A pivotal figure in the struggle to save Britain’s inland waterways from decades of institutionalised neglect and destruction has finally secured public recognition for his efforts, 101 years after his birth.
The Inland Waterways Association has unveiled a blue plaque commemorating the life and work of its co-founder and first chairman, Robert Aickman, at his home and workplace at 11 Gower Street, London. The building is currently the headquarters of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA), which is the voice of the UK’s logistics industry.
Leading actor and TV presenter David Suchet CBE, much loved for his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s iconic detective Hercule Poirot, revealed the plaque in a ceremony at the central London location.
Mr Suchet, himself an avid waterways campaigner, said: “Without Robert Aickman we wouldn’t have the waterways we so enjoy today. His efforts, and those of the organisation he founded, are an inspiration to us all and demonstrate what can be achieved through ingenuity, commitment and tenacity.”
Commenting on his predecessor’s achievements, IWA’s current chairman Les Etheridge said: “Aickman’s IWA, driven by his ability to write, orate, organise and lead, revitalised the waterways agenda.
“IWA continues his work with as much urgency today. We are determined to make the waterways better by maintaining political support at Westminster, working closely with navigation authorities to protect and improve our navigable waterways and continuing to drive the now thriving restoration movement to extend them further.”
In the decades following World War II, successive governments pursued a policy condemning the country’s historic canal and river navigations – the “motorway network” of the Industrial Revolution – to decline and decay, abandoning the waterways and selling off tracts of the system for housing, retail and industrial development.
Robert Aickman and his colleagues, who founded IWA in protest in 1946, fought a determined battle to reverse this policy and win over political and public opinion with an assertive campaign to recover and restore the waterways network.
The success of Aickman and IWA is evidenced by today’s 3,600 miles of navigable canals and rivers, now rightly recognised as one of the country’s richest heritage and leisure resources.
Peter Ward, CEO of UKWA, commented: “As host to the unveiling ceremony, UKWA is delighted to welcome IWA. As a boat owner myself I am very aware of the organisation’s good work and have also worked closely with IWA in a previous role - Chief Executive of Freight by Water, now part of FTA. Today, our organisations have a shared vision for modal shift, for economic and environmental benefit for UK plc, which is relevant to a number of UKWA members.”