Friday 17 May 2024

The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together (Yorkshire Post, 31st August 1948)

Robert Aickman’s primary ambition was always to be an author, but during his lifetime his public profile was that of the co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, which campaigned for the restoration of the canals of Britain. The IWA’s activities can be judged a success, although Aickman baffled a lot of people by claiming its achievements actually constituted a failure.
He admitted that L.T.C. Rolt was the co-founder of the IWA, but Aickman was often at pains to suggest that he himself had been the prime mover behind the association, and that he undertook by far the largest share of the work, for which he was never properly paid. There is a great deal to be said for this version of events, although such a campaigning organisation may well have been created anyway (pressure was already building), many other people also put in valuable and little-acknowledged work over many years, and there are some who argue that Aickman’s role was sometimes divisive and may have actually held back the IWA. (Also, Aickman’s accounting seems to have been slightly opaque.) However, after several years of hard work, Aickman was the victor in the various battles against the authorities and many of his own enemies within the IWA, and was therefore able to write the history in The River Runs Uphill.
Cressy at Tardebigge (Photo by Hugh McKnight)
In my Biography of Robert Aickman I make a point of questioning the author’s account of his important first meeting with L.T.C. Rolt at Tardebigge, on Rolt’s boat, Cressy, because it seems to me indicative of not just how Aickman tells the story of the IWA, but also the rest of his life. Most autobiographers are centre stage in their work, and they naturally choose how they present their material. We know we are seeing events from their point of view, and with understandable biases, but we like to think they can be trusted.

A rare photo of Angela Rolt, with Tom behind her.

The problem with Aickman’s account of the meeting at Tardebigge in August 1945 is that he clearly implies that only he and Rolt were there, with Rolt’s wife Angela in a supporting, but mainly decorative role. However, surviving letters in the National Archives suggest that Aickman mythologised his account of their first meeting when he described it in 1968, twenty-three years after the event. The most obvious deviation from the facts is the omission of his wife, Ray, from the account. She was certainly on board Cressy when the two men met for the first time. Admittedly, Aickman may have excised Ray from his account because he had a lifelong detestation of the institution of marriage and did not like admitting that he had wife. He was also horrified when Ray divorced him, leaving their marriage to become a nun (which he might have expected people to consider a judgement on his own failings as a husband, rather than to the attractions of the religious life).

Robert and Ray Aickman

But Aickman also seemed to have left out of the account of the Cressy meeting his friends Howard and Joan Coster. The couple wanted to meet Tom Rolt because they were planning on buying a narrow boat themselves, and were seeking his advice. I was careful how I put this in my Aickman biography because there had been a last-minute change of date for the meeting and I didn’t know for sure if they had been available for the rearranged rendezvous at Tardebigge.

   However, I have recently received a copy of the newly published The Life of L.T.C. Rolt by Victoria Owens. The book is a very readable account of an interesting and likeable figure, and I was intrigued to see that Owens states categorically that the Costers were present at the Tardebigge meeting. When I asked her for clarification, Victoria quoted from an exchange of letters between Joan Coster and Ray Aickman in the National Archives I had not seen. Writing to Ray on 13th August 1945, Joan thanked her for arranging a pleasant weekend. In her reply dated 17th August 1945, Ray wrote:

'I am glad you enjoyed seeing Cressy.'

This would appear to be conclusive evidence.

Joan and Howard Coster

But am I making too much of Aickman’s omission of half the people who were on Cressy that day? After all, Aickman is correct in the essentials that he and Rolt were there and that they discussed the formation of a campaign organisation. It was an account that was endorsed by Rolt himself, even after the two men had become bitter enemies.

I believe the omissions are important because all six people on the boat were there because of a shared interest in the waterways, and all would have a vested interest in seeing the canals maintained and hopefully restored. It seems highly unlikely that the formation of a pressure group would not have been discussed by all six, and that everyone would have had some input into the discussion.

In his defence, I should point out that Aickman was a great believer in rhetoric. He also believed that causing trouble was more effective than engaging in reasoned debate. The creation of the myth of Tardebigge was useful, not just as a shorthand explanation of what took place on Cressy at Tardebigge, but it would also have sidelined those who attended the first official IWA meeting in London a short while later.

A biographer stands or falls through the accuracy of the details they supply, while also trying to tell an engaging and honest story. The same criteria should go for those writing autobiography. The trouble with being discovered to have manipulated particular facts is that it causes the reader to question everything else they have written.


Robert Aickman: A Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2023


With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.


  1. As much as I love his fiction, it's disappointing how (mildly) unlikable Aickman the man comes across as. I haven't re-read Aickman's fiction in a while, since I read your Biography of him probably. I'm curious as to whether knowledge of the author (in this instance) will make for a greater appreciation of his fictional writing, or not.

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  3. I suspect that every reader will have a different answer. The more I find out about Aickman, the more odd and complex he seems to me. There are certainly aspects of his personality that I find unpleasant (his politics, for a start), and other attitudes I just think are perverse (his ideas and actions when it came to love). But I am interested to know why he was this way, not least because his beliefs and behaviour did not seem to make him any happier (in fact, often the reverse.) But none of this has put me off his writing.


The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together ( Yorkshire Post , 31st August 1948) Robert Aickman’s primary ambition w...