William Bliss: canoeing author and waterways pioneer


I reported back in 2011 on the book Camping by Water by Noel Carrington & Patricia Cavendish published in 1950. It was my first venture into reviewing early books concerned with canoeing rather than motor boating. In that post I noted that my book collection had already been extended to more unconventional waterways literature because I had also obtained a copy of Solo & Duet by SirJohn Squire which contains a description of the author’s 1938 canoe journey with William Bliss along sections of the Oxford Canal, Grand Union and River Avon. I also reported that I had yet to review this literary work because I didn’t find it easy to summarise, the book being more about the author’s views on a whole variety of subjects rather than about their waterways journey.
What I didn’t realise at the time was where the Squire book was eventually to lead me, and what a rich vein of old waterways literature lay in front of me. It took me some time to discover it, and also sometime to appreciate it fully, but I now feel that I should start posting about some more early canoeing books. These books all come from the pen of William Bliss who wrote about canoeing and who loved the waterways, particularly the canals, with passion. His 1934 book Canoeing has a preface by no less a person than that great inland waterways champion A.P. Herbert which begins with the words “Canoe! Canal!! Magical words”.
I had always promised myself that one day I would investigate the mysterious “Bliss” that Squire often refers to in his book, but I failed to do much about it until around a year ago. Squire describes him as being a famous author of books about canoeing, and gives some details of his life, but I was unaware of how strong was Bliss’s commitment to inland waterways in general and canals in particular.
William Bliss isn’t exactly a name that comes to mind when discussing the leisure use of waterways in the early twentieth century. I had wrongly assumed given the popularity of canoeing that Bliss would perhaps be a household name in that world, but that turns out to be wrong. Even in canoeing circles he appears at most to be an “unsung hero” and is often unknown.  A recent posting on a discussion forum dedicated to books on early canoeing said " William Bliss seems to be a forgotten figure in British Canoeing. It seems that he may have been one of the true pioneers" 
However, he isn’t entirely forgotten in waterways’ circles because the Old Waterways Books blog site reviewed Bliss's book Heart of England by Waterway some time ago and Mick, who runs the site, owns a signed copy of the book.
 
Frontispiece of Heart of England by Waterway by William Bliss (1933)
Presumably of the Author reading his notes while resting in a lock
 
So, what did I do about researching William Bliss? My first step was to obtain a copy of Heart of England by Waterway. I am now a proud (perhaps very proud?) owner of a good condition first edition (1933). It is without any inscription or dust jacket. I read it cover to cover and found it one of the most evocative waterways books I have ever read. It is just fascinating and the language is wonderful. I suggest that readers find the excellent post on Old Waterways Books where it is reviewed and some of the best passages in the book are quoted. Readers may also recall that I included an amusing anecdote from the book in my post about the Red Lion at Cropredy.
I then moved on and purchased a first edition of another Bliss book - Rapid Waters (1935) which, as the name suggests, is about canoeing on rivers rather than navigations. Although perhaps less interesting to a canal enthusiast, I couldn’t help buying this copy because it was signed by the author and it has an intriguing dedication. This copy has suffered water damage, although I thought that this was apt given the subject matter – did it fall overboard from a canoe?!
Finally, I purchased a first edition (1934) of Canoeing: The Art and Practice of Canoeing on English Rivers, Navigations and Canals, with a Description and Tables of Distances of the Canoeable Waterways of England and Wales. (What a great subtitle!)
These three books by Bliss, and the book by Squire about his travels with Bliss, have made me a confirmed William Bliss enthusiast. By using references from these books, searching some web-based sources, and visiting the area where Bliss lived, I have managed to piece together something of his life. I have also made an uncanny connection between Bliss and the navigation notes that Mick of Old Waterways books found inside his copy of Heart of England by Waterway.
What I intend to do is to post reviews of all four books along with a further post about what I have discovered about the life and waterways journeys of William Bliss. This post is effectively a preface to this series.