Interview 18 - Jenny Glyn

Jenny Glyn, retired former boater

Interviewer: Maria Parsons
Editor: David Charles
Total recording time: 47 min : 7 sec


  • Jenny was interviewed at her home in Bodicote
Access available in Oxfordshire History Centre and Libraries only

Click on track number below to play

Track Content summary Length
18.1 Jenny describes herself as ‘a bit of living history’. She was born on The Captain Cook at Tussy’s Bridge. Her parents were Ada and Dick Littlemore who ran their boat for S.E. Barlow of Tamworth carrying coal from the Warwickshire coalfields to Banbury and Oxford.

Jenny’s mother was born in 1903 and her father in 1909 and they both came from a long line of working boaters. As soon as she was able to Jenny began to help the family – this meant running ahead to raise drawbridges and even standing on a stool in the hatch and steering the boat.
4 min : 39 sec
18.2 Some of her first memories are of her mother doing the washing. She heated up canal water in a galvanised bath tub which set on bricks on the towpath and started a fire within the bricks. The washing was dollied to get it clean. Water and soap were placed in a dolly tub where a wooden dolly was used to bash out the dirt from the washing which was then rinsed, run through a mangle and then strung along a line tied between masts. The washing as always snowy white and despite carrying coal the family were clean. 2 min : 26 sec
18.3 Her mother managed to get into school between boat stops sufficiently often to gain some literacy. In other words she was ‘scholared’. Her mother would read the newspaper to other boaters to keep them in touch with the ‘outside world’. 2 min : 41 sec
18.4 Life was hard but the boaters were proud, strong and disciplined. Children had no toys and they made up games. Her mother cooked in a tiny kitchen – mainly one pot meals and occasionally pies. 1 min : 34 sec
18.5 Jenny describes the time when the family nearly perished during the war but for her father’s decision not to moor in Banbury but to press on to Twyford. That night the town and the canal were bombed. Working boats were very important for the war effort. 3 min : 22 sec
18.6 Describes Sonia Rolt and the Idle Women – middle class women who chose to help the war effort by joining working boat crews. Most did not stay despite having better pay and conditions than regular working boaters. Sonia became something of a celebrity as one of the few who Idle Women who managed to endure the hardships. 3 min : 56 sec
18.7 In 1993, Jenny and her mother helped Sheila Stewart research the lives of boating women for her seminal book Ramlin Rose. Although the main character was a composite Sheila became a friend of the family and drew on aspects of Ada’s life for the character. A short essay written by Jenny appears at the back of the book. 2 min : 30 sec
18.8 Although working boaters generally earned the admiration of local communities, sometimes encountered prejudice. Jenny’s grandmother was not illiterate either. Men felt their womenfolk did not need to read and write. 3 min : 51 sec
18.9 Local education authorities began to compel boating families to send children to school. When she was 9 years old, Jenny was sent to a hostel for boat children In Erdington, Birmingham so she could attend school. She was very homesick as it was a completely different way of life. The family left the boats in the mid-1950s so Jenny completed her education at a school in Banbury. 2 min : 6 sec
18.10 Although her brother when old enough started to run a pair of boats with another young man, the trade was coming to an end and in 1955 her father made the daunting decision to leave the canal trade. 5 min : 15 sec
18.11 The canal trade continued to decline, Railways and roads were in ascendency, a series of terrible winters meant the canals were iced up. The Oxford Canal was threatened with closure but a campaign spearheaded by the Inland Waterways Association proved successful.

Canals were championed by people like Tom Rolt who wrote the story of his journey on the canals in the Midlands on Cressy having begun his journey at Tooley’s Boatyard, Banbury. At the back of Sheila Stewart’s book, Ramlin Rose, a short essay written by Jenny appears, entitled ‘Partners’, and based on her parents’ working life.
4 min : 44 sec
18.12 Jenny left school when she was 14 and worked making wigs, carrying on when she had children, as it was work she could do at home. 2 min : 58 sec
18.13 Boatmen could not swim. Many drownings. Jenny remembers her mother having a rail fitted on the boat near the hatch and then putting reins on the children and fastening them to the rails in a way which allowed them to walk a little. The rail was fitted at Tooley’s boatyard. 2 min : 37 sec
18.14 Remembers Joe Skinner as he was a good friend of her father’s. Joe used to loose off his mule called Dolly and Jenny remembers walking along the towpath with her and with Joe whilst her father pulled Joe’s boat. Boating families had a confusing way of restricting the names they called their children – lots of Roses and Joes or Jacks. 1 min : 38 sec
18.15 Jenny was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour alongside the Chief Executive of British Waterways about her life on the canal and had to honestly admit that she would not return if offered the opportunity.

She ends with summing up boaters’ lives as hard. The reward for a 14-16 hour day was pitiful but boaters were their own boss.
2 min : 45 sec