Robert Aickman Tribute

Photos: Main - Robert and Ray Aickman seated in the bow of Cressy on their way to Banbury in April 1946. Inset - Robert Aickman steering a narrowboat.
Created on 24/02/2014

2014 marks the centenery of the birth of one of IWA's founders, Robert Aickman. In the Spring 2014 issue of Waterways magazine, David Bolton takes a look back at this iconic figure.

Robert Aickman devoted over 20 years of his life to working for IWA, although he had not travelled on a canal boat until after he had taken the initiative to form a campaigning body.

The early days: It was on one of his rare visits outside the metropolis to Stratford upon Avon to see productions by the then Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company that he decided to take a walk, between plays, along the old canal. He was horrified to find that it was no more than a stagnant, weedy, stinking ditch with no boats in sight and virtually unnavigable. At around the same time, Aickman had read Narrow Boat, the account by L.T.C. Rolt of his life with his wife, Angela.

Aickman suggested a meeting with Rolt to discuss the possibility of founding a body to campaign for the revival of the canals. Following Tom Rolt’s reply, Robert and Ray Aickman visited Cressy (the boat belonging to Tom Rolt) moored at Tardebigge in August 1945.

About six months later, the inaugural meeting of IWA was held. Robert was elected chairman and Tom, Hon Secretary. They were united in their aim to develop the commercial use of the canals and improve the life of the working boater – originally, there was little or no thought of using the waterways for purely leisure use.

Campaigning: The main debate over the future of Britain’s waterways became a national issue when the British Transport Commission set up a theoretically independent Board of Survey to report on future waterways policy. When the British Transport Commission’s report was published in April 1955, the outcome confirmed what had long been feared; only a small portion of 336 miles, mainly composed of navigable rivers and ship canals, were classified as “waterways to be developed,” whereas the remaining 1,765 miles, comprising the entire cross-country network, were given little or no future.

Aickman had already started to cultivate a lobby of MPs. He had circulated IWA’s leaflet, entitled Our Case, to all MPs with proposing the formation of an Inland Waterways Conservancy, and received encouraging responses from some 40 members. From the situation only a few years earlier in which there would have been little concern about waterways at Westminster, there were now MPs standing up to defend their local canals.

There was still a long struggle in Parliament and the corridors of Whitehall until the target of retaining most canals and the setting up of a specifically waterways authority under the 1968 Transport Act, were achieved.

From the earliest days of IWA, Aickman started up a regular Bulletin to keep members informed and for many years continued to edit it and write the majority of each issue. As the Association obtained recognition, so accordingly the Bulletin gained a wider circulation and became an influential means of communication.

Aickman's leadership of IWA’s campaign over those vital 20 years saved Britain’s waterways network almost in its entirety, and since the 1960s hundreds of miles have been added to the network through the restoration of many of those waterways that fell by the wayside both before and after IWA was formed, and IWA continues this work today. Although there have been other IWA volunteers who have made important contributions over the years, Robert Aickman deserves the recognition that he was not given in his lifetime for his dedicated commitment to the waterways campaign, resulting in what is today, on the whole, a flourishing and expanding network in far better shape than it was when he took his walk along the Stratford Canal in 1945.

Read the full article by David Bolton in Spring 2014 issue of Waterways Magazine on page 14.
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