LTC Rolt

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Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt , also Tom Rolt (born February 11, 1910 in Chester , † May 11, 1974 in Stanley Pontlarge , Gloucestershire ) was a British writer and technical historian. He holds a special position in industrial archeology in Great Britain and is known for several biographies on Victorian engineers.

Memorial plaque to Rolt


Rolt's father Lionel lived overseas for a long time (including on a cattle ranch in Australia, a plantation in India and, with little success, in the gold rush on the Yukon ). After returning to England, he lost most of his money in a bad investment in a company and the family then moved to Stanley Pontlarge.

Rolt attended Cheltenham College, began an apprenticeship as a steam engine machinist at the Kerr Stuart Railway Works in Stoke-on-Trent , where his uncle Kyrle Willans was chief development engineer. In the 1930s he was unemployed during the economic crisis at the time, took part in classic car races and became a partner in an auto repair shop in Hartley Wintney , Hampshire . In 1934 he was one of the founders of the Vintage Sports Car Club and he was the founder of the Prescott Hill Climb Automobile Club.

In 1936 he bought back his uncle's canal boat Cressy , converted it into a houseboat and used it to travel the English canals. During this time he also lived on his houseboat. In 1939 he married. During World War II, he worked for the Rolls-Royce works , which at the time manufactured engines for Spitfire fighter planes. In 1944 he published his book about his life on the English canals ( Narrow Boat ), which became a bestseller and immediately led to the establishment of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) (by Robert Aickman and Charles Hadfield), of which Holt was first secretary. The English channels had been nationalized in 1947 and many were threatened with closure, which Rolt and society campaigned against in successful campaigns. Since Rolt was dependent on his income as a writer and had fallen out with the founders of the company on various points, he was expelled in 1951. Instead, he became chairman of a society that maintained historic railways as a tourist attraction in 1951 ( Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society in Towyn (Tywyn) in Wales ). He was a pioneer in this area at the time. One of the company's locomotives is named after him today. From 1953 he lived again in his hometown Stanley Pontlarge and after separating from his first wife married a second time, the former actress Sonia Rolt (1919-2014), whom he met in 1945 and with whom he had two sons.

In the 1950s, Rolt had his breakthrough as a technology historian with a series of biographies of Victorian engineers. In particular, his biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel led to a revival of interest in the then almost forgotten engineer. Further biographies about George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson , Thomas Telford , Richard Trevithick , Thomas Newcomen , James Watt followed. He also wrote books, for example, about railway accidents and a three-volume autobiography.

Plaque on the bridge over the Oxford Canal named after him

Rolt was Vice President of the Newcomen Society, which donated a prize on his behalf (Rolt Prize), and served on the Council of the Science Museum in London and the National Railway Museum in York . He was also involved in founding the Ironbridge Gorge Museum in the Severn Valley. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received honorary degrees from the Universities of Newcastle and Bath. He was one of the founders of the Association for Industrial Archeology, at which an annual lecture (Rolt Lecture) is named after him.

A bridge on the Oxford Canal in Banbury is named after him.


Bibliography of his works by Ian Rogerson and others (M. & M. Baldwin 1994)

Canals, waterways

  • Narrow boat , Eyre and Spottiswoode 1944 (report of a 400-mile voyage in his canal boat Cressy on the English canals), Reprint The History Press 2000, 2010
  • Green and silver , George Allen and Unwin 1949
  • The inland waterways of England , George Allen & Unwin 1950
  • The Thames from mouth to source , 1951
  • Navigable Waterways , Longmans 1969, Hutchinson, London 1973
  • From sea to sea: the Canal du Midi , Allen Lane 1973


  • with Patrick Whitehouse Lines of character , Constable and Robinson 1952
  • Railway adventure , Constable 1953, The History Press 2010 (partly autobiographical, about the early years of the Talyllyn Railway)
  • Red for Danger: A History of Railway Accidents and Railway Safety , The Bodley Head 1955, 2nd edition 1966, Reprints: Sutton Publishing 1998, The History Press 2010 ( Railway Accidents )
  • Patrick Stirling 's locomotives , Hamish Hamilton 1964
  • The making of a railway , Evelyn 1971


  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel: a biography , Longmans Green 1957, Penguin 1989
  • Thomas Telford , Longmans Green 1958, Methuen 1967, The History Press 2010
  • The Cornish giant: the story of Richard Trevithick, father of the steam locomotive , Lutterworth Press 1960
  • George and Robert Stephenson: the railway revolution , Longmans Green 1960, Reprint Amberley Press 2010
  • Great Engineers , G. Bell, London 1962
  • James Watt , Anova Books, Batsford 1962
  • Thomas Newcomen: The prehistory of the steam engine , David & Charles, 1968

Company history, industrial history

From the end of the 1950s, Rolt was commissioned by many companies to write their history, but this was often only published in-house.

  • Holloways of Millbank: The first seventy-five years , 1958
  • The Dowty story , Part 1, 1962, Part 2, 1973
  • A Hunslet Hundred: one hundred years of locomotive building by the Hunslet Engine Company , 1964
  • The Mechanicals : progress of a profession , 1967
  • Waterloo Ironworks: a history of Taskers of Andover, 1809-1968 , 1969
  • Victorian engineering , Allen Lane / Penguin 1970, reprint Alan Sutton 2007, The History 2010 (covers, inter alia, the Britannia Bridge by Stephenson, the construction of the London sewer system, the Severn Tunnel and the Paxton Crystal Palace)
  • Tools for the Job: A Short History of Machine Tools , Batsford 1965
  • The potters' field: a history of the South Devon ball clay industry , 1974


  • Landscape with Machines , London: Longman, 1971, ISBN 0-5821-0740-7 (first part of his autobiography)
  • Landscape with Canals , 1977 (second part of his autobiography)
  • Landscape with Figures , 1992 (third part of his autobiography)
  • The Landscape Trilogy , Sutton Publishing 2001, Paperback 2005 (all three parts in one volume)


  • The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning 1783-1903 , Methuen 1967, reprinted as The Balloonists: The History of the First Aeronauts , Sutton Publishing 2006, The History Press 2010
  • A picture history of motoring , Hulton Press 1956
  • Two Ghost Stories , 1994
  • High horse riderless , George Allen and Unwin 1947 (critical considerations in the manner of CP Snows Two Cultures and a plea for environmental protection)
  • Sleep No More: Railway Canal and other stories of the Supernatural , Constable 1948, The History Press 2010 (Geistergeschichten)
  • Worcestershire , Robert Hale 1949
  • Horseless carriage: the motor car in England , 1950
  • Winterstoke , 1954 (story of a fictional town in the Midlands )
  • The clouded mirror , Lane 1955 (travel reports et al.), Republished in 2009 under the same title with excerpts from Rolt's autobiographies

Web links

supporting documents

  1. Biography of Sonia Rolt , she wrote the book A canal people
  2. Sonia Rolt - obituary. Obituary in The Daily Telegraph, November 7, 2014 (accessed November 8, 2014).
  3. List of his major works
  4. On his Brunel biography with a link to Review
  5. ^ Formerly Sutton Publishing