SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin recalls a memorable meeting with a very memorable woman.
I met Sonia Rolt on an icy day in February 2010 when cold grey light threw the ancient features of her wonderful 14th century home, Stanley Pontlarge near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire into sharp relief against sheep-spotted fields and hills.
Although into her 90s, she was still formidable, in the very best way, fizzing with purpose and excitement. During World War Two she was one of the women who took the place of working men on Britain’s canals and when we spoke she was one of the last survivors of this unique ‘crew’.
The Inland Waterway (IW) women (or Idle Women as they were unflatteringly dubbed by the remaining old hands on the network) took on the back-breaking work of ensuring that essential cargoes of grain, oil, coal and even jam continued to be transported by water between major cities when the men who usually did this were conscripted. Sonia explained: “I fell into really. I was sharing a flat in London with two friends. It was in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, which wasn’t at all smart in those days. If only people now could see what it was like they would be very surprised.
“At the time we were all employed under the Government’s directed labour programme and I was at the Hoover factory at Perivale working on the insides of Lancaster bombers. I was quite bright at it, actually. One day we spotted a small Ministry of Transport advertisement announcing: “women may volunteer for the carrying of goods by canal”. The advertisement indicated that volunteers would be free of management and very much in charge of their own work. Of course, this appealed to us frantically,” Sonia grinned, “even though I’d never seen a canal in my life!”
Despite facing enormous disapproval from ‘higher ups’ at Perivale who were loathe to lose a talented worker, Sonia was eventually allowed to join her friends on a working boat.
It was the beginning of a life-long affair.
“I fell in love with the waterways,” said Sonia, who continued to live and work on narrowboats after the war ended. She freely admitted that the warmth of the working canal people and the strong sense of belonging appealed strongly to a young woman whose own colonial roots had led to a somewhat nomadic childhood.
Travelling by secret, watery, back door routes into the hearts of great industrial cities also awoke Sonia’s keen instinct for architectural observation. She recalled: “I think it was then that I began to look at buildings in a very serious way. I looked at the modest ones, the working ones, and I saw beauty in them. Going into Birmingham, at the end of some dark, blackened channel you’d see flaming red and men working with shovels. What I saw was highly industrial and totally alive.”
When we met in 2010, Sonia was still the revered Vice President of the IWA, the Waterways Trust, and other waterways bodies. In 1997 she published A Canal People: The Photographs of Robert Longden, an evocative reminder of a lost ways of life, reissued in paperback in 2009.
The house Sonia shared with her husband Tom Rolt, an early campaigner for England’s heritage, was the catalyst for Sonia’s long and valued involvement with the SPAB. “We arrived to live here with paraffin lamps, no heating except for a coke stove and open fires. Many things were failing including the big roof, whole sections of which would slip with a clattering roar into the lane.”
Disappointingly, the house was initially refused a local authority grant, but almost miraculously, with SPAB’s intervention and guidance from SPAB Scholar David Nye, the Historic Buildings Council made a grant of £500, estimated to be half the cost of re-roofing the oldest section.
“And from there a relationship began for us with some of those concerned with the real care of and attention to historic buildings,” Sonia told me. Sonia cemented the bonds with the SPAB, possibly through meeting something of a kindred spirit in Monica Dance, the legendary SPAB Secretary.
Sonia recalled: “I was in London one day and wanted to check on our SPAB membership. I also had some questions about the house. I knocked on the door at Great Ormond Street and Monica immediately invited me in to her office.” In their own spheres, the two women espoused a direct and very practical approach to all things and soon Sonia was attending courses and meetings, always asking questions and eager to learn more.
“I think I was practically a SPAB Scholar without actually being one,” said Sonia, who went on to host many parties of SPAB Scholars at her fascinating house.
As a longstanding member of the SPAB Main Committee and also Chairman of SPAB’s Education Committee from 1991 to 2005, she continued to bring her practicality, inspiration, enthusiasm and wisdom to the charity. Her passionate commitment to both Scholarship and Fellowship programmes gave them an enviable impetus over many years. And it was this contribution that led to her being given the Society’s Esher Award.
Her involvement with buildings was not restricted to her work for the SPAB. From 1985 to 2003 she was a member of Gloucester Diocesan Advisory Committee, offering incisive comments on a flow of applications for works to churches. She remained a stalwart of the Institution of Structural Engineers History Study Group, and with her friend Clayre Percy spent over 30 enjoyable years choosing the carefully selected libraries and furnishings to be found in Landmark Trust properties. She also worked with the National Trust, advising on repairs to old ships.
Sonia Rolt OBE died in October 2014 at the age of 95.