The Times obituary, 8 November 2014
Campaigner for Britain’s industrial heritage who fell in love with canals during wartime service.
A small advertisement in The Times in the early 1940s changed Sonia Rolt’s life for ever. On answering its call for women to work on the canals of Britain to take the place of men who had gone to fight in the Second World War, Rolt began a love affair with the canals and waterways that was to last a lifetime.
Becoming one of the trainee boatwomen on the canals was far from the only notable feature in Rolt’s life. At various times she fought not just for the survival of the canals and waterways as a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), but also for the preservation of the architectural heritage of Britain — both industrial and residential — through her work with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (Spab).
She helped to establish a heritage steam railway in west Wales and in later life was particularly concerned about the need to maintain and preserve ancient orchards. Other interests included furnishing houses and providing libraries for both the Landmark Trust and the National Trust.
As Tim Rolt, the younger of her two sons and a writer and film-maker, put it: “The thread that united everything that she did was her enormous appetite for life and her great interest in other people which led her into all sorts of different areas. She valued things that were not necessarily being valued by others at the time.”
Rolt was living in a flat in London with fellow aspiring actors when she saw the advert for women to work on the canals, a notion that was viewed by many men as ridiculous. Sceptical boatmen at first dubbed the volunteers the “Idle Women” because they wore an “IW” Inland Waterways badge on their overalls. However, many went on to become highly proficient at boat handling and worked on the canals and waterways throughout the remainder of the war. Their exploits were covered in Pathé newsreels, newspapers and even Life magazine which carried a large feature on them just before D-Day.
At the time Rolt was already doing her bit for the war effort at the Hoover factory at Perivale in west London where she was employed installing electrical wiring in the cockpits of Lancaster bombers. She was good at it, too. So good in fact, that factory managers did not want her to leave.
“They wouldn’t let me go so I had to have a fearful interview and there was the threat of prison [if I absconded],” she recalled. “Finally a psychiatrist person saw me from the Ministry of Transport and they said ‘this woman has a pioneering spirit and must be allowed to go her own way and do her own stuff’.”
And go her own way she did. “It was extraordinarily surprising because I had not seen any canal as far as I know at any time, anywhere, and when I applied for the job it was going to be a huge surprise — canals? What are they?”
Rolt learnt her new trade fast, helping to take barges loaded with steel to Birmingham, then heading to Coventry to load coal and taking that down to north London, before setting out again. Along the way she fell in love with the canals and the people who worked on them and determined she would do all she could to preserve a way of life that was already under threat from road and rail freight transport.
It was from the perspective of a canal boat’s stern that she came to love the industrial heritage of Britain’s great cities. “I think it was then that I began to look at buildings in a very serious way,” she said. “I looked at the modest ones, the working ones, and I saw beauty in them. Going into Birmingham, at the end of some dark, blackened channel, you’d see flaming red and men working with shovels. What I saw was highly industrial and totally alive.”
Her love affair with the canals was best summed up by her “wonderful, but very short” first marriage to a canal boatman called George Smith who could neither read nor write. The pair stayed on the canals after the war as Rolt began campaigning for better conditions for those who worked on them. Later she married the industrial heritage pioneer Tom Rolt, whose 1944 book Narrow Boat is credited with inspiring the movement to save canals.
Sonia Rolt (née South) was born in New York in 1919. Her mother, Kathleen, was from a doctor’s family in Barbados. Kathleen married a civil servant working in the Far East but had an affair with an engineer in Trinidad and Tobago. This led to her leaving for New York before returning to England with her new baby, Sonia.
Rolt was educated in Farnborough, Hampshire while her mother worked as a school matron. She then trained as an actress at the London Theatre Studio in Islington. In 1939 she toured with the London Village Players before the war interrupted her career and she began work in Perivale.
It is not clear when her marriage to Smith ended, but she met Tom Rolt in 1945 at the premiere of Painted Boats, a film set on the canals and went on to marry him. In addition to Tim they had another son, Richard, who runs his own design and engineering business.
The pair were initially active in the campaign to save the canals and in setting up the IWA. In 1950, however, Tom fell out with the organisation and he and Sonia decamped to the seaside town of Tywyn, near Aberystwyth, where they helped to set up the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society. This was dedicated to ensuring the survival of what was then a decrepit narrow-gauge railway and it became the template for similar projects all over the world. “We worked the railway together,” Rolt recalled. “At one point I was the guard and I was pregnant to boot. He was the engineer and I was the clerk of all things.”
With the railway’s future assured, Tom and Sonia moved back to his parent’s house at Stanley Pontlarge in Gloucestershire where Tom would write some 40 books under the name LTC Rolt, dying aged 64 in 1974. Sonia lived in the medieval Cotswold stone house for the remainder of her life, eventually becoming affectionately known by the locals as “Lady Pontlarge” or the “Potentate of Pontlarge.”
She lived amid elegant chaos with a collection of furniture, none of which matched. But her taste appealed to others, not least Tom’s friend John Smith (later Sir John) who set up the Landmark Trust in the 1960s dedicated to the preservation of small but architecturally worthwhile buildings. The novel idea was to give these properties new life as holiday rentals. Smith asked Rolt if she would look after the furnishing of the houses and she did so for more than 20 years, later taking on a similar role for the National Trust.
It was when she needed to do repair work on the roof of the house at Stanley Pontlarge that she first came into contact with Spab which helped secure funding for the project. She went on to become an active committee member.
In 2011 Rolt was appointed OBE for services to heritage. She was thrilled and not a little perplexed to be honoured and on meeting the Queen at Windsor exclaimed: “I simply don’t know why I have been given this.” The Queen is said to have replied: “Perhaps you should think about it.” Rolt then replied in turn: “It could be because I live in an old house.” The Queen was having none of that: “I live in one of those too,” she said.
Sonia Rolt, OBE, champion of Britain’s canals and architectural heritage, was born on April 1, 1919. She died on October 22, 2014, aged 95.