Bicentenary of opening the Regent’s Canal Part 3: A long decline


The importance of the Regent’s Canal route through north London was recognised at an early stage by railway promoters, leading to a succession of proposals to turn the canal into a railway.

In September 1845, a special general assembly of the proprietors approved the sale of the canal for £1 million to the Regent’s Canal Railway Company which wanted to convert the canal between Paddington and City Road basin into a railway. The importance of this undertaking was advertised as effecting a junction between all existing and projected railways north of the Thames, combined with the advantage of a City Terminus. By the proposed railway, it claimed, passengers and goods would be brought into the heart of the City at a great saving of time and expense.

The railway company subsequently failed as the finance could not be raised but in 1846 the directors of the canal company tried to obtain an Act of Parliament to allow them to build a railway along its banks in a covered way, here drawn at Macclesfield Bridge, Regent’s Park (Camden Local Studies and Archives).

The scheme was abandoned in the face of vigorous opposition, especially from the government who objected to the idea of a railway passing through Regent’s Park. In 1859, two further schemes to convert the canal into a railway were proposed. One, from a company called the Central London Railway and Dock Company, was accepted by the directors, but once again the railway company failed.

In 1860, the Regent’s Canal Company itself proposed a railway track alongside the canal from Kings Cross to Limehouse, but funds could not be raised. Further schemes over the next twenty years also came to nothing as in 1863 the Metropolitan Railway opened, serving much the same purpose of linking lines radiating north of London. In 1883, a further attempt to buy the Canal for £1,275,000 and turn it into a railway failed.

In 1874, a barge carrying gunpowder exploded on 2nd October at 4.55 am, at Macclesfield Bridge in Regent’s Park. The bridge was destroyed and three crew members were killed. The photo from the Illustrated London News shows crowds lining Prince Albert Road to see the spectacle (Canal and River Trust). The canal was closed for four days.

This bridge has become known as “Blow Up Bridge”. The accident resulted in over 600 claims for damages and this set-back was so expensive that the Company closed its carrying business for several years. Effectively the incident marked the end of the Regent’s Company, as it never recovered fully.

The second quarter of the 20th century saw organisational changes. In 1929, the Regent’s Canal purchased the canal assets of the Grand Junction Canal, and of the Warwick canals, and the enlarged concern became the Grand Union Canal. In 1948, most UK railways, canals, and some road transport were nationalised under the Transport Act 1947. The Regent’s Canal became part of the British Transport Commission’s system. The Commission’s Docks and Inland Waterways Executive became responsible for the canal, trading under the name “British Waterways”. In1963, reorganisation of the nationalised transport industry saw the break-up of the British Transport Commission and the canal was taken over by the new British Waterways Board.

The decline of commercial use of the canal stimulated a debate over its future. Robert Aickman, one of the founders of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), maintained: “if anything is going to kill us all it will not be the atomic bomb – it will be smallness of vision. That is the background to the problem of the canals. It is a national problem, an all-or-nothing problem”. He was convinced that the only way to save the waterways was to develop the network for a multitude of uses: commercial carriage, pleasure boats, fishing, water supply and drainage, the preservation of archaeological sites and walking along the towpaths. Some in the IWA disagreed, preferring that parts of the network remain reserved for traditional commercial use.

Local and national authorities saw much of the Regent’s Canal as blighted, associated with crime and a threat to neighbouring communities. The views of the communities were more nuanced. Some saw a weed-infested wasteland, whereas others saw a potential nature reserve and wildlife habitat. Craftsmen saw workshops that could be colonised at affordable cost, whereas other professions saw buildings that stood in the way of redevelopment. To some the dereliction was an increasingly painful reminder of industrial decline, whereas industrial archaeologists could see the affirmation of a past that needed proper explanation. Behind the public façade lay the unself-conscious workings of the human anthill, even if it was becoming increasingly chaotic.

Artists felt the power and saw the beauty in the industrial ruins along the canal, which depicted one of the grandest industrial landscapes in Europe. Prominent among such artists was Käthe Strenitz. Industrial dereliction acted as a stimulus and inspiration, and she devoted decades to drawing the canal and its hinterland until she started to feel unsafe and exposed to vandals. Five examples of her drawings are given alongside and below (Käthe Strenitz, London Metropolitan Archives).

Entrance to King’s Cross Goods yard from York Road: view from Maiden Bridge

Here we see the view, painted in 1976, south from St Pancras Locks to the Coal Office and Gasholder 8 (now moved to Gasholder Park). The retaining wall supports Wharf Road (now Bagley’s Walk) and features windows to the arches behind that formerly housed 120 horses.

Constitution Pub and Gray’s Inn Bridge

In the next newsletter, the last of this series of four articles will cover the regeneration of the Regent’s Canal, from the 1950s up to today.

City Road Locks
Limehouse Basin

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