Bicentenary of opening the Regent’s Canal Part 2:Supplying the metropolis


The story of the Regent’s Canal holds a mirror to the industrial and social history of London. The goods carried by barge were not only for the construction activities that were gathering pace as London expanded rapidly, such as timber and stone, but also commodities for domestic and retail markets. The traffic of goods from the north and from the London Docks – coal, iron, timber, beer and ice – saw a rapid development of industry and warehousing. Behind the canal-side façades lay goods yards, factories, workshops and stables.

One of the first major industries to become established on the Regent’s Canal was the gas industry. In 1821 negotiations were opened by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company with the Governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital for purchase of land close to Maiden Lane bridge (now the construction site for the Google building), and with the Regent’s Canal Company for the opening of an ‘Indent’ for the unloading of coal from barges. The gasworks opened in August 1824, the site covering 11 acres. It was claimed to be the largest and finest in the world. The serene appearance belies the frenetic activity behind (T.H. Shepherd, Alan Faulkner collection).

The Cumberland Arm of the Regent’s Canal, completed in 1816, ended in Cumberland Basin, later lined with wharves and warehouses. The original Hay Market near Piccadilly Circus moved to Cumberland Market in the Cumberland Basin in 1830. Hay and straw were brought in for sale and for the nearby Albany Street cavalry barracks. By 1900, fodder represented over 10% of agricultural output, with London by far the largest market in the country. The picture shows a barge carrying hay north from the market along the Cumberland Arm at the rear of Park Village East (T.H. Shepherd, Alan Faulkner Collection).

The Cumberland Arm also brought in stone to the Cumberland Basin and monumental masonry and statuary businesses were established in the Euston Road to take advantage of this. The availability of stone, cheap rents and proximity to the centre of town also attracted sculptors and artists to set up studios in the Cumberland Market area, Walter Sickert sharing a studio for a while with his former master Whistler.

A market continued until the late 1920s, the last trading barges ceasing in 1930. In August 1938, the Cumberland Basin was dammed and drained and two years later was formally abandoned. The Cumberland Arm was filled with bomb rubble from the blitz over 1941/42 and sold to the Crown Commissioners, leaving only a short section near the Zoo as a mooring basin. Following the War the Basin was covered with topsoil and now has the largest and oldest collection of allotments in Central London.

By 1835 one-fifth of all coal imported into London entered the canal, mostly for local use. King’s Cross was the first great coal depot set up by a railway company, the Great Northern Railway (GNR), to supply an indispensable mineral to the metropolis. The coal basin with its coal drops was entered under a tunnel-like skew bridge just below St Pancras Lock. Established in the early 1850s, they could handle 1000 tons/day, most despatched by road. By 1860, the site had grown to include Coal Drops Yard and the Coal Office.

Soon larger facilities were being constructed for the GNR by Samuel Plimsoll on the right bank of the canal on the east side of Cambridge (now Camley) Street. On the other side of the street the Midland Railway built their coal drops, St Pancras Basin serving for the loading of barges. Both sides of the canal now serviced the Victorian open fire. The picture shows a tug pulling dumb barges of coal and timber near Hanover Lodge in the1930s (Canal and River Trust).

Ice for preserving perishables, stored over the course of the year, was initially only affordable by the wealthy. The earliest commercial ice well in London was rediscovered recently in Park Crescent West, after removing rubble deposited from the bombed Georgian terrace. Extremely well preserved, having been built in 1780 for sale to vets, doctors, dentists, restaurants, and markets, as well as to individual households, it was used by pioneering ice merchant William Leftwich.

In 1822 he started to import ice from Norway as “the best and cleanest in England”. The ice was transferred onto barges at Regent’s Canal Dock in the Limehouse Basin and taken along the canal where, from 1826, it was stored in larger ice wells, one at Cumberland Market and two near Hampstead Road Locks. The latter, shown in the sketch (Malcolm Tucker), served less wealthy customers and stored cheaper canal ice initially. The photo shows a typical 300-ton wooden sailing ship with masts and spars in the background discharging ice from Norway at Regent’s Canal Dock (Canal and River Trust).

In the 1850s, Carlo Gatti established his warehouse in Battlebridge Basin, now housing the London Canal Museum. Beneath the former warehouse are two ice wells, 42 feet deep, which have been partially re-excavated. Having started with a contract to take ice from the Regent’s Canal, he followed the lead of William Leftwich and brought his first shipload of ice from Norway – a cargo of 358 tons. By 1900 the company, then run by his daughter, was importing 250,000 tons of ice each year in a fleet of 28 wooden sailing ships.

As a wholesale ice merchant, most of his trade was with back-street ice cream makers, restaurateurs and other customers. As the trade grew, costs fell and Gatti was the first in London to make ice cream at a price affordable to the masses.

Beer from Burton upon Trent was one of the major commodities transported by canal. Burton had become the world’s most important beer town, its breweries having developed India Pale Ale, Britain’s leading export beer in the 19th century. Bass and Allsopp had large warehouses on the Regent’s Canal to serve a domestic market where beer was considered a safer drink than water.

In the next newsletter we shall describe the slow commercial decline of the Regent’s Canal from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

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