Tuesday, 9 December 2014



Explorers Afloat first Ed 1940430

I wonder if any of my readers can help in identifying the location of these early photographs. They come from a collection of views taken I think in the 1880 – 90 period in the Oxfordshire area. They are almost certainly of the Oxford Canal and show three boats in the above picture waiting to enter a lock which I think  is probably Cropredy bottom lock.

Explorers Afloat first Ed 1940431


I think we can be fairly sure that both photographs were taken on the same day as the same lady onlooker appears in the scenes. I rather think that the Cropredy? view was perhaps taken first and as the boats are working uphill that the second view was taken somewhere on the Claydon flight. However the puzzle is – the lockhouse  cottage - as I cannot think of a single story lock cottage anywhere on this canal. The only other building on this flight is the maintenance yard at the top of Claydon whose buildings bear no resemblance to the one shown here.

Of course my placing of the scene in the Cropredy/Claydon area is pure conjecture and  it could be anywhere on the canal. As far as I can remember all the surviving lock cottages on the canal are double story and so the building in the photo could have been demolished. There was for example a cottage at Shipton Weir lock which was demolished within living memory.

The photographer & lady friend may have walked up the towpath from Cropredy following the boats to the next lock Broadmoor – was there a now long vanished single story cottage here???  Please leave a comment or conjecture if you have any ideas as I am totally puzzled.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Small Boat 1948-1987.

Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954424
Roger Pilkington is probably best known as the author of the ‘Small Boat ‘ series of books although as a Congregationalist Christian by conviction and as a geneticist by training he was a prolific author on these subjects too.
In the late 1940’s having purchased his first boat Commodore he spent a couple of years cruising the Thames before in 1950 he managed to battle his way up the moribund Kennet & Avon canal to Newbury after which he visited the Grand Union Canal. These early voyages were published in ‘Thames Waters –1956 ‘ which is the only book in the series without the words ‘Small Boat’ in the title.With a wide beam and seaworthy boat and rapidly running out of new cruising ground he turned to the waterways of the Continent which at that time were treated by visiting yachtsmen as as through routes to the Mediterranean or the Baltic rather than for their own intrinsic interest.
Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954422
The Belgian Small Boat book was published in 1957 and  began a series of books rarely matched in the canal publishing world for their uniformity  and scope and twenty titles were to be published over the next 30 years.
As a member of the Pilkington glass family I don’t suppose that Dr Pilkington was ever exactly strapped for cash but at least in the early days he was working and with a young family was only able to cruise the waterways during the school holidays
Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954426

 If I were travelling any of the waterways he describes today I would certainly like to take or to have read his comments on the waterway concerned. Navigational details, descriptions of scenery and of people met are excellent and informative.  As a folklorist the author was interested in the myths ,legends and history of the places he passed through and there is always rather a lot of this.For me and a personal grouse here – its too much and I could do without it. His style too I find annoying at times being for me a little elitist and tending I find to treat all foreigners with a kind of  amused forbearance  but on the whole when he sticks to journey details and descriptions he is very readable.
Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954421

The series appeared to end in 1971 with the appearance of ‘Small Boat on the Upper Rhine’.  but then in 1987 the author brought out ‘Small Boat Down the Years’  which, as his usual illustrator (David Knight) had by this time died, was illustrated with photographs.
Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954420Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954425
In the late 1980’s Roger Pilkington made one last journey to South West France and described the journey in ‘Small Boat in the Midi’  and here on the Canal Du Midi and now in his early seventies he finally decided to end his cruising days. The boat was tied up and eventually sold and he and his wife bought a house and vineyard in the area – this last period of his life is recorded in ‘One Foot in France’  -1992. Roger Pilkington died in 2003
The complete series of 20 Small Boat books is – Thames Waters –1956, Small Boat (In,on or through)—Belgium 1957, Holland- 1958, Skagerrak-1960, Alsace –1961, Sweden-1961, Bavaria-1962, Germany-1963,  France-1965, Southern France-1965, Thames-1966, Meuse-1966, Luxembourg-1967, Moselle-1968, Northern Germany-1969, Elsinore-1969, Lower Rhine-1970, Upper Rhine-1971, Down the Years-1987, Midi 1989.
All these are easily found quite reasonably and in first editions with dust jackets if that’s your thing!!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014


Original Eric de Mare photos 1948 & BTC photos c1954413

Sonia Rolt one of the last surviving members of the group of wartime young women recruits to the Grand Union Canal Carrying Co’s fleet has passed on at the ripe old age of 95.

She will be remembered not only as the wife of Tom Rolt the author of the landmark book ‘Narrow Boat’ but as a pioneering campaigner for working boaters conditions and for the English canal system in her own right.

As the author of ‘A Canal People’ published in 1997 she has left us with what are generally agreed to be some of the best photographs ever taken of the working boat community. From her time on the boats just after  the war she remembered Robert Longden’s quiet  presence on the canal side always with his Leica camera in hand. The boat people became familiar with his appearances on the cut side in the late 1940’s & early 1950’s and the results were some delightfully informal pictures of a normally shy and unassuming community.

Twenty Five years later Sonia Rolt went in search of Longden who had by that time died and discovered that his camera and photographs had been destroyed on his death. Fortunately however a box in a garden shed was discovered containing glass plate negatives. From these Sonia published the book ;A Canal People’' If you have not read it then beg ,borrow or buy a copy – you wont be sorry.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Eric de Mare at auction.

Architectural Review. Canals Issue.Eric De Mare 1949

Front cover of the Special Canals number of  ‘The Architectural Review’  1949.


Eric de Mare was one of a small group of artists, designers & photographers who after the 2nd World war started to record the architecture,  indigenous art, and the way of life on the English canal system.

In 1948 having purchased an ex army pontoon he set out on a 600 mile journey through the waterways of the midlands and the South East. The resulting photographs were published in a special issue of the ‘Architectural Review in 1949 to be followed a year later in book form as ‘The Canals of England’.

Original Eric de Mare photo 1948.397

De Mare’s pontoon on the Welsh Canal.

It is generally agreed that De Mare’s black & white photographs were some of the finest ever taken, showing in particular an appreciation of the form,  pattern & design to be found in the architecture and functional engineering artefacts of a canal. Viewed 60 years later they are a nostalgic and beautiful record of a way of life now sadly long gone but still just existing in 1948. Original Eric de Mare photo 1948.396


So it was with great interest that five of his original photographs taken on his 1948 journey came up for auction earlier this summer. The photos all have the authentic studio stamp on the reverse together with hand written remarks and notes regarding reproduction and sizes for use in his forthcoming book.

Original Eric de Mare photo 1948 394

T & S Element boat at Bratch on The Staff’s & Worcs canal with coal for Stourport Electric station.

Original Eric de Mare photo 1948 .395

Shrewley tunnel.

Of the greatest interest - the collection includes one photograph that does not appear to have been used in the book. A superb study of a pair of Joshers descending Hatton.

Original Eric de Mare photo 1948 &

Incidentally ‘The Canals of England’    has been through many editions over the years and is still in print today I think and well worth a look if you have never seen it.

Canals of England

First Edition 1950.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

R A James & The Ulster Canal… ‘If Only….’

idle wom391


Well we all like a good photograph of Narrow Boats and preferably a detailed study of loaded working boats taken in ‘the good old days’. The photo above I think fits the bill admirably and shows Fellow's Morton Boats tied up at Brentford. Obviously posed for the camera the study was used to illustrate a ‘Graphic’ magazine article on ‘Our Neglected Waterways’ published at the time of the Royal Commission’s report on our Canal transport system.

So having wetted your appetites and suitably wallowed in nostalgia  I have to disappoint you and say that the only thing that this photograph has in common with the rest of this blog’s contents is its date of publication – 1910. There is always the distinct possibility of course that you are fed up with the endless lines of moored boats,of queuing for locks and the sometimes theme park atmosphere that characterises our waterways today and you may long for a quieter time and a less frenetic age.  If so read on… this blog could be for you.

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‘An Englishman in Ireland’  by  R A Scot James. First Ed. 1910.

Totally forgotten today Scott James was at the turn of the Twentieth century a very well known journalist, author and literary critic. In the 1930’s he took over the editorship of the influential literary magazine ‘The London Mercury’ from J C Squire who is today similarly forgotten but who’s name I mention only for the fact that he was the author of another early British canal cruising classic ‘Water Music’  published in 1939 – a book of reminiscences of a journey up the Oxford Canal & others. His companion on this journey was the indefatigable canal cruiser William Bliss whose own book ;The Heart of England by Waterway’  was published in 1933.

I mention these names from the past as they all had one thing in common  in that they all accomplished their voyages by canoe. Their voyages followed in a long tradition, starting in Victorian times , of middle class , university educated Victorian & Edwardian gentlemen’s explorations of this countries waterway system resulting in published accounts.

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R A Scott James was different from the rest in that he chose to voyage over Irish waterways. Ireland has few accounts of canal voyages – the most notable earlier accounts are I suppose L T C Rolt's ‘ Green & Silver’  P’bd in 1949 and Hugh Malet’s ‘Voyage in a Bowler Hat’ p’bd in 1960. Apart from these one has to go back to the early 1830’s when accounts of voyages on Irish packet boats survive.

So Scott James voyage is as far as I know unique both in its timing and certainly in its choice of waterways.

The author chose to travel across Ireland from east to west via the Lagan navigation, Lough Neagh, the Ulster canal and Lough Allen to the Shannon & Limerick. This interconnected route was at the time of the authors trip the third cross country route after the Grand & Royal canal route’s. Setting out from Belfast the author & companion canoed up the Lagan canal which was at that time commercially very busy and he records interesting conversations with the working boat population. For contemporary readers probably one of the most interesting bits of the book is his account of the voyage through the Ulster canal with its 26 locks which at that time was virtually defunct (he passed only 1 boat in 3 days) and the canal was finally abandoned in 1926.

idle wom388


On entering the Ulster Canal they immediately found it to be narrow & weedy and eventually after a few days impassable . The next stage was accomplished by loading the boat onto a carriers cart for transport to a railway station. Again for contemporary readers the next stage provides fascinating reading as the boat was loaded onto the last of Eire’s (by this time) narrow gauge railways for onward transport to Lough Neagh, the Shannon & eventually Limerick.

idle wom390

‘BUT IF ONLY’…..                                                                                                                Long cherished in my collection., Scott James’s book stands out as a very readable account of a voyage that could not be made today.and unlike so many Victorian/Edwardian canal books does not  suffer from flowery verbose digressions from the subject. It voyages over long defunct waterways and joy of joys even includes travel on a long abandoned narrow gauge railway. Most canal enthusiasts seem to include these in their oeuvre so what more could you want? But if only the author had taken more pictures of the canals, structures, boats & people what a book it would have been. It was of course the convention at that time for publishers to insist on more general landscape & literary illustrations rather than the more prosaic (but to latter day eyes infinitely more interesting workaday photos).

Note…. Both the Lagan and Ulster Canal’s are today subject to joint cross border restoration  projects and part of the Cavan & Leitrim light Railway has been reopened.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The First Boat Rally (Market Harborough 1950) & ‘Adventure by Canal’ by George Tansey–1950.

idle wom370

I had known about George Tansey’s book for many years but had never actually seen a copy until recently. Its rarity can I think be explained by its ephemeral nature, it being a thin copy printed on poor quality austerity paper & with easily damaged paper covers.

Privately printed from articles previously printed in the ‘Daily Dispatch’  it describes a journey on the first hire boat to be converted from an ex working Narrow Boat after the war at one of the first hire companys bases at Stone in Staffs. The boat was the’Angela’ and was named after Tom Rolt’s wife who in fact wrote the introduction to the book. Rendel Wyatt the boatyard owner had started his hire fleet in 1948 which  was I think the first ever hire fleet on an English Canal. Wyatt an early member of the newly formed Inland Waterways Association became friendly with Tom Rolt one of the founders and indeed it was to his yard that Tom Rolt took ‘Cressy’ on its last voyage. It was a bad time for Rolt as he had fallen out with the organization that he had helped to form – the IWA, in addition his marriage was breaking up and on top of that his beloved boat on which he had lived for 10 years was rotting away beneath him. So it was a sombre and disillusioned man who steered Cressy to Stone in 1951 where she was to be broken up.

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Photo illustration from ‘Adventure by Canal’

The book has 26 pages and is illustrated with fascinating shots of the voyage around the Trent & Mersey & Shropshire Union Canals with photos of working boats encountered etc.

The fascinating thing about the copy that I bought was that it seems to have been acquired at the First National Rally of Boats organized by the IWA in 1950. The book has an owners signature which was signed at the rally and presumably bought there.

Tom Rolt had been disagreeing over the aims of the organization with Robert Aickman the other co founder of the IWA for some time and things had come to a head in 1950 with the organization of this first national rally. Aickman an aesthete wanted the rally to be ‘A festival of Arts & Boats’ and to this end was organizing the presentation of a couple of plays to be performed. Rolt strongly disagreed with this and relations between the two men disintegrated to the extent that Rolt was requested not to attend with his boat.

On opening the book which I hadn’t known was signed at the Rally I was surprised to find a couple of enclosures!!

idle wom372

Handbill for plays produced at the 1950 Rally of Boats.

An amazing survival and an advertisement for the plays that had caused all the trouble!! The cartouche heading the playbill is by Barbara Jones of ‘Roses & Castles in the Architectural Review & The Unsophisticated Arts’ fame. I think I would have recognized her work but a pencilled note on the back of the bill confirms this.

But this was not all.

idle wom371

A set of unused stamps issued for the rally.

A set of 4 stamps complete with perforations and gummed back but unused and with a decorative border were obviously issued at the Rally. But what for??  I have no idea. I have never seen or heard of this item before so if anyone knows anything at all about it PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT.

They are by the way obviously not postage stamps intended for Royal Mail use

So there we have it –A Rare little book with some interesting & historical enclosures which in themselves must be quite rare and which have done well to have survived this long in such perfect condition.

If you look for and find a copy of George Tansy’s rare publication snap it up as you may not see it again and I hope you may have the same luck with ‘Ephemeral enclosures’.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Emma Smith’s Autobiography.

Maidens Trip 1st Ed

Maidens Trip Ist PB cover

Top – First hardback edition 1948. Bottom- First paperback edition 1950.

Emma Smith’s account of life as a wartime trainee on the narrow boats of the  Grand Union Canal Co’s fleet wiil be known to most canal lovers. Happily she is still with us and has recently published the second volume of her autobiography.

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As Green as Grass covers the period from the late 1930’s through to her war years on the boats and afterwards.

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Vol 1 ‘The Great Western Beach’  was published in 2008 and covers her childhood in Cornwall.

Both books are as might be expected from an accomplished author – fascinating reads. Highly recommended .