Tuesday 25 May 2010

Saviour of the canals?

This is not intended to be a diatribe against the book "Narrow Boat" authored by Tom Rolt. I actually view the book as a good first hand history, albeit written in a slightly confusing style. Rolt, by nature did not like the changes he saw taking place around him either on the land or on the canals, but he recognised the need for arts as well as sciences. 

Rolt observed (In his biography of I.K.Brunel) the changes in society due to the industrial-scientific revolution. "Men spoke in one breath of the arts and sciences and to the man of intelligence and culture it seemed essential that he should keep himself abreast of developments in both spheres. So long as the artist or the man of culture had been able to advance shoulder to shoulder with engineer and scientist and with them see the picture whole, he could share their sense of mastery and confidence and believe wholeheartedly in material progress. But so soon as science and the arts became divorced, so soon as they ceased to speak a common language, confidence vanished and doubts and fears came crowding in."
Rolt loved and had a natural engineers empathy for the basic skills learned as journeymen by the old craftsmen. As an engineer he recognised that the more efficient railway had dealt a serious blow to the canal carrying business. However, he was also well aware that the road transport would be the final killer blow. 

Rolt, romanticised the lives of a small section of people working on the canal. In the main the boatmen and their families, as well as the boat yards and the craftsmen boat builders. The reality is that life on the canals was not a noble existence, neither was it a virtue to be making a poorly paid living with long hours of work and terrible conditions.

However, he was not to know that the canals would later go through a protracted and slow renaissance to become a leisure amenity.

For me its the emphasis by the canal press who are actually guilty of overstating the "effect on the canals" of a single documented voyage aboard his Narrow-boat Cressy. Rolt is now being elevated by all the current "puff pieces" as Rolt the saviour of the canals. This therefore begs the question, in this the 100th year since the birth of Rolt and the almost "deity" standing being posthumously bestowed. Should we refer to the time when the canals were full of working boats as BR "Before Rolt"?

Tony Hales, chairman of British Waterways, said: "Having been the saviour of the waterways in the last century, the volunteer movement that Rolt inspired is set to be a key element for the running and operation of the canals in the years ahead as we progress plans to establish a 'national trust' for the waterways."

Clive Henderson, national chairman of the IWA, said: "Rolt’s words and actions, in co-founding the IWA, ensured the network was fought for during the middle of the last century, when there was a very real chance that the canals would be filled in and this important part of our heritage lost. He is the saviour of the inland waterway network as we know it today."

Surprisingly, in the "puff pieces" there is no mention of the role played by Robert Aickman as IWA co-founder. After all, without the financial support of Aickman the IWA would not have survived.

Rolt is often wrongly portrayed as being the first to do a pleasure and fact finding cruise along the canals. Other books have been written about the same subject matter. Some of them long before Rolt put pen to paper or hand to tiller.

The book "The Flower of Gloster" by E. Temple Thurston is a typical example of the genre.

Alternatively, the book "The Thames to the Solent by Canal and Sea" by J. B. Dashwood.

There is one quote in the preface which I find quite amusing in these times of political correctness. "This chapter is written solely for nautical readers, it is hoped the unsophisticated will not find fault with the nautical terms." 

Did anyone actually "save" the canals? Or did the canals just go through an accidental hiatus until the leisure cruising businesses came along to replace the old carrying companies. I am of the mind that the canals fell into a gradual decay as opposed to wholesale abandonment because it was a cheaper option than back-filling to recover the land.

Remember that a significant amount of natural land drainage such as streams had been diverted into the canal system to help maintain water levels. It was much cheaper and easier to leave the canals to continue as a drainage system rather than replace with something new.

The forming of the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) in which Rolt was a founding member went some way to publicising the lack of maintenance and the general decline of the canal system. However, Rolt was ultimately expelled from the IWA. I have a sneaky suspicion that this has given even more credo to "Rolt the saviour" than anything else.

We all have a debt of gratitude that we owe to Rolt. His book Narrow Boat struck a chord with people in the early days of post war Britain. But his elevation and beatification as a saviour is just taking matters a little bit too far.


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