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Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt -
AKA Tom Rolt or L.T.C. Rolt 11 Feb 1910 – 9 May 1974

The man who saved our industrial heritage

This famous book may be said to have started the revival of interest in the English waterways. It led to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association (see the IWA website), and hence to the modern canal movement. Certainly it can claim to have made most people familiar with the term ‘narrow boat’. L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt was responsible for saving one of the world’s greatest collections of industrial heritage in the form of Britain’s canal and railway network.

200 years after they were built, Britain’s canals are today enjoying a vibrant renaissance. However it wasn’t until 1944 when Rolt published his hugely influential book, Narrow Boat, that society’s attention was drawn to the pleasures of life afloat. Tom’s book, which followed his 1939 journey along the waterways of the Midlands, inspired a generation to get onboard and fight for the future of Britain’s canals and rivers which at that point were in a state of dereliction and terminal decline.

Rolt became a co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), the voluntary organisation that has fought to ensure the survival of Britain’s waterway network. He also co-founded the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, the world's first preserved railway, chronicled in his book Railway Adventure (1953). Rolt, a vice president of the Newcomen Society, wrote a series of biographies on leading figures of the industrial revolution, such as Brunel, Thomas Telford and George and Robert Stephenson.

Tony Hales, chairman of British Waterways, said: “Society owes a huge debt to Tom Rolt. The vibrant renaissance of our canal network would not have been possible without the passion for the waterways of Britain he inspired in people. Britain would be a very different place without our industrial heritage which today provides important wildlife habitats, linear parks in our towns and cities as well as important flood relief and water supply benefits.

“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.”

Rolt's waterways works:
Narrow boat (1944)
Green and silver (1949)
The inland waterways of England (1950)
The Thames from mouth to source (1951)
From sea to sea: the Canal du Midi (1973)
Navigable Waterways. (1973)

Sonia Rolt, the writer's widow, ensured that Tom Rolt's books remain in print and available. She was successful with a number of publishers over the years since his death in 1974.