Sonia Rolt and her love affair with the canals

The waterways community is very  sad to learn of the death of Sonia Rolt, a truly amazing person who gave so much of her life to our waterways and has left a wonderful legacy. We are grateful  to CRT for the following:

Sonia Rolt is known for being the widow of Tom, or LTC Rolt, the writer and engineer whose book 'Narrow Boat' is widely credited for saving the inland waterway network. She was also, however, a remarkable woman in her own right: a former Vice-President of the IWA, an author, campaigner and recipient of the OBE in 2010 for services to industrial archaeology and heritage.

Sonia Rolt was born Sonia South. Her early years brought her no contact with the canals but when World War 2 was declared, after a brief spell in the Hoover factory working on the insides of Lancaster bombers, Sonia became one of the now revered Idle Women.

The Idle Women (as they were unflatteringly labelled at the time) took on the back-breaking labour of transporting essential cargoes by canal, when the boatmen who usually did this work were conscripted. When Sonia joined the Idle Women she had no knowledge of the canals, but her new venture led to a life-long love affair with our inland waterways.

Sonia married a working boatman, George Smith, and stayed on the canals after the war. She became increasingly politically active – campaigning for better conditions for the boat people – and eventually met Tom at a screening of Painted Boats in 1945.

Sonia and Tom spent much of their time campaigning for the future of the British canal system, and their efforts directly contributed to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) in 1946. They were actively involved with the IWA for many years, with Sonia going on to become Vice President. The couple married, had two children and moved to Tom’s childhood home, Stanley Pontlarge, where Sonia still lived until the end of her life. Her love of historic buildings led to her work as a furnisher and librarian for the Landmark Trust and later, the National Trust, and she has been an active member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) for many years.

In recent years Sonia edited and written introductions to several of Tom’s books – and in 1997 she wrote A Canal People, The Photographs of Robert Longden.

Through the publication of Narrow Boat, Sonia’s second husband Tom deservedly became the oft-quoted saviour of the inland waterways. However, it is clear that our treasured canals and rivers are better places thanks to the tireless efforts and dedication of Sonia Rolt herself.

Mike Rodd