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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence