Hugh Malet

Historian of canals and waterways
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The Independent Online

Hugh Grenville Malet, waterway explorer, writer and teacher: born Salisbury 13 February 1928; Editor, National Christian News 1960-62; Director of Studies, Brasted Place Theological College 1962-73; Lecturer in Local History and Fine Arts, Salford University 1973-85; married 1959 Kay Morris (died 1983; one son, one daughter); died Taunton 13 March 2005.

In February 1958, Hugh Malet signed a home-made deed of sale at the tea counter of Woolworths in Ipswich, handed over £35, and thus became the legal owner of the Mary Ann, a 16-foot wooden dory powered by an old car engine and topped with a cabin with four feet of headroom. From such unpromising beginnings sprang a journey on the canals and waterways of Britain and Ireland, and the publication of a book, Voyage in a Bowler Hat.

By much repair, Mary Ann was bullied into a seaworthy state, and then subjected to a horrific trial, being towed down to the Thames by the Vawdrey, a motorised barge carrying ammunition. Having reached the Thames, Malet headed for the calmer waters of the Regent's Canal, and then spent several idyllic (although damp) weeks slowly chugging westwards out of London, then north to Birmingham, and up into Cheshire.

By his own admission, this was a voyage of discovery. Malet had little prior knowledge of waterways, none of the operation of locks, and scant idea of where his wanderings might lead. In fact, they led to Llangollen, then as now a destination of pilgrimage, as it allowed him to cross the mighty Pontcysyllte aqueduct, one of the wonders of England's waterways. From here, he turned and descended again to Cheshire, and then headed north-westwards to Ellesmere Port, where bravado secured the Mary Ann passage to Dublin on a coaster.

In Ireland, he travelled most of the waterways then navigable, first crossing to the Shannon along the Grand Canal, dropping down the Shannon to Limerick, then later descending the Barrow Navigation to the south coast. Thus had Mary Ann carried Malet on one of the most extensive inland waterway journeys ever completed in the British Isles.

In 1960 Voyage in a Bowler Hat, his book describing this epic journey, was published. It may be that this modest and gentle log, full of the joys and pitfalls of canal cruising, and sprinkled with enthusiastic observations on the places he passed, will be his most enduring memorial. It went into a second edition in 1985.

Hugh Malet was born in Salisbury in 1928, one of two sons of an army officer, who was later to become an ordained priest. Malet was educated at Wellington, and King's College, Cambridge, where he read History and English. On graduation in 1951, he joined the Sudan Political Service, which was abruptly dissolved when Sudan became independent in 1955. A spell working for an oil company in Egypt was also terminated by political events when Nasser seized the Suez Canal in 1956.

Back in England, he embarked on his "Bowler Hat" adventure, and then in 1960 became editor of the National Christian News, a move reflecting both his religious commitment and his ability with words. This led to an appointment in 1962 as Director of Studies at Brasted Place Anglican Theological College, where his primary concern was to encourage theological education for potential candidates for the ministry from outside the normal recruiting grounds of public school and university.

The publication of Bowler Hat brought Malet to the attention of the newly established publishing house of David & Charles. Their first biography was to be Malet's The Canal Duke (1961), a study of the Duke of Bridgewater, a hugely important figure of the Canal Age whose patronage of James Brindley led to the construction of the Bridgewater Canal, and thus fired a transport revolution.

Malet embarked on another cruise through Ireland's waterways. The Mary Ann was revived from her berth near Waterford, and Malet set out on a second journey, this time accompanied by his new wife, Kay (despite the lack of on-board amenities). The expedition resulted in In the Wake of the Gods (1970). This was as much a tour of Ireland's holy (including pre-Christian) sites as a waterway cruise.

In 1973, Malet was appointed Lecturer in Local History and Fine Arts at Salford University, giving him ample opportunity to investigate further the history of the Bridgewater Canal. This stimulated a further biography, Bridgewater: the Canal Duke, 1736-1803 (1977), and a number of other smaller publications on local industrial history.

Valuing its canal associations, Hugh and Kay saved Bartington Hall, near Northwich, Cheshire, from demolition, and it became their family home until Kay's death in 1983. Following retirement in 1985, Malet moved to Blue Anchor, on the coast of Somerset, the land of his ancestors, whose name is shared with Shepton Mallet. Here his Christianity found practical expression in the revival of an ancient pilgrimage to a chapel established by Cleeve Abbey, as described in his Blue Anchor Pilgrimage (1993).

In the 1950s, the future of Britain's waterways was uncertain; now we take their preservation as assured. One of the influences helping to foster this more enlightened approach was Voyage in a Bowler Hat, a seductive work in the best tradition of travel writing, making the reader want to emulate the writer. Its author was a modest yet enterprising man, and a man of great faith.

Mark Baldwin