During the 18th century Britain was undergoing what we call the ‘Industrial Revolution’. New inventions and techniques improved manufacturing and farming. The growing British Empire and new wealth within the country created an increasing demand for products. The country’s roads were still in a poor state but raw materials, goods and produce had to be somehow transported as efficiently and safely as possible to and from places of manufacture and ports and markets. The solution was found in water transport.
Rivers in England had been canalized since the 16th century to assist the navigation of barges. Artificial channels were dug in order that short-cuts could be created where a river looped, or to smooth any rapid change in a river’s decent. In these cases the channel was fed by water from the river and is called a ‘navigation’. A notable example is the River Lee from Hertfordshire to the Thames, where a navigation was created, with the first mitred lock gates in the country introduced in 1571.
In 1765 the Duke of Bridgewater opened the country’s first waterway that was entirely canalized and did not follow the route of a river, known as the Bridgewater Canal. Its purpose was to transport coal directly from the Duke’s mines at Worsley in Lancashire into Manchester. The engineer for the project was James Brindley and he then proposed further canals that would link up the new industrial centres of the Midlands to the ports around the coast at Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and London. He engineered a new cross-country canal that linked Hull with Liverpool, passing through industrial towns such as Stoke on Trent where pottery was being produced at Josiah Wedgewood’s factory, as well as linking up with the Bridgewater Canal. The Trent & Mersey Canal received Royal Ascent in 1766. Brindley’s Birmingham Canal followed between 1768 and 1772, connecting with the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal, which linked the Trent & Mersey Canal to the River Severn (and thereby Bristol) in 1772. After Brindley’s death the opening of the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal linked the Midlands to the River Thames in 1790. Brindley’s original idea, to be able to carry goods by barge from the industrial Midlands to any of the four major English ports, was thus realised.
All these waterways during Brindley’s lifetime were narrow canals, with locks and bridges built to fit barges of seven feet wide and seventy two feet in length. They also followed the contours of the land in order to reduce the number of locks (and the associated building cost), and they therefore wound in loops through the countryside. New canals dug after 1800 tended to be built to a wider gauge, permitting either two seven feet wide barges to fit into locks together or for a double-width barge. New techniques in building aqueducts and tunnels also allowed the later canals to be made straighter, reducing journey times.
With the opening of the Oxford Canal it was possible to transport goods all the way from the Midlands and beyond by water to London via the Thames. The locks on the Oxford Canal were only capable of taking one narrow barge at a time however and the canal itself looped endlessly through the countryside, with very slow journey times. From Oxford goods had to be transferred onto larger barges or the narrow-boats continue down the Thames, which they were not especially built to manage.
At the end of the 18th century a new route – the Grand Junction Canal – was planned from Birmingham to the Thames at Brentford, with a branch from Hayes to Paddington. Not only did it cut sixty miles off the length of the journey to London, but it was also built with double-sized locks, and therefore twice as much cargo could be carried at one time. The Paddington arm of the Grand Junction terminated at the New Road (the Marylebone Road).
At that time the New Road marked the northern boundary of the western suburbs of London. As soon as the Grand Junction was opened a proposal was made by a Thomas Homer to cut a new canal from Paddington. It was to pass east through the fields to the north of the New Road, and then south to the Thames at Limehouse, where a dock was to be built for the trans-shipment of goods. The new venture would avoid the necessity to transfer goods onto wagons to transport them into the City and to the Thames docks.
No progress was made for a decade until in 1811 Homer heard of John Nash’s plans to develop Marylebone Park, later renamed Regent’s Park. Homer made a proposal to Nash for the latter to take charge of the construction of the canal, to pass through the park. Nash envisaged a scenic waterway passing through his development and feeding an ornamental lake, so readily agreed to the proposal. When the architect realized that cargo boats might spoil the tranquility of residents in their grand villas he changed his plan, with the canal instead passing along the northern boundary of the park, hidden in a deep cutting and never feeding the park’s lake. (The lake is actually fed by the River Tyburn, which passes through it). Nash and his assistant, James Morgan, were thereupon engaged by the Regent’s Canal Company to oversee its creation, while at the same time being employed as civil servants to ensure it was completed according to the wishes of Parliament and in the best interests of the park, a conflict of interest which would be unthinkable in modern times.
Another advantage for Nash created by the waterway was as a means to supply markets he had in mind to be built on Crown-owned land to the east of the new Regent’s Park. For that purpose a section of the canal was planned and dug, known as the Cumberland Arm. As the main line of the canal took a sharp turn from Regent’s Park north to Hampstead Road, the branch continued east, and then curved south-east down to the Cumberland and Clarence markets close to the New Road. (The branch and terminal basins were filled-in with bomb-damage rubble after the Second World War).
After debate in Parliament an Act was passed in the summer of 1812, incorporating a wide range of details such as where the water could and could not be taken to feed the canal, how much could be charged for freight carried, and a fine for anyone caught swimming in the water. The process of acquiring the necessary land went ahead, held up for a time by lengthy negotiations with the barrister Willam Agar, who had purchased the Manor of Pancras in 1810 and held out to gain the maximum remuneration. In the end Parliament had to intervene in the matter and, angered by what they felt was Agar’s greed, awarded him less than the Regent’s Canal Company were offering.
Neither Nash nor Homer had any experience of cutting a canal and the necessary tunnels, so a search for an engineer began by means of an advertisement. The advice of John Rennie, successful architect of docks, bridges and canals, was sought but he declined to be involved, perhaps because of his recent problems with a road tunnel at Highgate. When no-one came forward the task was given to Nash’s assistant, James Morgan.
Work began in October 1812. The section through Regent’s Park was the first to be completed in November 1813. The entire lock-free stretch from Paddington, through the park to Hampstead Road (Camden Lock), including the Maida Vale Tunnel, was completed and opened on the birthday of the Prince Regent in August 1816.
In 1815 it was discovered that Homer had been embezzling company funds and he fled the country. He was later apprehended and sentenced to transportation. The problem caused a shortfall in the company’s funds resulting in a halt to the work, and it had to raise an additional three hundred thousand pounds. After the ending of the Napoleonic War there was a surplus of workers and resulting unemployment. The government introduced the Poor Employment Act in 1817, a Regency-period job creation scheme, and the company was able to take advantage of labour, paid from government funds.
An Act of Parliament of 1819 authorised three basins to be dug adjoining the canal for the unloading of goods: Horsfall Basin at Battle Bridge (what later became Kings Cross); at City Road (which spanned either side of the City Road) and the nearby Wenlock Basin in Islington. Being close to the City of London, City Road Basin in particular became very busy after the canal opened and eclipsed Paddington in the amount of goods trans-shipped.
One of the biggest challenges in the building of the waterway was in passing Islington Hill. It was decided to dig cuttings on either side of the hill and then a tunnel, from under the White Conduit House on the eastern side to close to the Rosemarie Branch inn on the western side. The underground section was (and remains) one thousand yards long, passing under the new suburb of Pentonville, Islington, and the New River. It was completed in 1818.
The entire canal was opened in August 1820 in a ceremony in which John Nash, James Morgan and the company directors travelled from Battlebridge to the new Regent’s Canal Dock at Limehouse by ceremonial barge to the sound of brass bands, passing waving crowds.
The completed waterway is eight and a half miles in length between Paddington to Limehouse, dropping eighty six feet during its course. To pass from one end to the other barges must pass through twelve locks between Hampstead Road at Camden and Limehouse (with the stretch from Camden to Paddington on one level and thus lock-free). The locks, tunnels and bridges were all built to the same width as the Grand Junction Canal, allowing for wide barges (or two narrow barges side-by-side in the locks). At the time of its completion it passed under thirty seven bridges. Regent’s Canal Dock at Limehouse, just to the west of St.Anne’s church, was built with a lock from the Thames allowing ships to enter during high tides. The total cost of creating the canal was over seven hundred and seventy thousand pounds, twice the original estimate.
Canals are artificial waterways and therefore need to be somehow fed with water at the same rate as locks are filled and emptied. The Regent’s Canal travels downhill from Paddington to Limehouse. Each of the locks was doubled up, two locks beside each other, so that when a boat passes through one the water can flow into the other and thus some water was saved. The Acts of Parliament that approved the creation of the Regent’s Canal stipulated where it could not take its water from, which, crucially, included the adjoining Grand Junction Canal. To prevent water passing from one waterway to the other a lock was built at the entrance to the Regent’s Canal, not to take boats from one level to another (as is normally the case with locks) but simply to prevent any flow of water out of the Grand Junction Canal. The Regent’s Canal Company therefore purchased one hundred and twenty acres of Finchley Common in the hope that enough water could be drained off and channeled from there but it proved woefully inadequate. Various other ideas were considered and tried but the company finally created the Brent Reservoir to the north west of London by damming the River Brent and channeling water from there.
The canal was busy with waterborne traffic from its first year of operation, with barges carrying a wide variety of goods including bricks and tiles, lime, limestone, metals, timber, coal and manure, as well as hay and vegetables for the markets at the end of the Cumberland Arm. In the early days of the canals barges were pulled by horses that walked along the path at the side of the canal. The two tunnels at Maida Vale and Islington were cut without a towing path so boats had to be ‘legged’ through; a method where two bargees lie on their backs, each on a board fixed to the side of the boat, walking along the wall of the tunnel to propel the boat forward. It is a slow process and caused bottlenecks, especially at the lengthy Islington tunnel, and in 1826 a chain-powered tug was introduced that could pull up to four barges at a time.
A contemporary account in Gentleman’s Magazine estimated the annual income of the canal as sixty thousand pounds and the maintenance costs at ten thousand pounds, leaving fifty thousand pounds for dividends and interest payments. However the Regent’s was one of the last to be opened during the great age of English canal building, and its golden period was short-lived. In 1837 Robert Stephenson’s London & Birmingham Railway opened, following the route of the Grand Junction from the Midlands, passing over the Regent’s Canal at Camden on its way into Euston. The London & York Railway arrived in 1852, eventually passing under the canal by tunnel on its last stretch into Kings Cross, and in 1868 the Midland Railway passed over it into St. Pancras Station. The railways were much faster and more efficient and soon began taking long-distance freight traffic away from the canals, although the canals gained some additional business in the carrying of coal, often used to power the steam trains. Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of the Regent’s Canal was the opening of the North London Railway in 1850 from the goods yards at Camden to Bow. It allowed goods to pass speedily from the Midlands to the London docks, avoiding altogether the much slower Grand Junction and Regent’s canals. In 1845 there was a plan to fill-in the canal and build a railway over it, but that eventually came to nothing and the canal remains today much as it was in the 19th century, except for the filling-in of the Cumberland Arm. The carrying of freight ended during the 1970s, but the waterway is these days used by pleasure and trip boats and much of it, especially through Regent’s Park, is an extremely scenic walk.
Sources include: Michael Essex-Lopresti ‘Exploring the Regent’s Canal’. With thanks to Olwen Maynard for help with proof-reading.
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