6 – Sources: Other Waterways History books – Individual histories and picture books

In an earlier piece, I suggested that waterways history books could be divided into those that aim to instruct, and those that “simply take waterways history as their subject”. I discussed The Canals of the British Isles series, which undoubtedly aimed to instruct, but in now considering “other” waterways history books as sources, the latter expression may seem rather obscure! I had in mind the many “picture books” that reproduce historic photographs and other illustrations, sometimes, seemingly, merely to entertain rather than to explain history. Such illustrations may provoke all manner of queries, or at least inspire further work. Other works with similar intent seem to aim to record and describe, rather than to explain.

Books of the “company history” type, providing a long chronological account of an individual waterway’s history, thrived in the later 1960s and early 1970s, fostered by the publishers David & Charles; later volumes came from the Oakwood Press and others. These have constraints, often placing the focus on events rather than analysis, and often with limited coverage of the postwar period. The quality varies, partly due to authorial abilities and support, but also due to the depth and range of available sources. “Piecing-together” from any available source (much of it newspapers) was essential for a book like Kenneth R Clew’s Dorset & Somerset Canal (1971), for which primary records had been destroyed. On the whole, most accounts are accurate within the limits of then available sources, albeit with little analysis.

Picture books about individual waterways contain mostly photography, sometimes with drawings and excerpts from historic maps. These can be simply compiled and miscellaneous, offering no coherent account or insights; nevertheless, the historic illustrations and commentary can prove useful, especially in pinpointing particular locations. Exceptions include the late Nick Billingham’s Stratford Canal (2002), which includes much local detail about the canal in the earlier twentieth century, while Ray Shill’s many recent volumes include many insights.

Waterways history studies that cross the boundaries between individual waterways are rarer. The Robert Wilson series, and later studies of waterways carriers, provide instances, while Harry Hanson and others have studied the lives of boatpeople and other canal workers. What is generally missing, however, are broader analyses, over long periods of history.

What are the problems with using waterway history books as sources, say, for those broad analyses? The first problem is the preoccupations of the author(s), which have shaped what has and has not been included, and with what emphasis. Transport history is not a field of publishing in which there are set standards and protocols as to what constitutes history. Many authors have a period towards which they gravitate (mine, I suppose is the twentieth century), so that coverage of other periods may be sketchy and misinterpreted. I favour history that analyses rather than narrates, but some historical investigations are shaped by the need to force the past to fit the biases of the writer!

The next problem is the dates when research was carried out and the sources that were then accessible. In some cases, the author was unaware of, or perhaps ignored, sources that were available. It is worth looking closely at references and bibliography (if any) to determine the range of sources (and to consider what might be missing). One final problem is the publishers’ insistence on illustrations – obviously very strong in the case of picture books. How much has been passed over because it cannot be illustrated, or has excessive text been placed because there are copious illustrations?

Any study must involve a reading of the secondary literature, even if this happens as archive research is under way. To evaluate these as sources is essential; often much has been uncovered, but care must be taken over their interpretation.