Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Sonia Rolt born 15 Apr 1919, died 22 Oct 2014
Sonia Rolt is known for being the widow of Tom, or LTC Rolt, the writer and engineer whose book 'Narrow Boat' is widely credited for saving the inland waterway network. She was also, however, a remarkable woman in her own right: a former Vice-President of the IWA, an author, campaigner and recipient of the OBE in 2010 for services to industrial archaeology and heritage.
Sonia Rolt was born Sonia South in New York. When World War 2 was declared, she abandoned her acting career and went to work in the Hoover factory installing electrical wiring in Lancaster bombers, Whilst there she answered a Ministry of Transport advert in The Times seeking women volunteers of robust constitution and good health to work on the waterways replacing men who had gone to war. With her two flat-mates she was accepted . In 1944 they were given new badges to wear with the initials IW (for Inland Waterways) This was soon changed to Idle Women by the men they came into contact with on the canals.The Idle Women took on the back-breaking labour of transporting essential cargoes by canal, when the boatmen who usually did this work were conscripted. When Sonia joined the Idle Women she had no knowledge of the canals, but her new venture led to a life-long love affair with our inland waterways.
Sonia married a working boatman, George Smith, and stayed on the canals after the war. She became increasingly politically active – campaigning for better conditions for the boat people – and eventually met Tom at a screening of Painted Boats in 1945.
Sonia and Tom spent much of their time campaigning for the future of the British canal system, and their efforts directly contributed to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) in 1946. They were actively involved with the IWA for many years, with Sonia going on to become Vice President. Her marriage to George Smith broke down in 1950 due to this relationship with Tom Rolt and the couple married. When Sir John Smith founded the Landmark Trust in 1965 to preserve small buildings of historical or architectural importance Sonia worked for 20 years sourcing books and furniture . Later, she fulfilled a similar role for the National Trust, She was an active member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) for many years.
Through the publication of Narrow Boat, Sonia’s second husband Tom deservedly became the oft-quoted saviour of the inland waterways. However, it is clear that our treasured canals and rivers are better places thanks to the tireless efforts and dedication of Sonia Rolt herself.