Sheila and Alan Smith
Image copyright Family Handout
Image caption Sheila Smith was proud that her husband Alan received an MBE for services to inland waterways

Women who helped to save and restore threatened canal networks are being celebrated by a new project.

It will record the stories of Black Country women who battled to keep derelict inland waterways open more than 40 years ago.

The female boaters “worked so hard, often with no recognition”, said organisers Alarum Productions.

Sheila Smith, 86, whose late husband Alan received an MBE, said the women “did as much as the men, if not more”.

Sheila and Alan, from Stourbridge, spent most of their holidays on the water with their three children in their restored 70ft narrow boat, Laurel.

The canal network was under threat, its commercial use eroded by improved road and rail links post-war, and many routes fell into a state of disrepair.

But bands of enthusiastic volunteers fought for their survival, and in 1965 the Smiths joined the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal society to help campaign against their local network’s closure.

Image copyright Canal & River Trust
Image caption Campaigners from the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society protesting against the closure of the waterway in Dudley, 1960

They boated the 46 miles from Stourport-on-Severn to Stafford frequently to stop the waterway silting up, getting stuck under bridges and hauling filthy rubbish as they went.

Image copyright Family Handout
Image caption Sheila on Laurel with her three children and other family members

Alan, who was later recognised for his services to the inland waterways, would join the men in lobbying local councillors and MPs.

But the women were also grafting hard in the background, organising rallies, carrying out restoration work and entertaining and educating visitors.

“Once we invited around eight councillors to a three-course meal on the boat and took them up the worst bit of the canal in the area,” said Mrs Smith.

“Three other ladies helped as it was a bit difficult to produce a three-course meal on a narrowboat.”

The assembled dignitaries realised the extent of the neglect when the boat tilted after hitting a pile of rubbish, making a grapefruit starter slide off the plate.

After the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal was reclassified as a cruiseway in 1968, the Smiths focused their efforts on other threatened UK waterways.

Image copyright Nick Yarwood
Image caption Women who worked hard to restore the canal network should be “honoured,” say organisers

It would be more than a decade before the couple could sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Mrs Smith now says she feels most proud when she sees boaters enjoying themselves today.

“They wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for us doing all that hard graft so many years ago… we won really, we worked hard and we bore fruit,” she added.

Theatre company Alarum Productions, which has been given £30,000 of National Lottery funding, says it would like to capture other similar memories from women in their 70s and 80s.

“We’re looking forward to honouring those women who worked so hard, often with no recognition at all,” said company director Kate Saffin, who is supported by the Canal and River Trust.

The stories will be shared through writing workshops, podcasts, an exhibition and a book called ‘I Dig Canals’, which is a 70s waterways slogan.

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