Sonia Rolt OBE – 1919-2014


Sonia Rolt on the narrowboat Nutfield in the opening parade of boats at the 2006 Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally

Sonia Rolt – known to many on the canals simply and affectionately as ‘Sonia’ – died peacefully in hospital on 22 October, after a short illness at the age of 95. Her death has meant the passing of the last of the Idle Women who was still actively involved with the canals. In her 96th year, Sonia attended the Hay Literary Festival in May, where the 70th anniversary of her late husband Tom Rolt’s great work, Narrow Boat was celebrated in style. The Chairman of the CRT Tony Hales was amongst the many in attendance. Hales then made a videoed interview, which is a fitting testament to her. Then as late as August, Sonia gave an interview to Canal Boat magazine for its back page ‘Twenty Questions’ which appeared in its November issue. For those who knew her, her energy and passion for life never ceased to amaze, and remained with her almost to her end.

Her first husband, the boatman George Smith, with whom she was married from 1945 until 1951 also died recently, in 2012, aged 97. His death ironically also removed another link to the canal past. Born in 1915, he was then probably the last boatman with active memories of post-WWI horse-boating with his father on the BCN, and the General Strike of 1926. He was also one of the few boatmen who still had memories of working the boats as an adult in WWII. Like Sonia, his mind remained clear, almost to his end, and even in his 96th year he attended the opening of the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally, insisting on joining the opening parade on President and then telling the captain how to steer the boat!

Sonia is principally remembered for her two years or so working as an Idle Woman – the female middle class volunteers who worked as boatmen during WWII. In her case it was with two fellow acting friends – with whom she lived in a flat in Knightsbridge and all of them then working in the converted Hoover factory making parts for aircraft. They saw an advertisement for female volunteers to work as canal boat-women, and saw it as a means of escape. As they had passed the brief training period, which the boatmen had taken a lifetime to learn, they were put in charge of a pair of GUCCC boats, the Moon and the Phobos – which were to become at once their home and workplace for the next two years. Sonia commented, ‘I found the work exhausting but liberating. Perhaps because I was an orphan with a nomadic upbringing, I thought the boatmen had something I hungered after. I soon made friends with the boaters and the people along the bank.’

One of the reasons Sonia & Co did survive was the great help and kindness they received from the working boatmen, and in particular George Smith and his brothers. In her hand-written message read for her at George’s funeral, she said, ‘He always welcomed the new and gained enjoyment and amusement from it. The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness.’

However Sonia was reticent in speaking more than generally about those days, and never specifically about how she met and later married George Smith on 1st September, 1945, and for six years became a full time boatwoman, nor about how things fell apart. Despite her considerable literary skills, she never wrote about those days.

Sonia is also remembered for involvement with and later her marriage to the author Tom Rolt. Just when they met is questionable. Tom had co-founded the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) and was keen amongst other things to help save canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen – something Sonia was already committed to, having campaigned for this in the 1945 July ‘khaki’ General Election.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

Sonia in about June 1945 drawing political slogans on the cabin of her GUCCC motor Phobos. It was her political activism that attracted her to the newly founded IWA as being able to give articulate representation for saving canal carrying and improving the lot of the working boatmen. It was through her time on the IWA committee that her relationship developed with the canal author and co-IWA founder Tom Rolt.

He invited her to join the IWA committee which met in the winter months at co-founder Robert Aickman’s flat in Gower Street, London, where a deep friendship developed, a world away from her life on the canals with the working boatmen.

In 1951 Sonia left George and the canals for her new life with Tom. Their combined energy was extraordinary, and the first major project was saving the Talyllyn Railway, when they lived in a caravan for the first re-opened season, with Tom driving the trains and Sonia manning the ticket office. And there were many other incredible achievements. Though Tom had almost left the English canals, and there is only one record of a later visit which was to the Pontycysyllte Aqueduct, he did continue to write extensively about them, including his Landscape with Canals, published in 1977, which covered his canals years up to 1951, but in which Sonia surprisingly did not receive a single mention. He also wrote books on several other subjects, writing 41 books in all. He lived almost solely off his writings, in which he had the full and attentive support of Sonia.

Tom died in 1974, after he and Sonia had been together for a mere 23 years, and she was only 53. She dedicated her remaining forty years of life working for the causes they had been involved in together.

A change was to happen to Sonia’s life in 1993, when David Stevenson, who was Chairman on the IWA from 1989 to 1994 (the president of IWI from 1997 to 2000) persuaded the Council of the IWA to reinstate as honorary members a number of former members who had been thrown out by the at times Putinesque co-founder Robert Aickman. One was Sonia, and she responded with conciliatory glee, and she was soon made a Vice-President, and was very much in demand.

Sonia was to reward his foresight and friendship when in the Spring of 2011, she invited him to join her and her two sons when she went to Windsor Castle to receive her OBE from the Queen – ‘for services to industrial archaeology and heritage’. Sonia was by then too frail to walk any distance, and attended the investiture in a wheelchair. She afterwards quipped about her condition: ‘I blame it on my seven years on the boats. I was never brought up to do that.’

In December 2012, she also asked David Stevenson to represent her at George’s funeral, and read a neatly hand-written message from her: ‘I am sad to think George Smith has gone […] He was an amazing man, handsome, strong and well set up […] The trainee boat women of the time could vouch for his kindness and helpfulness. I am sure these traits sustained him and persisted throughout his very long life. It will make him long remembered and spoken of. God Bless him!’

Sonia made many friends on the canals, not only in Europe, but also North America and Australia. Amongst her tributes was one from her good friend Tom Grasso, President of the Canal Society of New York State: ‘She was the First Lady of the English canals’.

© Tim Coghlan 3/11/2014
(obituary originally written for the Historic Narrowboat Owners Club)

Tribute to canal man Glenn Millar

Glenn Millar

Glenn Millar, economic development manager at the Canal and River Trust

Inland Waterways International as a body and its members as individuals were saddened to hear that Glenn Millar, friend and supporter of inland waterways, passed away in September 2013 after a long illness. Glenn was the economic development manager at the Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways), and enthusiastic leader of European cooperation projects on inland waterways. He kept working until 2012 and the successful conclusion of two recent EU-funded waterway projects ‘Waterways Forward’ (Interreg IVC) and ‘Waterways for Growth’ (Interreg IVB, in the North Sea Region).

Glenn, from Northern Ireland, was an ambassador for the waterways and was made Canelero de Honor by Spain in 2006, the same year he was chosen to present a model narrow boat to Mary McAleese, President of Ireland. His networks were prodigious and relationships lasted long beyond the project or committee where they were originally formed. People valued Glenn’s insight but also valued his company and friendship

The portrait reproduced here, by courtesy of the website, was named ‘Europe Comes Together’; that is a fitting tribute to Glenn’s vision and achievements.

A tribute has also been printed in the new (4th) edition of the European Waterways Map and Directory, published by Euromapping, which is dedicated to his memory.

Unscrambling Pierre Paul Riquet


Banner outside the Canal du Midi Museum at Saint-Ferréol, to be visited during the 2013 World Canals Conference in Toulouse

The Google Streetview automatic scrambler of peoples’ faces has indiscriminately defaced the creator of the Canal du Midi on a banner outside the canal museum at Saint-Ferréol. This delightful quirk of automation of image processing suggests a new form of request to be made to our omnipotent and omniscient provider of images of the planet: ‘Dear G, Please unscramble the image of Pierre Paul Riquet. He died in 1680, so you’re safe from any legal action!’


‘Regatta’ promotes Serb canals

Radomir  Ječinac  reports from Belgrade, Serbia, on the ‘regatta’ (flotilla cruise) organised on the canals and waterways of Serbia in June/July 2012.

Remember IWI’s annual World Canals Conference held in Serbia, in the beautiful city of Novi Sad on the Danube, in 2009? The host, Vode Vojvodine (Vojvodina waters) is an all-important institution in our country, which was founded to manage the network of artificial canals in this relatively flat province in northern Serbia. When the Irish boat Aquarelle entered Serbia in July of that year (encouraged by WCC co-host Danube Propeller), and Mike and Rosaleen Miller asked for permission to cruise through the Vojvodina canals, this was en eye-opener for Vode Vojvodine, who were encouraged to give official status to what was previously an informal gathering of domestic boaters each year.

VV Regatta Route 2012

Itinerary for the 11-day cruise, including some of the lesser-used canals

The event has since gone from strength to strength, and I joined this year’s regatta, with a full programme to delight Serb boaters for 11 days (see map, left), from June 24 to July 4. This was the 4th to be organized by VV: 10 stages in 11 days over 300km of canals between Novi Sad and Bezdan. Ah, Bezdan! We heave a sigh at every mention of the name, because the entrance lock here from the Danube is still closed. We still had our moneys’ worth, though, since these 300 km represent half of the Vojvoodina network.

Warned that the number of boats had to be limited, the skippers of some 90 motor cruisers and dayboats of all possible types and sizes, 250 people in all, sent their booking forms as soon as the event was announced! Mothers and fathers of families, to say nothing of the Dog‘, as Jerome K. Jerome remarked. There were couples with children who had barely started walking.

Regatta enters the main canal at Novi Sad

Nearly 90 boats enter the main canal at Novi Sad, approaching the first lock on the cruise

Nearly half the  boats came from afar, boat harbours on the Danube or Tisa, for example: from Belgrade, Zemun, Pancevo, Smederevo, Novi Bečej on the Tisa, not afraid of all the extra kilometres and the strong current of the Danube to reach the starting point at Novi Sad. One sizeable boat came from Vukovar, Croatia, thus giving the event its international character.

The regatta’s Commodore was Mirjana Živković, hydrotechnical engineer at VV, petite, a bundle of energy with bright black eyes, tireless and ubiquitous, participating in the regatta herself with her boat and family, ‘to say nothing of the dog’ in this case also! She had to deal with a complex organization: locks, free passage for participating vessels, technical and first aid teams, municipal receptions for participants, refreshments and local cuisine, al fresco meals along the canals, folklore programs, minimum supplies by itinerant merchants, etc.). For us Serbs, with a litre of diesel costing €1.50, and average monthly wages between 300 and 400 euros, the benefits of organised navigation are obvious.

On pages 35 and 36 of the European Waterways Map and Directory (2008 edition) we read of the attraction of this annual regatta for Serbian boaters. IWI can therefore congratulate itself for having contributed in a way to what is now the biggest navigation event in Serbia.

Backi Monostor floating bridge

Backi Monostor floating bridge on one of the little-used canals on the VV system

VV Regatta mooring

The author beside his boat at a quiet mooring in Bezdan

Erie Canal Lodge named after Tom Grasso

IWI President Dave Ballinger reports:

I had the distinct pleasure to attend a commemoration ceremony in Rochester, N.Y. on Friday, June 22, 2012, where a new park building was named after our former president (and current vice-president) Tom Grasso.

In her speech Maggie Brooks, Monroe County Executive, hailed Tom Grasso as a ‘statewide leader in the preservation of the Erie Canal and […] strong advocate for revitalization efforts of the canal throughout our community. It is fitting that our County Park System’s newest lodge, which was inspired by structures found along the Erie Canal, will bear his name and honor his legacy’.

Cutting ribbon

Cutting the ribbon at the Erie Canal Lodge, Tom Grasso is accompanied by family and friends. County Executive Maggie Brooks is holding the ribbon (right)

There were many colleagues, family members and friends at the event under a sunny sky to see Tom and his grandchildren cut the ribbon. The lodge, for those not familiar with this type of building, is a multi-use building for rent that can accommodate up to 99 people. This particular building is the first of its kind in the Monroe County Park system to incorporate geothermal heating and cooling, while also providing air conditioning for summertime rentals. It also includes first-class amenities, such as a gas fireplace, stainless steel appliances and a covered outdoor area. The architectural design firm, Architectura P.C., recently won an AIA-Rochester design award for the lodge. The crowning piece of the lodge is the Canal boat weather vane on its peak.

Canal boat weather vane

Erie Canal Lodge weather vane, a passenger-carrying canal boat

Larry Staub, Monroe County’s Director of Parks. further defined the importance of the event and stated  that ‘having the new lodge named for Tom Grasso is a lasting tribute to a man who has devoted so much of his life to educating us about the Erie Canal and its importance to our community’s past, present and future’.

So IWI’s past president and Council member has been formally recognized in his community for his tireless work promoting and protecting the Erie Canal which is such a valuable resource to Rochester and New York State, and in turn an important contribution to the world of waterways and canals. Congratulations Tom and also Monroe County for recognizing the importance of its canal, its history and its citizens who are involved with the Canal.

Dave Ballinger

Erie Canal Lodge

The Thomas X. Grasso Erie Canal Lodge in Rochester, N.Y.