7 – Sources: General History Books

If outsiders are critical of waterways history writing (and indeed, and especially, railway history writing!!) it is often on the basis that it is parochial. If it is literally parochial (parish-limited), this is often because it fails to reflect any understanding of general historical factors. I have to concur with part of this judgement; some of what I read about the period since 1945 seems to pay little attention to political or economic history, instead relying upon an approach that stresses the heroism of individuals against institutional conspiracies. There may be something in the latter, but it could never provide a full explanation of developments.

It is not essential to possess a history degree to pursue waterways history, but it is helpful to have some sort of understanding of the general history against which waterways history unfolded. My suggestion would be that writers should at least appreciate some of the general volumes which summarise general history, especially economic and social history. In principle, history should be appreciated at various levels: the international, national, regional and local, and perhaps more general transport and environmental histories should be consulted. In my experience, students of waterways history tend to appreciate the competing and complementary modes of transport, whereas railway history students, sadly, often seem to ignore any continuing development of waterways, or indeed any transport modes other than railways.

The view seems often to be propagated that Britain’s waterways were of great national economic importance, that they fostered the industrial revolution. Water space may have been of transport importance, with docks, ports, coastal and international shipping, but inland water, especially the smaller canals, was not so crucial. Robert C Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (2009), for instance, compares British economic development with other countries, and finds that cheap energy, international trade and high(er) wages were the most important factors. The French had larger, more extensive, better supported and carefully planned canals, but this did not foster industrial development there before that in Britain, with its much smaller canals.

Perhaps this indicates why the consulting of general history works produces little of detail or generality about waterways; all that is provided is some background. Local history (or county histories) can produce some insights, although the producers of local history often seem to understand little about waterways and indeed transport in general. There are honourable exceptions to this, and I will deal with local history in a separate piece.

The study of social history may provide some background to two unconnected elements: the nature of boatpeople and waterways workers, and the development of leisure. It has often been suggested that boatpeople living in on narrow boats were somehow unique, but the study of other occupations in Victorian and post-Victorian Britain, especially of people who were itinerant or travelled for work, may qualify this and set them in the context of employment and living conditions. Similarly, the growth of leisure time and opportunities, and the ability to pay for longer and more adventurous holidays, provides one reason, although not a sufficient one, for the growth in holiday boating.

The dominance of academic studies in the development of the general historian has had one consequence that is both fortunate and problematic. Simply, there are no objective straight narratives that tell a plain incontestable truth; there are many interpretations, and even the notion that there can be no truth, that all historical studies are constructed by historians. I am unimpressed by the latter, but more interested in the view that the careful study of archives – themselves based on a combination of deliberate selectiveness and retention by random chance – will remove any need for interpretation. Sometimes, one can be wrestling to try to understand documents, so that a reminder that general history also pursues multiple channels, often with ambiguous resolutions, can be helpful.