The 18th century witnessed a transport revolution as canals extended over much of the Midlands and northern industrial areas. Although plans to link London with the Midlands canal system had been around since the middle of the century these were not realised until the Grand Junction Canal was authorised in 1793, linking the Thames at Brentford with the Oxford Canal near Daventry. A branch from Southall to a terminal basin at Paddington was authorised in 1796. A terminus at Paddington provided access to the City via the New Road (now Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville roads).
Construction of the Paddington Branch started at the end of 1796. The canal opened in July 1801, a large trade quickly growing up around the Paddington wharves. A variety of abortive plans followed to link the Paddington Basin with the London Docks either by canal or rail. Early schemes ran into problems both of water supply and opposition from landowners. With Thomas Homer, barge owner, the moving spirit behind the proposals, John Rennie, a leading canal engineer, planned a route for the “London Canal” in 1802, examining a variety of water supply options.
Although these plans were shelved, partly because of the rapid advance northwards of the metropolis, they were revived in 1810 when Thomas Homer, who had learned that the lease of Marylebone Park was due to expire in 1811, asked James Tate to carry out a detailed survey.
Marylebone Park was managed by three commissioners of the Department of Woods & Forests. Two permanent staff were architects: John Nash and his colleague James Morgan. They had been entrusted with drawing up plans for the park. Homer approached Nash, and together they planned a route for the canal through the park. Nash meanwhile had attracted the patronage of the Prince of Wales, who became the Prince Regent in 1811, and such prominent support helped persuade the commissioners to accept his over other competing plans.
A meeting of those interested in the proposed canal took place at the Percy Coffee House on 31 May 1811, where it was agreed that Nash and Homer’s route be resurveyed. Following this survey, and selection of an improved route by Nash, Morgan, Homer and Tate, Nash was asked to prepare a prospectus. In August Nash announced that the Prince Regent had agreed that the canal could be called the Regent’s Canal.
The introduction of the Regent’s Canal Bill provoked major opposition from landowners. The Portman estate required the canal to be moved northwards to avoid the estate, whereas other landowners insisted on bridges or set other conditions.
The major change, however, was insisted on by the Commissioners of the Department of Woods & Forests who required the line through the park to be diverted to the northern boundary, presumably to protect the value of the gracious villas to be built in the park. This would require a much deeper cutting. Even this alignment became conditional on constructing a branch canal to a basin proposed on the east side of the park.
The Regent’s Canal received Royal Assent on 13 July 1812, with what became the Cumberland Market Branch following on 15 April 1813. At a meeting in August 1812, James Morgan was appointed engineer, architect and land surveyor. Construction started on 7 October, the first spade cut being made in Marylebone Park near Primrose Hill.
The two mile stretch of canal from the Paddington Branch of the Great Junction Canal to the Hampstead Road Locks, was level, without locks, as was the 1230 yard branch canal to Cumberland Basin. Both were opened to traffic on Monday 12 August 1816, the birthday of the Prince Regent. (The Grand Junction Canal and the Regent’s Canal merged in 1929 to become the Grand Union.)
Hampstead Road Lock itself started life as a two stage single lock with a highly innovative hydro-pneumatic mechanism patented by William Congreve, an inventor of repute, intended to be the first of a series of such locks that would enable the Regent’s Canal Company to save on scarce water. The system was abandoned shortly after in favour of a conventional double lock, which may be seen today alongside the Lock Keeper’s Cottage of 1816.
Above the lock, on the north bank, there were two small basins at the time of opening, both of which have survived, albeit in altered form. These and two wharves were leased by John Semple and Thomas Hubert, and eventually sold to the London & North Western Railway in the 1840s, which also acquired land on the south side of the canal and built the Roving Bridge across the canal. The basins are now known as the Interchange Basin and Dingwall’s Dock.