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Tom Rolt – Writer & Waterways Revivalist

Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt (1910-1974) was a prolific writer and biographer of 18th and 19th century British engineers, and a successful early campaigner for the revival and preservation of heritage railways and canals.

Born in Chester and educated at Cheltenham College, in 1928 he became an apprentice at a locomotive works in Stoke-on-Trent. This move was to prove significant for Tom’s future, as the chief engineer at the works, who happensed to be Tom’s uncle, introduced him to the canal system, on which they travelled in a converted narrowboat called Cressy.

After being laid off in early 1932, he worked firstly for a firm of agricultural engineers in Hungerford and then for a year from the summer of 1932 with Aldbourne Engineering Company (previously W T Loveday) at the foundry in Lottage Road. Here he lodged with the manager and his family “in a cottage at the back of the little works”. In his autobiography “Landscape and Machines” (1971) he devotes several pages to his time in Aldbourne, describing with great fondness various excursions into the surrounding countryside, often in his 1903 Humber. These trips included several to the Boulton and Watt beam engines at Crofton near Bedwyn, then still in full operation. He also recounts two amusing encounters with the local constabulary, in particular an officious sergeant from Ramsbury who spotted that the letters on his 30-year-old number plate were one-third of an inch too short; and he describes in some detail a work colleague at the Aldbourne Engineering Company, Mark palmer, an elderly native of Aldbourne with a treasure trove of stories.

In 1934, he co-founded the Vintage Sports-Car Club which is still going strong; and in 1936, he brought Cressy from his uncle, converted it for habitation, and set off on a life on the canals with his girl-friend, who later became his wife.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Rolt joined the Rolls Royce factory in Crewe, producing Spitfire Engines. However as soon as he was offered a job back at the Aldbourne Foundry, the Rolts headed south in Cressy, arriving at Hungerford some four months later having survived storms, being icebound at Banbury and the Thames in flood.

In 1944, he published his book “Narrow Boat”, which kick-started the national revival of interest in the canal system and led directly yo the formation of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, the National Railway Museum, and the Iron Bridge Gorge Museum Trust, and he was a trustee of botht he SS Great Britain Restoration Committee and of the Science Museum.

In the thirty years after “Narrow Boat”, he wrote biographies of the engineers Brunel, Telform, Trevitihick, Watt, Newcommen and both Stevensons, as well as books about the railways and waterways of England, his three volume autobiography, and some ghost stories.

His second wife (Sonia)obtained an OBE in 2010 “for services to industrial archaeology and to heritage). She dies in 2014, aged 95