Bicentenary of opening the Regent’s Canal Part 1: The Canal in the Landscape


Celebrations marking the bicentenary of the Regent’s Canal are on hold. We will not be embarking on a pleasure boat at Hampstead Road Locks to cruise past the site of Gilbey’s former gin distillery as we enjoy a gin cocktail in memory of one of the foremost canal-side industries.
The early history and birth of the canal was described in the summer Newsletter of 2016 (see website) marking the bicentenary of the opening of the canal to the Hampstead Road. In this newsletter, and in the next three, we will describe operations over the last 200 years with an emphasis on the areas in or near Regent’s Park. We start with how the canal alignment adapted to the changing landscape.
The canal opened officially on 1 August 1820, finally connecting the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington with the London Docks at Limehouse. Only then was the world’s greatest port linked to the eighteenth-century canal network that connected with England’s industrial heartlands. The Company marked the opening by embarking on a ceremonial barge at Horsfall’s Basin (now Battlebridge Basin), immediately to the east of Maiden Lane bridge on York Way.
From Paddington Basin, the Regent’s Canal descends 86 feet over 83/4 miles through 12 locks to Limehouse Basin, with its entrance lock from the tidal Thames. There are two tunnels on the canal – one at Maida Hill (272 yards) and the other at Islington (926 yards).
The extraordinary bend in the canal at King’s Cross, around which the Coal Office is wrapped, owes its existence to the intransigence of Counsellor Agar, who insisted that the Company skirt around his land, defending his perceived rights by mobilizing his agricultural workforce to attack the canal company’s surveyors.
John Nash, senior architect to the Office of Woods and Forests, intended to take the canal through the centre of Regent’s Park, but public protest pushed the alignment to the northern fringes, requiring a deeper cut. The Cumberland Arm branched to the Cumberland Basin on the east side of Regent’s Park, where three markets were to be established to serve wealthy residents of the park.
R. B. Schnebbelie’s watercolour of 1837 (Camden Local Studies and Archives) shows the Cumberland Arm viewed from Regent’s Park. Beyond it, the newly constructed London & Birmingham Railway (L&BR) is on embankment, with the chimneys of the winding engines that hauled trains up the incline from Euston prominent, and Camden Goods Station under construction beyond. To the right is the Stanhope Arms in Oval Road (now the site of Academic House), expected to be the terminus hotel before the London terminus was moved to Euston from Camden. The view from this location would now be the car park for London Zoo were it not an HS2 construction camp.

Although competition from the railway grew, the Regent’s Canal remained busy, serving the Port of London until the 1960s when the old docks closed. For a while the two transport systems worked side by side and many of the building materials for the new north London rail termini were carried by canal. But, although the Company reduced its tolls and profits, and strengthened its boat fleets to compete, it continued to lose trade to the railways.

Pickford & Co, the largest bulk carrier of goods on the canal network, had read the economic signals and obtained rights of carriage and distribution on the L&BR. It built a large goods shed “twice the area of Westminster Hall” on the south side of the canal on Oval Road, which opened in December 1841 (London Canal Museum collection). Designed by Lewis Cubitt, it facilitated transfer of goods between road, rail and canal, the first such interchange warehouse. The shed had extensive stabling in the basement and a rail connection with the goods station on the north bank. The chimney in the image was that of the coke ovens; the white building was Camden Flour Mills, which later became Gilbey’s gin distillery.
In 1826, a steam chain tug was introduced in Islington Tunnel to reduce bottlenecks caused by boatmen “legging” through it. The tug service continued until the 1930s (both images Canal and River Trust).

In 1847, towing on the canal became the responsibility of the Company, which provided its own horses and added a charge to its tolls for this service. There were three stages between Paddington and Limehouse. Horses would be changed at Hampstead Road Locks, where stables for 15 horses were built alongside the Lock-keeper’s Cottage (Northside Archives).

The ‘Roving Bridge’, built in 1846, carried the new towpath, which till then ran behind the three docks on the north bank, to the south side of the canal, to avoid bridging over the other two docks). Grooves in the cast iron parapet reveal the forces required to haul barges from the southern lock to the north bank.
Horse parades were a movement led by Sir Walter Gilbey and Baroness Burdett-Coutts with the aim of influencing public perceptions and improving morale and horse management. The Company’s horses regularly won prizes at the London Van Horse Parades held on Easter Monday in the Inner Circle of Regent’s Park. The picture shows barge horses in 1925 at the Van Horse Parade (Canal and River Trust). Ophelia on the right won first prize.

From 1953, narrow tractors started to replace horses on the canal towpath. The picture shows a 7 hp petrol driven tractor towing a barge above St Pancras Locks in July 1953 (Canal and River Trust). King’s Cross Goods Yard is on the left bank with coal drops and gasholders on the right bank.
Three years later, in 1956, the last horse-drawn cargo was carried on the canal.
The decline of commercial use was further marked by the opening of St Pancras Yacht Basin in 1958.
In the next newsletter. we shall look at how the Regent’s Canal supplied the metropolis.

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