Obituary: Charles Hadfield

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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.