Major Rowland Raven-Hart and his “Canoeing in Ireland”

Canoeing in Ireland by Major R Raven-Hart, author of Canoe Errant and Canoe Errant on the Nile, was published by The Canoe & Small Boat Ltd (which described itself as the magazine for small craft enthusiasts, calling to mind dwarf and elf knitters and embroiderers). The book itself gives no publication date; Amazon thinks it was published in 1940, which seems unlikely as there were other distractions at the time; Stefan Schmidt gives the date as 1938, which seems right to me.

Canoeing in Ireland, with the rebuilt Kilsheelan Bridge on the front cover

birth and education

I have found no website giving a comprehensive account of Raven-Hart’s life, but he is mentioned in many places. The Journal of the Polynesian Society gave this information in 1956:

Major R. Raven-Hart was born in 1889 in Ireland and he was educated at London, Paris and Berlin. After being with the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff in Egypt during the First World War, Major Raven-Hart served in the R.A.F. in the Second World War. His hobby was to travel by canoe along rivers such as the Nile and Mississippi. Now a resident of Ceylon, he is working on the topography of the Dutch period.

Despite his RAF service, he seems to have retained his Army title throughout his life.

His name is given in some places as Roland and in others as Rowland. Is he the Roland James Milleville Raven-Hart referred to here? If so, he was the only son of Edith Fairbrother and William Raven-Hart, was born on 13 November 1889 but in Hatismere, Suffolk, England, rather than in Donegal in Ireland and had one sister, Hester Margaret Emilie Raven-Hart, who was born in 1890 and died after (?) 1945, having co-authored Manners and Movement in Costume Plays.

He may have attended Drax Grammar School, at Selby in North Yorkshire, under Mr [Bill] Drennan, passing the Certificate Examination of the College of Preceptors at Christmas 1906 with First Place in English Language and joint First Place in Arithmetic and Geometry and coming in the First Class {or Senior} Honours Division in English, Arithmetic, Geometry, Drawing and Sound, Light & Heat.

The Great War

Again, if he is the R J M Raven-Hart referred to here, then he attended London University and served in its Officers Training Corps under Lt Col D S Capper before joining the Suffolk Regiment, becoming signalling officer. Richard Boyle says that Raven-Hart also served in the French Army in the Great War. He was also reported to have served in the Intelligence Department alongside, and to have been a friend of, Col T E Lawrence (of Arabia). The University of London OTC roll of war service says he was in the Suffolk Regiment and the Royal Engineers and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

He was Mentioned in Despatches:

RAVEN-HART, Temp Capt (Actg Maj) Rowland James Milleville, Gen List, attd RE + Allenby’s Despatches of 23 Oct 1918 and 5 Mch 1919

He got an OBE (gazetted 3 June 1919) “For valuable services rendered in connection with military operations in Egypt”.

According to the Straits Times in 1937,

After the War Major Raven-Hart returned to his profession of radio engineer in South America, where he worked for several years. He retired five years ago and took to travelling in a canoe.

Hitler’s war

Roland James Raven Hart is listed as one of 766 Argentinian volunteers who served with the Allies in World War II; he is described as a Pilot Officer RAFVR. He was described as a “former RAF officer” when he settled in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.


Again according to the Straits Times in 1937,

He is perhaps the only river canoeist alive.

Raven-Hart seems to have covered many of Europe’s rivers, and described his journeys in Canoe Errant; he is also reported to have canoed on the Rhone, the Irrawaddy, the Mississippi, the Rhine, the Murray-Darling and Australian lakes, the Swanee, the Dalmation coast and the Nile.

Other writings

He co-authored an article on “Wireless Music” with the composer Lennox Berkeley in The Nineteenth Century CVII, 1930, 635. He also wrote “Musical Acculturation in Tonga” in Oceania 26: 110-7.

He wrote books and articles about the Torres Straits, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Fiji (including an article about a dialect) and South Africa, including this:

“Heydt’s Ceylon” has been translated into English from the German language, in which it was written in 1744, by the well known canoeist Major R. Raven-Hart at the request of the Government of Ceylon.

Lonely Planet says

Raven-Hart’s book [Ceylon, History in Stone] is frequently cited as the best historical introduction to the country for the general reader and he is an excellent writer who knew Ceylon, its culture, history and people as few others ever did. He also wrote in a lively and entertaining manner.

Several of his books had Dutch themes, like The Dutch Wars with Kandy. In all, he is said to have produced 53 works in 90 publications in three languages as writer, compiler, editor and translator. Richard Boyle says that he spoke five languages and could read twelve; the same article lists some of Raven-Hart’s writings.

Later life

Raven-Hart seems to have been at least partly responsible for persuading Arthur C Clarke, a fellow communications engineer, to live in Ceylon:

En route [to Australia], the ship docked in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where Clarke met Major R. Raven-Hart, OBE, “a remarkable linguist and lover of exotic places, cultures and mores,” says Clarke. “It was my first introduction to the fabulous East. I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.”

Richard Boyle made the same point:

But to begin at the beginning, Arthur’s ‘Lanka Saga’ really commenced in November 1954, when the Himalaya set sail from London to Australia with the 36-year-old writer on board. The objective was to join up with Mike Wilson (his friend of several years who had introduced him to diving) on an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef. In December, the ship docked for half a day at Colombo. This gave Arthur the chance to see a little of the city in the company of two people whose mutual friends had suggested he look up them.

One was Major R. Raven-Hart O.B.E, who was resident in Ceylon during the 1950s and 1960s. Arthur rates him as one of the most unforgettable characters he has ever met, a fusion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Summerlee and the traveller, Sir Richard Burton. Raven-Hart fascinates me as I heard intriguing stories about him from Mike and I admire his books, especially Where The Buddha Trod (1956) and Ceylon History in Stone (1964).

Raven-Hart himself left Ceylon in 1963; from the fact that his later books were about southern Africa, it is possible that he moved to South Africa, but I have no direct evidence on the matter. He is said to have died in 1971.

A prolific cruiser

One site describes Raven-Hart as  “One of the most prolific cruisers in the early twentieth century”. It is not clear whether the pun is intentional.

The Straits Times wrote in 1937:

Wants Ceylon Boy.

“When I come back to Ceylon,” Major Raven-Hart said, “I want to find a Ceylon boy to accompany me over your rivers.”

The Port-na-Storm blog, with its photo of the Major with a Burmese boy, expresses surprise at the ease with which the Major got his choice of companion from a Mission School. He was known to canoe naked and to swim naked; Ronald Hyam in Empire and Sexuality: the British Experience says

Wilfrid Thesiger enjoyed the company of Arabian youths, while the intrepid canoeist, Major Raven-Hart, was on equally close terms with Egyptian, Sudanese, Burmese and Sinhalese boys, writing up [in the 1930s] his adventures with an incidental candour about his relationships which would have rendered them unpublishable had they concerned British boys.

Stephen Wayne Foster, in “Travel and Exploration” in William A Percy’s Enyclopedia of Homosexuality, puts Raven-Hart in the category of homosexual questers:

Some homosexual (usually pederastic) men have practically made a career out of wandering around the globe in search of exotic boys […].

Allen Carr’s article discusses Raven-Hart’s interest in teenage boys; he employed several at a time in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, sending them home, with money, when they reached 18 or 19.

There is an excellent overview here.

Raven-Hart in Ireland

Raven-Hart’s book on canoeing in Ireland is a short one, just forty pages including the front matter, index and a couple of ads. It provides general advice on canoeing and camping in Eire as well as covering these waters:

  • Shannon
  • Erne
  • Lough Gill
  • Killarney
  • Lakes [sic] Mask and Corrib *
  • Some Coastal Areas *
  • The Barrow
  • The Slaney *
  • The Suir
  • The Nore *
  • The Cork Blackwater
  • The Boyne and the Liffey
  • The Bann and Lough Neagh *
  • Strangford and Carlingford Loughs *
  • River and Lough Foyle *
  • A South Ireland Cruise.

Those asterisked are the waters he did not travel himself.

This is a guide-book, not an account of a voyage, and there is no information about his companions (although, from the photographs, it is clear that he had some). Nor is there anything to suggest that he sought, much less found, any exotic boys in the rural Ireland of the 1930s.

Canoeing in Ireland (Rowland Raven-Hart)

22 responses to “Major Rowland Raven-Hart and his “Canoeing in Ireland”

  1. Pingback: The upper Barrow | Irish waterways history

  2. Valerie Stevenson

    Roland’s father was William Roland Raven who seems to have added the Hart when he married Edith Hester Maria O’Neill Fairbrother on 5 February 1889, the daughter of James Fairbrother of Roscommon and Margaret Maria Hart of Roscommon. William Raven-Hart was a clergyman in Fressingfield, Suffolk in 1911. I have a lot more information about the family. Valerie

  3. Thank you for that interesting information. I would be grateful if you could resolve the matter of Roland’s place of birth. bjg

  4. I have found and I am working on information about his radio work in South America. He was born in a city or town named Glenalla (sic) acc. to the papers I have. Regards, Horacio, Uruguay, So. America.

  5. Thanks, Horacio. Glenalla seems to be a townland (rural area) in County Donegal, near Rathmullan and Ra[th]melton; this link should take you to Glenalla House on the 25″ Ordnance Survey of Ireland map from around 1900; you can zoom out or change to a different view. This history of the Hart family of Donegal does indeed say that [some unspecified] Raven Harts spent three years at the rectory in Glenalla, leaving in 1892, which would have allowed Ro[w]land to be born at Glenalla. There are some other mentions of Ravens in the Hart history book but it is difficult to follow.

    Here is the link to your page about Raven-Hart. If you publish anything more on the internet about his radio work, I’d be happy to provide a link to it.


  6. Excellent; thank you very much indeed. A very interesting article about an aspect of Raven-Hart’s career that I had known almost nothing about. bjg

  7. Sorry, used to write in German:

    Jede Menge Material zu Raven-Hart ist hier zu finden:

    Click to access bum5-inhalt.pdf

    (Thomas Theisinger: Raven-Hart – oder wie wird man ausgerechnet Faltbootschriftsteller? S. 81)
    Angefangen vom Eintrag im Taufregister, wo sein Vater, der ihn getauft hat, Roland geschrieben hat, nicht Rowland. Canoeing in Ireland ist von 1938.
    Online sind meine in deutscher Sprache geschriebenen Artikel nicht verfügbar.

  8. Thank you. From Google Translate:

    A lot of material to Raven-Hart can be found here [PDF]: (Thomas Theis Inger: Raven-Hart – or how to become just Faltbootschriftsteller page 81) Starting with the entry in the baptismal register, where his father, who baptized him, Roland wrote, not Rowland. Canoeing in Ireland is of the 1938th Online are my written in German language article not available.

    Working on the elements separately, I take it that Faltbootschriftsteller is a writer about folding boats (perhaps canoes?).

    I used Google Translate again to translate the text in the editorial summary of the article:

    There are (for the first time in the international Canoe literature ever!) A picture of life of Thomas Theisinger over R. Raven-Hart, the incomprehensibly completely unknown Writer and writer from Ireland, in the its hard folding boat during the thirties is tramping around till the fifties through the whole world, and has written a number of books.

    I am glad to know that there is some German interest in Raven-Hart. Thank you.


  9. I have just finished reading ‘Canoe Errant’ (1935) about Raven-Hart’s voyages in folding kayaks around the waterways of France (where he was living in the early 1930s), Switzerland, Imperial Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia. A couple of comments which might help clarify some of the questions which have asked above:
    1. He mentions that he was a signaller during the First World War, and says he discussed this with a former German Army signaller, who had also served in Palestine. So this would imply that he is the same as the Roland James Milleville Raven-Hart mentioned in the British National Archives Arme Service records here:
    2. He mentions his sister joining him for a holiday in Belgium (I think it was), but never mentions any other family, which would tie in with him having only one sister.
    3. The quote from Hyam’s book above is factually incorrect. Hyam implies that Raven-Hart had a supposed proclivity for indigenous teenage boys from around the Empire, and describes R-H “writing up [in the 1930s] his adventures with an incidental candour about his relationships which would have rendered them unpublishable had they concerned British boys.” In fact, in ‘Canoe Errant’ R-H describes his travels around Europe with youths and young men whom he invariably calls ‘boys’, but who range in age from 15 to early 20s. Most of these canoeing companions were German, although he also travelled with Frenchmen, Yugoslavs (of various nationalities), Americans and on at least two occasions with British schoolboys, aged 15 and 16 if I remember correctly, whose respective parents permitted and encouraged them to go on week-long or longer voyages with R-H. He had the practice of planning an expedition and then advertising in local and national newspapers for travelling companions, although he not infrequently met up with willing volunteers at one or other of the numerous ‘canoe stations’ which abounded on German rivers in the inter-war years.
    4. The fact that R-H did frequently express his liking for his companions and his repeated mentioning that they regularly stopped to bathe naked and also often paddled naked, and his frank expressions of admiration for their physiques does give his writing, to us nowadays, a homoerotic flavour. But, actually, I do not think that it was read that way in the 1930s. The praise for ‘Canoe Errant’ from respectable British newspapers, including the Times and Sunday Times, indicates that his books were not seen as homoerotic at the time. The Geographical Journal review said, “He has captured something of the happy vagrant river life. It is an authoritative work, crammed with practical advice.” and The Scouter, magazine of the Boy Scouts, said, “A text-book of international Scout comradeship, a saga of modern exploration, and one of the jolliest books that has ever been compiled.” I think that this exactly captures what he was describing: boyish, jolly, vagrant fun and comradeship, ‘simply messing about in boats’, but that today we – with our jaded and, let’s be frank, more debased minds, see this kind of writing through a distorting sexualised lens, not understanding the innocency and naivety of the times in which it was written.

  10. Thank you very much for this additional and useful information.

    I’m not sure that I accept the line of reasoning in your fourth point. R-H’s writings may well have been read with “innocence and naivety” in the 1930s but that is not evidence to show that they were written in the same light. And if our minds are now “more debased”, it may be because we have learned so much about how powerful folk, even those in the public eye, could prey upon younger people.

    I have no evidence about R-H’s proclivities or activities, though.


  11. Thomas Theisinger

    Canoe-Errant ist geradezu eine Bekenntnisschrift – das konnten 1935 aber nur Leser erkennen, denen eine gewisse Literatur in Deutschland bekannt war. „Alf“ von Bruno Vogel behandelt eindeutig die Homoerotik, „Kampf um Odilienberg“ von Erich Ebermayer ist ein Schlüsselroman, der einen pädophilen Reformpädagogen namens Wyneken erkennen lässt. Voll verstehen konnte man Raven-Harts Anliegen damals im Grunde nur in Deutschland und auch da nur in ziemlich eingeschränkten Kreisen. Die positiven Besprechungen in fast allen großen Zeitungen sind also in der Beziehung belanglos, zumal Canoe-Errant ein absolut großartiges Buch ist.
    Mein Artikel: „Raven-Hart – kein einfacher Fall“ in der Zeitschrift KANU-SPORT Oktober 2015 Seiten 20 – 25 behandelt dieses Thema ausgiebig. Eine Übersetzung davon gibt es natürlich nicht.
    Vielleicht noch der Ordnung halber: Sein Faltboot hat die Firma „Hart“ in München hergestellt, das ist ein Familienname, der nicht mit „hard“ übersetzt werden kann.

  12. Google Translate renders that as

    Canoe-Errant is almost a confession – which were in 1935 but recognized only reader, which was known a certain literature in Germany. “Alf” Bruno Vogel treated uniquely homoeroticism, “fight for Odilienberg” by Erich Ebermayer is a roman à clef, which reveals a pedophile education reformers called Wyneken. could understand full you Raven-Hart’s concern at that time basically in Germany and then only in very limited circles. The positive reviews published in most major newspapers are therefore in a Relationship inconsequential, especially Canoe-Errant is an absolutely great book. My article, “Raven-Hart – not a simple case,” in the journal CANOE SPORT October 2015 pages 20-25 covers this topic extensively. A translation of it, can not happen. Perhaps half of the order: His Folding the company “hard” has produced in Munich, which is a name that can not be translated as “hard”.

    I would be grateful to anyone who can improve the translation. bjg

  13. I have made an attempt to translate Thomas’s comment. Phrases which I am unsure of are indicated by (?) at the end. Words which I add in to make the meaning clear are enclosed in square brackets. I hope this helps.

    ‘Canoe-Errant’ is almost a confession, which was a type of literature known in Germany – but which, in 1935, only [certain] readers could recognise. ‘Alf’ by Bruno Vogel, unambiguously dealt with homoeroticism; ‘Battle for Odilienberg’ by Erich Ebermeyer is a novel which portrays a paedophile teacher called Wyneken (?). Basically at that time one could fully understand Raven-Hart’s message only in Germany and then only in very limited circles. The positive reviews published in most major newspapers are therefore irrelevant in this regard, especially as Canoe-Errant is an absolutely terrific book. My article, “Raven-Hart – not a simple case,” in the journal ‘KANU-SPORT’, October 2015, pages 20-25, covers this topic extensively. There is, of course, no translation of it [available in English]. Perhaps even more to the point(?): His folding kayak was made by the company ‘Hart’ in Munich, which is a surname that could be translated as “hard”.

  14. Alan: thank you very much indeed for taking so much trouble and for making comprehensible what Google Translate only confused. bjg

  15. Thomas Theisinger

    Thank You Alan. The first sentence really means: Only readers having notice (special kind of knowledge) could be aware back then, that Canoe-Errant was in reality a kind of an outing. The last “?” may be understood as “for the sake of completeness”. The last sentence is tricky. Hart indeed is a surname, the name of the company – at the same time “hart” is an German adjective with the meaning: “hard”. But in this case, it is NOT correct to translate literally, because the name of the company can not be changed.
    Hope this may help.

  16. Hi Thomas, thank you for clearing up my poor German; I have some German friends here in England whom I should have asked for help, but my family are so embarrassed by my passion for folding kayaks (Faltboote) and the fact that I keep trying to read old books in German on kayak-touring in the 1920s and 30s, that I am literally forbidden from mentioning the subject to any of our German-speaking friends!

  17. David Trembath

    There is a compelling picture in Canoe To Mandalay of an unhappy child held tight in the major’s grip. The child was recruited at a school. I found his writings oddly fascinating in the way he got away with it. Read them because he truly was an awful man – conceited, perverse and remarkably complacent in his immunity from prosecution. There must have been thousands of them in the health and nature movements. My father claimed to have met him in Australia and thought him an absurd fraud.

  18. Thank you. I think that’s the closest we’ve had to a personal acquaintance, albeit at one remove, and it makes me wonder what impression he made on others who knew him. bjg

  19. Thomas Theisinger

    He was NOT immune from prosecution. 1940 he was fined £ 10 for sending indecent photographs through the post (boys in the nude). Bow-Street Police Court. That’s one of the facts I could dig out (internet as that) while I was writing the article mentioned above.

  20. Raven-Hart’s connection with intelligence in WW1 was in the field of signals intelligence. From April 1918 he commanded ‘2 Wireless Observation Group’ in Egypt – the unit responsible for wireless interception. In WW2 he was commissioned in the army as a 2nd Lieutenant, General List in Sep 1939 and relinquished his commission in March 1940 (possibly as a result of his conviction?). He next appears serving as Sergeant in the ‘Technical Branch’ of the RAF in Apr 1943, at which point he is commissioned as Pilot Officer in the same branch.

    An ‘interesting’ life.

  21. Thank you. Good to see that there is still more information to be added! bjg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.