Thanks Edward.

Edward Paget-Tomlinson, author, artist, museum curator and painstaking historian, Ken Keay

Our waterways have lost a great champion last month with the death of Edward Paget-Tomlinson, author, artist, museum curator and painstaking historian - and that’s just the start! His greatness - and I use that word after a lot of careful consideration - was that these practical jobs, all done with craftsmanship and care, were combined in him with gentlemanly generosity and thoughtful philosophy as well. Edward constantly strove to record and analyse that special essence that so fired the enthusiasm of the post-war waterway preservation and restoration movement. He had an innate understanding of those subtle balances that gave the canal system its special flavour, the balance between work and life, between utility and aesthetics. Throughout his life he worked to preserve and promote that special value through his writing, his detailed historical research and his hundreds of paintings and illustrations.

Fine and academic so far, but Edward’s approach was much more practical and involved with the human effort that underlies any historical story, surprisingly so when one considers his character and upbringing. He was a big shy man, polite to the point of reticence and apparently a typical result of a traditional public school and university education. He looked and behaved like an archetypal conservative gentleman of an old-fashioned kind, even when he was young, but as his own son recognised in a very thoughtful and affectionate funeral speech, Edward was the most bohemian conservative or conservative bohemian ever. Part of that oddity was his generous liking and respect for people of absolutely any class, trade or upbringing. All he required was honesty and genuineness, just the sort of characteristic that would immediately recognise exactly those traits in Edward. Once the introductions were made and the reticence overcome he had a magic ability to draw out information from anybody, for they felt their knowledge was being properly respected and valued. Most were very happy to be a part of Edward’s research - quietly honoured in fact. Meanwhile Edward was feeling genuinely honoured himself by being allowed into this knowledge. What a man!

The relationship that Edward built up with the late Ken Keay, the Black Country boat builder, is typical… It started as a simple business deal. Edward bought the Thos. Clayton oil boat ‘Gifford’ in 1970 to save it, to preserve it from conversion. However it already needed some serious repair and rebuilding work, even then, but at that time there were very few surviving boatyards that could still undertake wooden narrow boat work. Ken Keay’s yard in Walsall was one and, as I already knew him, I made the introductions and the deal was done. But something quickly emerged between Ken and Edward that was more complex than a simple business arrangement and much stronger than a simple friendship. Ken was very conscious that his boatyard at Walsall and the bit of coal carrying traffic that he still had was probably a final remnant, the last struggling bit of the once vital canal carrying trade of the Midlands. He had been born and apprenticed to it but it had been visibly declining for the whole of his life. Although he was bravely branching out towards the emerging pleasure boat market his heart was still with the real thing, the honest trade of the Midland boatbuilder, serving the needs of the local coal traffic on the canals of the BCN. He knew that the experience and knowledge that he carried was getting rarer and felt a certain burden of responsibility but… how to pass this knowledge on, and who to..?

And then Edward hove into sight. Not only was he a very significant customer, for this ‘Gifford’ job would keep the yard going for quite a while, but here at last was an academic concerned historian as well, someone trying to record the reality, the boatbuilding techniques and the tiny details. Edward also saw it all in its historical place too, from ocean square-riggers through humble coastal vessels taking the mud in tidal creeks to the cinders and horse muck of the Midland coal boats, all were important historic transport and all their tradesmen deserved equal respect and study. As the work on ‘Gifford’ progressed so a regular pattern of visits to the yard emerged, ostensibly to see how the job was going but really to learn, to watch the work in progress, or to sit in the hovel at snap time listening to Ken and his boatbuilders reminiscing. Through it all sat Edward the historian, very frequently collapsing in fits of laughter at the Black Country stories, the local slang, the backchat and the outrageous scams, hugely enjoying this complete world that was new to him, but still making notes, still recording history.

Ken and Edward were each doing their own chosen jobs with care and craftsmanship, but each had a total uncritical respect for the dedication of the other. It became a creative partnership, each helping the other to analyse and understand the canal world that they were involved with without artifice, without prejudice and without any romantic elaboration. As with Ken, so to many others Edward gave generously—help, advice, historical information, taking a positive pleasure in being of assistance to somebody else. That’s generosity, and that was Edward, and he will be sorely missed.

Top right; Edward and John Robinson measuring the Mossdale in Northwich in 1971.
Second Right; Edward, at Ken Keay's yard, in the background as usual.
Third Right; Ken Keay's boatyard at Walsall. 1972
Bottom Right: Gifford newly arrived at the fledgling Ellesmere Port Boat Museum.
Left; Autumnal waterways view taken coincidentally on the day that Edward died.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, December 1st 2003


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