L. T. C. (Tom) ROLT (1910–1974)

Engineering historian, champion of Inland Waterways

Towpath entrance to Tooley’s Boatyard, Banbury

Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt was born in 1910 in Chester. He was educated at Cheltenham College and went on to become a mechanical engineer.

Tooley's Boatyard

In 1939 he decided to devote himself to writing and bought the narrow boat Cressy. He had it fitted out at Tooley’s Boatyard (above) on the Oxford Canal at Banbury. He had married Angela Orred, daughter of a retired army major, and they set out on a honeymoon cruise around the canal system, returning several months later to overwinter at the yard. They lived aboard the Cressy, cruising around the canals until 1951. During all that time Tooley’s remained home base for winter repairs. He had been shocked by the decaying state of the canals and was inspired to write the classic book Narrow Boat in celebration of canals and boatmen.

Robert Aickman read the book and was prompted to write to Rolt about setting up an organisation to come to the rescue of the canals. They founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946, with Aickman as the first chairman, and Rolt as the first secretary. Soon they were joined by A. P. Herbert as president and Peter Scott as vice-president. Rolt composed a booklet on The Future of the Waterways. Although at first he had thought to revive the use of the canals for commerce, he came to see the value of the network as the recreational amenity which thrives today in Oxfordshire and elsewhere.

Rolt became a distinguished engineering historian, writing over forty books, including a celebrated biography of Brunel. He played an active part in many preservation organisations connected with engineering such as the Newcomen Society and the Science Museum advisory council. In 1950 he helped revive the narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway in North Wales and later helped set up the Railway Museum in York. He was a passionate promoter of industrial archaeology, becoming the first president of the Association for Industrial Archaeology in 1973.

He died in 1974 at Stanley Pontlarge in Gloucestershire where he had settled with his second wife Sonia who also had a long association with canal boats.


  • Narrow Boat by L. T. C. Rolt (1944, re-issued by The History Press 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by R. Angus Buchanan (OUP 2004)

The plaque was unveiled at Tooley’s Boatyard, Banbury, on Saturday 7  August 2010 by Tony Baldry, MP for the constituency and staunch supporter of the Inland Waterways Association. The ceremony was attended by Ron and Mary Heritage who, as part of the Rolt centenary celebrations had set off from Tooley’s Yard on 24 April on their boat the Heron, replicating Rolt’s Cressy cruise, and returned in time for the unveiling of the plaque.

Rolt plaque

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

Engineering Historian
Champion of 
Inland Waterways

began his historic 
“Cressy” cruise
here in 1939

Inland Waterways Association

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com