5 – Sources: The Canals of the British Isles series

Books about waterways history may be divided into those that intend to instruct and inform the reader about waterways history, and those that simply take waterways history as their subject. Some fiction comes into the latter category, but sometimes, while what is presented proves to be largely fictional, it is intended to set out some aspect of history. The latter also includes many valuable works, including ones that analyse history rather than merely narrate it.

Less kindly, one could divide books on waterways history into the more and the less serious! On this occasion my heresy has extended to an excursus, to consider a single series of books that aimed to inform, and which were decidedly serious in intent. I will deal with other sources later, but here consider The Canals of The British Isles, published between 1955 and 1977.

I have already gone out on a limb by asserting that relevant entries in this series should, at least, be considered. In principle, the series contains essential narrative accounts of every canal, and most navigable rivers, in the British Isles. The principal source for these was the canal company records deposited in the (then) British Transport Historical Records; notes on these for the books by Charles Hadfield (most of the English and Welsh volumes) can be found in his archive, but these do limit the absolute need to consult the original records.

This does lead to a bias, towards the main era of canal company development, with less emphasis on railway company ownerships and the period after nationalisation. Yet, if you are (say) exploring some aspect of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal’s history, to ignore entirely the coverage in The Canals of the West Midlands would seem strange.

These are better on narrative than on analysis, although much is thrown up that could assist more analytical approaches. There are waterways that are not covered, such as the Royal Woolwich Arsenal Canal, over which Hugh McKnight discovered and supplied details after the only edition of The Canals of South and South East England. Brian Goggin’s excellent website http://irishwaterwayshistory.com/ includes details of various navigations not included in the South of Ireland volume, while a number of Scottish waterways and several in the Llanelli area were discovered after the 1960s, and not in the relevant volumes. To add more details to fill out the narratives, and to include newly discovered waterways, would present one useful task for researchers.

The volumes provide useful, if not essential, reference works, but there are minor inaccuracies and some puzzles, such as the incomplete account of the Caistor Canal in Eastern England. Clearly, much has taken place since 1985, when the last revision of any volume (bar British Canals) took place. Charles Hadfield himself thought that the history of the postwar period would merit new separate volumes.

To consult this series to research details of carriers, of boats and working lives and conditions, for personalities, or for the history of pleasure boating, would be to make a start, but only a limited one. For instance, no mention is made of the distinctive “Cuckoo” narrow boats on the Chesterfield Canal, while a large carrier like the Samuel Barlow company receives no mention in East Midlands.

Referencing in the series is limited, given the reliance upon BTHR archives. However, all the authors were (still are, in three cases) experts in their areas, and abided by careful standards. The summary tables provide factually accurate summaries – if limited when the postwar period, and the dates when traffics ended, are considered. There may well be more to add to their narratives, but I do not depart from my view that these should be consulted as research commences.