Barging Through Islington

Changes Over Time: Regent’s Canal

Much of the Regent’s Canal has changed over 200 years. The following images compare scenes from around the canal at different points in history.

Horses patiently waited for boats pulled through the tunnel by a steam powered tug. A horse can carry thirty times more weight on water than over land. This made the Regent’s Canal the most efficient means of transport in 1820 when it opened. By the 1970’s the horses, tractors and tugs were no longer required to assist boats along the Canal, as industry had found transportation of goods via train and lorries more economical and practical.

At the eastern portal of Islington Tunnel stood the two roomed cottage of the Islington tunnel keeper. Built into the tunnel wall, the cottage provided a home for the tunnel keeper, where they could easily marshal the barges and blow a copper horn to signal when boats were coming through. The photo on the left from 1905 is thought to be of Mary Rockingham, who took over the job of tunnel keeper in 1902 from her husband. Later in the 20th Century, the tunnel keeper’s two room cottage disappeared, as seen in the image on the right.

Islington Tunnel took three years to build, running under the Angel area of Islington. 878 metres long, barges were assisted through the tunnel by a steam-chain tug – one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canal. Carol Noble used to swim into Islington Tunnel from the Cally end when she was younger. She recalls that “it was as black as Newgate’s knocker when you went under the tunnel. All you got was a little light at the end.”

Canal basins allow boats to dock, unload, load and turn. City Road, formerly called Regent’s Canal Basin, covered four acres. Jim Marshall explained that City Road Basin “went beyond City Road. The Basin was a big distribution point. Pickfords was moving things up and down. Barges form the north came to here, and storage as well. Buy 100 tons of grain in the Regent’s Canal Dock, transport 50 tons, store the rest and deliver when the miller needed it.”

Locks allow canals to run flat when the landscape undulates. Lock keepers worked twelve hour shifts when both lock chambers were in constant use. City Road Lock had a forge and stables for a change of horse between the large inland port at Paddington and Limehouse. The lock keeper’s cottage on the opposite bank was replaced in the 1950’s by three houses for British Waterways’ workers next to Anderson’s Timber Merchants.

Lock chambers can allow boats to go in opposite directions at the same time. This was particularly important during the busier periods of the canal’s use. In the late 1970’s, as commercial traffic declined, one chamber was made into a weir and the lock keeper job disappeared.

More photographic comparisons of the Regent’s Canal can be found here.

These photographs are from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

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