter freedom. Incidentally, I can't think of another book which is written in both the third person and the first person plural - it's odd, but it works...

    1. Yes, such a strange and brave way to write it - yet it totally worked. And the atmosphere, as you say, is so strange and different, and totally convincing. It is a miracle of description.

  3. Oh, Moira, I love this book and reviewed it myself on my blog a few years ago. And now I will have to have a look at Lisa's list.

    1. I just went and read your review! It is obviously a book that everyone knew about except me. However, no recriminations, I am just glad I finally found it, and I'm sure will re-read it in the future.

  4. ps You see that large pole that the young woman is holding in the first photograph? During a canal boat holiday a few years back, I managed to snap one of those in half by getting it caught between the boat and a tree; the owner said (in slightly awed tones) that no-one had ever done this before,

    1. Impressed. Did you go on a canal boat holiday just because of this book...?

  5. Great photos. Every weekend we have a bit of a hike - 3.5 miles along the Grand Union in our town to a pub in the next village along. A cup of coffee then a hike back. I'm currently fascinated by some of the feats of engineering that were brought into play during the construction of the network.

    There does seem to be a certain sort of fashion vibe that "canal folk" seem to adopt. Hmm, not sure I would want to replicate it!

    1. That sounds great! Canals just are fascinating I think - I recently heard a talk from someone who was helping with some volunteer restoration work on canals, and I could have listened to her all day.

  6. Well, another book I will have to buy. This sounds interesting in so many ways, the time period and the environment.

    1. You will love the setting Tracy, and honestly it is a great book! I keep thinking about it since I read it, which is always such a good sign.


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