regentscanal200th - Regent's Canal 200th

The 200th anniversary of the Regent’s Canal! It officially opened on 1st August 1820 to great fanfare and the occasion was to mark the full completion of the canal from Little Venice through to the Regent’s Canal Dock (nowadays known as Limehouse Marina.) This is in fact the second 200th anniversary of the canal – the first was to mark the completion and opening of the canal as far as Camden Town.

The canal was influenced by the arrival of the Grand Junction at Paddington in 1801. Somewhat ironic for one day the Regent’s Canal would not only link to the Grand Junction but be its owner too. In 1928/29 the Regent’s Canal Company bought up the Grand Junction and other associated waterways (in fact a merger to keep the canals alive and fully competitive against road & rail traffic) and this became known the Grand Union Canal Company – without a doubt Britain’s biggest single waterways authority to date.

The Grand Junction had linked the Midlands to the Thames by way of a more direct route than an older one via Oxford – and no doubt the Regent’s company too wanted to do the same, because otherwise to get to the Thames ironically involved a long circuitous route too. Thus the idea was the new canal through London should link as many of the city’s industrial areas as possible as well as effect the shortest possible route to the Thames.

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1850 official map of the completed Regent’s Canal by Charles Lee – quite different from the originally planned route! Source: Twitter

It was such an easy idea. It looked good on plans but in practice it was to be quite difficult. Clearly the locks down to the Thames and the long tunnel at Islington ensured this section of canal took a considerable length of time to complete. One small issue was this was whether there was in fact any need for a tunnel and a route was in fact envisaged further south to avoid the need for this. However it would be very long and sinuous – and in light of the problems encountered between Paddington and Camden where the canal originally had planned to go through lower ground to the south, avoiding tunnels, but the later route had been more prodigious in fact and so it was perhaps felt a more direct route was perhaps of more benefit and so the tunnel was built.

Thus it can be said that due to this indecision the completion of the Regent’s Canal took a bit longer than expected, but in a way it was not a surprise because as we saw, the initial section to Camden Town was too beset by indecision and last minute changes. This explains why the Regent’s Canal was built in two sections. The first of course was that to Camden Town and included two tunnels. As briefly alluded to there had been a desire to take the canal further south to avoid high ground to the north – in fact the canal as first projected was from a junction about where the Harrow Road is and thence along an alignment which approximates with the present Church Street, where the canal would have passed under the Edgware Road in a totally different location, before emerging into Regent’s Park about where Alpha Place is.

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Blomfield Road in the days before the trip boats started. Prob late 1940s. This part of the canal was not originally planned. Source: Twitter

One has to remember in the 1800s this route was possible. It did need some demolition of buildings but it wasn’t completely built over. Perhaps the biggest controversy at the western end is it would have gone straight through Paddington Green! The local church didn’t want the canal barging past its front door! The landowners and gentry soon banded together and the planned route towards Regent’s Park itself was most resisted and the planned route moved ever more northwards until the gentry were satisfied it was as out of their way as it possibly could be.

The boating lake in the park would have actually been part of the canal and it seems barges would have in fact been able to turn south and almost reach within an arm’s length of Baker Street. The problem however was no-one wanted barges nor the sight of the bargees themselves – who were seen as low class, dirty, unkempt, very sweary and at time quite violent – and so on because that would have brought the entire area in to disrepute.

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Contemporary illustration by Thomas Shepherd of Macclesfield Bridge in Regent’s Park. Source: Friends of Regent’s Canal

What it meant then was the canal had to be taken along a different route through the park further north and in due course it was effectively banished to the very edge of the park itself. This is of course how the now famous section through the park and past the London Zoo came into being. The tunnel along this length were to be different however there was problems with quicksand and unstable ground which ultimately meant that at Maida Hill had to be made much longer and the other at Lisson Grove shortened.

The other question was, since the canal was effectively barred from using a course through Regent’s Park itself it had to follow the northern perimeter of the park itself. Again this is considerably high ground and it meant a deep cutting for practically the entire length of canal from Maida Hill to Cumberland Turn. In effect it was an expensive canal to build.

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Excavating the Regent’s Canal by John Seguir 1812. This is at a point looking west from where Chalbert Street bridge is these days! Source: Twitter

There’s pictorial evidence of the canal’s route being worked on during 1812 – as Seguirs’ series of paintings depicit – with one example shown above – in the first year of construction, on the north side of the park, and the River Tyburn being diverted into temporary wooden channels in order to permit the deep cutting to be built (but not depicted in the above painting however.) In the distance is what was at the time known as ‘Marylebone church’ (these days its known as St John’s Wood church) – this being before the other Marylebone church further south was built.

Of course this leads to the big question (and which so many have got wrong) this being whether the Tyburn in fact crossed the Regent’s Canal or not. It did at an early stage by way of a specially built aqueduct but during the mid 19th Century that flow was stopped and it was diverted along a new alignment instead which actually took the waters of the Tyburn underneath the canal itself. Chalbert Street footbridge is in fact the old aqueduct over the Regent’s Canal but it has not performed the work of carrying the Tyburn since about 1875. There’s in fact a contraption on the north side of the canal which is proof enough the Tyburn was diverted, but since people want the myth rather than the truth, I’ll leave that to one side!)

A little further along the canal is Macclesfield bridge which we saw in a pictorial drawing earlier. It was otherwise known as ‘Blow Up’ bridge by decree of a massive eruption which occurred in 1874 when a barge laden with gunpowder passing beneath had its load ignited by a spark from a candle – it was one of the biggest explosions ever known at the time – and which was felt/heard many miles away and damaged a lot of properties. The bridge was completely demolished and the canal practically obliterated for a good distance either side of the explosion. There was barely any trace left of the barge or its unfortunate crew. They were no doubt pulverised. The bridge was eventually rebuilt using its original cast iron columns.

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The aftermath of the explosion in 1874. The cast iron columns were reused. Source: Friends of Regent’s Canal

The canal company realised it had a serious perception problem (notwithstanding the near nuclear calamity it’s bargees had once produced in Regent’s Park!) This perception was that canals were not pretty. As a result the canal was beautified by elegant bridges (such as Macclesfield and Chalbert bridges) and architect John Nash was brought in to plan stupendous estates that would line both sides of the canal itself. These were sited where the power station and railway yards which were later built between Lisson Grove and Regent’s Park. Here was North Bank and South Bank. Row upon row of splendid Georgian houses with large gardens overlooking the Regent’s Canal. Its most famous resident here was George Elliot who lived at The Priory on the North Bank.

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Women towing a narrow boat near Macclesfield bridge (the ‘blow up’ bridge) in Regent’s Park. In the distance can be seen Primrose Hill bridge, adjacent to the London Zoo. Source: Sue Wilkes Blogspot

The canal from Cumberland Turn to Camden Town is the only part of the original plans to have been followed upon. This explains why the canal has such a sharp turn left here. Originally it would have come across the park and straight towards Camden. The park and its boating lakes were left alone and the local gentry were no doubt happy at the outcome! No doubt there was a heavy sigh of relief too when the Macclesfield bridge explosion of 1874 took place – for the cutting the canal had to be built through afforded some sort of mitigation from the dreadful explosion – otherwise it would have been far worse. It was bad enough that a lot of properties had their windows completely smashed and roofs blown off – and a few unfortunate ones demolished almost completely!

The bit of canal that led off south towards Euston became known as the Cumberland Arm and it too was beautified by John Nash. I have written about Nash’s influence here. Park Village East and Park Village West thankfully still exist and these give us an idea of what North and South Bank must have once looked. Ironically due to great decline in use the canal itself was filled in just before World War Two. Nevertheless its a fascinating area of exquisite Georgian properties sandwiched between Regent’s Park and Euston railway station.

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The terminus of the canal at Cumberland basin, just off the Euston Road. 1930s. Source: Cumberland Market Estate

The canal to Cumberland basin left the main route at Cumberland Turn. It was once an important branch however it eventually fell into disuse and in its final years old boats were dumped here. The canal and basin was filled in just before WWII. There are some traces of the old canal these days – its route can be seen behind the houses in Park Village East and West although further south the course as been almost entirely built upon. The terminus basin at Cumberland Market no longer exists however its site can be easily discerned.

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The filled in canal basin just after WWII. Source: A London Inheritance

There isnt a comparative Google Street view however the building with a distinctive portico style frontage seen in the above picture is easily seen from Augustus Street.

Another problem with the construction of the canal was the need for a reservoir for the new canal, but after much debate and planning with various sites being considered and plans produced for these reservoirs, it was ultimately decided to do away with this rather important necessity. That wasn’t too much of a problem because the Regent’s Canal would be able to draw water from the Grand Junction Canal which has a good and plentiful supply of water consisting of several reservoirs (Aldenham, Brent and Ruslip) and a number of rivers flowing down from the Chiltern Hills.

Nevertheless the Regent’s Canal company decided to insure itself against any possibly conflicts in terms of water supply and it in fact built a substantial pumping system which back pumped water past each lock right up to Camden Town. For a long time this was just thought to have been a plan that was never put into use, but over the years evidence of this back pumping system and the sites of one or two of the pumping stations has been found.

What this back pumping system meant in fact was boats had to lock up into the Regent’s Canal, this being a rise of about six inches, from the Grand Junction and that was because the Regent’s company didn’t want to lose the precious water it had so prodigiously pumped back up the canal. There was once a lock adjacent to the former toll house sited by Warwick Avenue bridge in London’s Little Venice and this served two purposes. The first was of course to prevent boats coming through and avoiding the payment of any tolls to the canal company. The second was of course to stop the Regent’s Canal losing its water to the Grand Junction.

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Camden Lock before it became really well known. Looks different too! Source: Twitter

In terms of the Regent’s Canal’s particular concerned about water supplies it too decided to look at alternative ways of carrying its barges down to the Thames and for this a experimental lock was built at Camden. This was actually a boat lift and it was built in various forms before being determined a failure and ordinary locks substituted instead along with a backpumping scheme. Originally the Regent’s Canal Company had hoped to use boat lifts instead of locks all the way down to the Thames but that one lift it tried and tested simply did not come up to expectations. I wrote about the experimental canal lift some years ago and that article can be seen here.

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St. Pancras lock when the iconic gasholders were still in place. Prob 1980s. Source: Twitter

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King’s Cross in 2004 when the old order still existed. View looking west to the old canal bridge. The top of the Coal Offices can just be seen and these now form the southern side of Coal Drops Yard. The Lighterman bar & restaurant now stands by the towpath at right. Source: Twitter

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The western end of Islington Tunnel in 1822. Islington was by then becoming a rather metropolitan area however there was still a good bit of rural land around here and the nearby New River Head. Source: Friends of Islington Museum

Islington Tunnel is of great interest because its one of the early examples of a railway used in canal construction. That’s not to say it was the first. The method had been used more than three decades previously at Sapperton tunnel on the Thames and Severn canal, whilst the Grand Junction too had used a railway at Blisworth for the tunnel’s construction as well as a temporary line between the two ends of its canal while the tunnel was being completed. However Islington tunnel is so far about the only example for which we have an artists depiction of a railway used in its construction and as the pictures show it was a twin tracked railway. It probably had crude forms of points at either end of the line to permit a one way system to be operated.

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The Regent’s Canal possibly in the early eighties with a waterbus service in operation. Its heading towards the Islington Tunnel entrance. Source: The Times

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City Road basin with Islington in the background. Probably late 1970s. Source: Twitter

The Regent’s Canal had many wharves and basins to the north and south of its route, the most famous being those at Battlebridge and City Road. The latter extended south of City Road itself at one time (I have a post about that soon.) City Road was without a doubt the largest of all the canal’s basins but there was one other, no longer in existence, which was in fact considerably large too. It was also the most eastern of the company’s various canal basins – for there were no others – save Regent’s Canal Dock itself. This was Haggerston (or Whitmore) basin. Its now the site of a park. The last remnants of this particular basin was swept away in the seventies thus little is known about this particular basin – not even a photograph of it apparently! However there’s one important historical aspect to it. The basin was the first place ever in London to have a concrete bridge built. This was made across the basin just before the first world war – using ferro concrete (not ferrocement) – at the time it was seen as a significant shift in the use of building materials and Haggerston basin was in fact part of that new building revolution – a fact now largely forgotten.

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Wenlock Basin 1969. Source: Twitter

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The canal above Sturt’s Lock. Eagle Wharf (where Holborn Studios are located) is at right – the large chimney still exists. Pic probably late 1980s sometime after the pairs of locks had been singled. Source: Twitter

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The much maligned Canalival of 2013 at Southgate Road which left a huge trail of trash and destruction. The following year police and council officials were out in force to ensure it didn’t recur. Source: Twitter

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The entrance to Kingsland Basin. Source: Twitter

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One of the tractors used in place of horses at Acton’s Lock. There’s one surviving example of these which were too used to haul the canal’s early trip boats. Source: Twitter

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The famous gasholders at Cambridge Heath (Bethnal Green/Marian Place) circa 1980s. Source: GLIAS

There’s currently controversy over proposals to redevelop the site. Its unlike King’s Cross where the gasholders had to be moved. These here are to be redeveloped in situ however the larger of the two is historically significant and any development isnt of course seen as historically appropriate for such a structure.

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The entrance to the canal at Old Ford locks in 1967. Canals in those days were secret highways characterised by doorways off the streets such as this example preventing any access to the public. These doors/gates were mostly kept locked but when more public use of the towpaths was mooted these soon began to be left open on a permanent basis. Source: Twitter

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Looking south from Mile End. The canal’s far end can practically be seen in this view – this being of course Hawksmoor’s church at Limehouse with its distinctive spire. Note also the Falcon Works. Source: Twitter

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A view of the London & Blackwall Railway – with the Regent’s Canal Dock on the right in 1851. Source: Twitter

Limehouse basin (or marina) was formerly called Regent’s Canal Dock (this being the more official name though in some early drawings its also called Limehouse Dock) and it was a substantial area of water and deep enough that it could accommodate ships too. It meant that direct shipment from these into barges and narrowboats could take place thus it was a very busy place.

The current basin is much smaller. Its probably lost a third of its former water space. Some of it was reduced in size to provide for new housing developments on the north side but also to accommodate the Limehouse link tunnel – which otherwise would have had to be built much deeper than it currently is. In a nutshell what happened was part of the basin was given up for the construction of the Limehouse Link tunnel, and when that was finished that land was then used for housing. Other parts of the former basin too have been filled in especially on its south and western sides.

The approaches to the lock have too been reduced in size and housing development placed along here. The former lock was of ship size proportions however British Waterways did not see a future for ships using the former dock or working barges/narrowboats continuing their way north from here with cargoes transferred from ships, so it demolished the old lock and built the present and much smaller lock.

Very fortunately one of the gates belonging to the former ship lock can still be seen, which surely gives some idea of just how large the old lock was. Dozens and dozens of narrowboats could have filled it easily!

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The old ship lock with a group of narrowboats waiting to lock down and out onto the Thames. Source: Twitter

Some of the last warehouses to be used in the area were those belonging to British Waterways and these were on the west side of the basin nearest to the Docklands railway station. It was once thought these warehouses would be retained but like many other historic stuff on the Regent’s Canal (including the famous Sutton’s Wharf) the demands of modernity swept away all that was before it. It means in essence Limehouse marina essentially hasn’t much considerable historical significance about it save for traces here and there, as well as the railway viaduct and the noted accumulator tower on the northern side.

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The Regent’s Canal dock was the point of access to much of the country’s waterways system Source: Twitter

The above map shows the full extent of the Regent’s Canal system in the 1930s. As well as London it extended down to Brentford and up to Birmingham (only just this being Warwick Bar to the south of the city centre where it met the Birmingham Canal system.) The part to Leicester and the Derby & Notts coalfields compromised of the Old Union Canals (Norton Junction to Leicester) and the River Soar to the Trent, thence the Erewash Canal to Langley Mill. The bit to the Warwick coalfields was essentially an onward connection via the Oxford and Coventry Canals and that was an important section because although it was not owned by the Regent’s Canal Company, it did in deed provide a substantial amount of traffic the Grand Union/Regent’s Canal benefited from.

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The area in the 1980s just after the Limehouse lock had been closed and new link made into the Regent’s Canal Dock. A good bit of the Limehouse Cut can be seen. Source: Twitter

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The Regent’s Canal Dock 1827 with Limehouse church and Commercial Road lock visible. Source: Twitter

2 thought on “Regent’s Canal 200th”
  1. Fascinating. I’ve always wondered about the history of London’s canals, and how they connected with the rest of the country’s canal network, and you’ve answered both in one fine post. Cheers.

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