Things I’ve found in old books

Ever discovered a handwritten note within the pages of a second-hand book and felt like you’d found treasure? Collector of canal books and ephemera, Mick Vedmore shares three of his most prized finds and the secret histories they reveal.

Images: Mick Vedmore


Many of us have bought a second-hand book and found a shopping list, train ticket or perhaps an old newspaper cutting left inside by a previous owner. So when Mr J Clutton Buck paddled his way over the lonely, wind-swept waters of the Oxford Canal’s summit level in June 1938, he wouldn’t have realised that the log he kept of his journey would in its own way become a little piece of canal history. It was one of the most interesting things I ever found in an old book.

The six-page hand-written log was loosely inserted in The Heart of England by Waterway (1934), penned by William Bliss who had been travelling the waterways ever since the 1880s. It’s a superb book with beautifully prophetic, nostalgic and often unintentionally comic accounts of canal voyaging in a bygone era. If you can beg, borrow or buy a copy of this book then do – it’s a great read.

Pre-war accounts of canal travel – before the waterways became popularised as places for leisure – are rare and immensely valuable for the social, and sometimes idiosyncratic, details they contain. In this account, we find that our canoeist is concerned with headwinds as he passes through the rush-fringed waters; he passes two pairs of working boats and four horse-drawn barges between Claydon and Fenny Compton; he meets the lock keeper at Napton who, together with his father, had given 100 years of service to the canal company; the cost of his dinner, bed and breakfast at the George and Dragon Inn was 7/0s (38p); at Wolvercote, he is asked for his canal pass “by a very officious lock keeper”, before voyaging onto the Dukes Cut, where he goes the wrong way down the mill stream and nearly ends up on a weir.

This is the guide book that the canoeist took with him – inside, I found his handwritten log
Page one of the six-page log

Our canoeist finishes his journey by portaging his craft to Cricklade, where he re-enters the water and finishes his journey to Oxford down the Thames. His final entry reads: “Completed 119 miles. Charge on Oxford Canal: £0-13 -9.”

In 1946, a post-war surge of interest in England’s canals saw the formation of the Inland Waterways Association, which fought for their restoration and development. Two of the founders of the organisation – Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman – were men of forthright and increasingly divergent views. Aickman wanted to campaign for the restoration of all the country’s canals. Rolt, whose opinions were expressed in his phenomenally successful 1944 book Narrow Boat, thought that restoring all canals was hopelessly impractical, if only because of the cost. He argued that their priority should be to restore and update those canals on which trade still existed. In this respect, he was particularly thinking of the needs of working narrow boaters and of preserving their way of life, which was rapidly disappearing.

Campaigns and protest cruises began, with some success, and membership grew with many notable names joining the cause. In 1950, the association decided to hold a National Rally of Boats. By now, the personal relationship between the two men had deteriorated to the point that the rally itself became a subject of disagreement. Aickman, the aesthete and man of the Arts, wanted the rally to be a festival of boats and culture, while Rolt was vehemently opposed. Aickman’s autocratic ways and intolerance of others’ views became clear when he asked Rolt to resign from the committee, which he did immediately, taking a sizeable portion of the membership with him. Aickman also banned Rolt from attending the rally on his boat Cressy.

Banned from a rally put on by the organisation he had helped to found? Rolt was incensed. He decided to attend the festival with his boat Cressy anyway.

The festival went ahead with over 120 boats attending. As part of the arts programme, a couple of plays were performed to a public unaware of the seething controversy behind the scenes.

As a canal history enthusiast, you can imagine how I felt to find an original flyer advertising the plays in a book that had been purchased and signed at that very rally. It was called Adventure by Canal by George Tansey; it details one of the first hire boat journeys after the War. Interestingly, Rolt had helped the boat owners to set up their hire boat firm (one of Britain’s first); they even named their first boat Angela after Rolt’s first wife.

A rare survivor: the advertising flyer for the plays

In the same book, I also found a set of gummed rally advertising stamps. Both items were the sort of throw-away ephemera that doesn’t often survive, so the flyer and stamps have become rare souvenirs of an event that caused such controversy. Finding them together – the book that showed Tom Rolt’s influence on the waterways and the arts flyer that was a product of Aickman’s cultural ideas – represented a small piece of canal history, occurring nearly 70 years ago, which would go on to have a big impact on the waterways we know and love today.

Share in Mick’s journey into canal literature and ephemera at Read about his love of children’s canal books in the upcoming print edition of Waterfront.