Obituary: Charles Hadfield

Charles Hadfield was the doyen of canal historians. For the best part of half a century, the first response of anyone with a query about any aspect of the subject has been to "look it up in Hadfield".

One did so knowing that everything he wrote was based on meticulous research, endless hours reading the usually dull company records accumulated over the last two centuries, in order to be sure of finding the vital entries that would clarify and bring the subject alive.

His most famous book, British Canals, first published in 1950 and now in its eighth edition, seemed to be all- embracing, but he showed how much more there was to tell in the series of regional canal histories begun in 1955. These are all essential reference books, which are dependable. But he was no pedant, and in The Canal Age (1968) he told the human story of the period, and showed something of the warmth and humour of his own personality.

He was born in Pietersburg, South Africa, in 1909, where his father was an Assistant Resident Magistrate: in later life he was to plead a South African accent as an excuse for not giving radio and television interviews, though it would have taken the skill of a Professor Higgins to detect it. His father had been born in New Zealand and his mother was the daughter of a Devon vicar, and both were enthusiastic travellers: he estimated that he had clocked up around 50,000 miles by the time he was 14, which helped give him his lifelong interest in transport. South Africa also provided him with material for his very first published work, a schoolboy article on the diamond industry for the Meccano Magazine of 1925.

At the age of 13 he set off for England and boarding school near Tiverton in Devon. He loathed games, but enjoyed quiet walks down the Grand Western Canal, and, as no one seemed to know a great deal about it, he did a little research of his own, and a lifelong passion was born.

In 1928 he entered St Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read English but ended graduating in Economics. He eventually took a job with a somewhat eccentric bookseller, "Stonewall" Jackson, and became involved in the political world. He was elected as a Labour Councillor for Harrow Road, Paddington, at the very young age of 25.

By now, he was firmly committed to the world of books, and moved to a new job as departmental manager at the Oxford University Press. It was here that he met Alice Mary Miller. They married in 1945, and their relationship was marked by deep love and profound mutual respect.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he had become an Auxiliary Fireman in the London River Service, before being moved to the Fire Staff where he edited what was to become a standard reference book, the seven-volume Manual of Firemanship (1943-48).

During this time his own books began to appear, covering a variety of topics from a handbook for young collectors to a guide to political London. It was not until 1945 that he turned to canals, with English Rivers and Canals, written with one of his Fire Staff colleagues, Frank Eyre.

This was an important period in his life. L.T.C. Rolt had just published Narrow Boat, and the two men felt that something needed to be done to preserve Britain's canals. The result was the formation of the Inland Waterways Association with Rolt as Secretary, Hadfield as Vice-Chairman and Robert Aickman as Chairman. After early successes there were severe personality clashes and differences over policy, which ended with Hadfield and Rolt being forced out. Hadfield went on to found the Railway and Canal Historical Society with aims close to his own heart.

In the immediate post-war years he was Director of Publications and later Controller (overseas) at the Central Office of Information, which gave him the chance to travel again through Africa.

In 1960 he got together with a young railway historian, David St John Thomas, to found the publishing house David and Charles. In the early years, the emphasis was very much on their twin interests in transport history, to which they soon added an important series on the then very new subject of industrial archaeology.

It was always a highly individualistic company, which included some rather quirky titles. One speciality was facsimile editions, and in among such serious matter as first editions of Ordinance Survey maps one would find Victorian DIY manuals and telephone directories.

They proved that there was a market for such books but also demonstrated that it was possible to be a successful publisher without a London base: the offices were and are at Newton Abbot in Devon. Hadfield sold his partnership in 1964, but remained as editor and author. In recent years, the company has been taken over by Reader's Digest and has become a general non-fiction publisher, cutting out the old list on which success was built. Even British Canals now has a new publisher.

Charles Hadfield's considerable expertise made him an obvious choice for the British Waterways Board set up in 1962 after the waterways were nationalised. He was as interested in the future of canals as he was in their past, and was an enthusiastic advocate of making more use of the major waterways for freight haulage. It has been something of a lost cause in face of the noisier clamour from the road lobby.

In spite of all the commitments he never gave up writing; his last book, Thomas Telford's Temptation, was published in 1993. There was, however, a melancholy edge to his final years. His wife died in 1989 after a distressing illness and he could never quite come to terms with the loss.

The personality that appears in the books can seem a little austere, but those who knew him were aware of immense charm and great good-humour. He announced that on his death he was leaving his literary agent 10 per cent of the ashes.

His achievements were immense, and if the canals of Britain have survived to be known and loved today, that is due in no small measure to Charles Hadfield.

Ellis Charles Raymond Hadfield, canal historian and publisher: born Pietersburg, South Africa 5 August 1909; CMG 1954; married 1945 Alice Mary Miller (died 1989; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cirencester 6 August 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most