More 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.


Wenlock Basin was at the cutting edge of telecommunications in 1846, when the Gutta Percha (a tree gum like rubber) Company made the
twenty nine miles of underwater telegraph cable which connected England to France. Jump forward a century and when Wenlock Basin was dredged, Richard Savage found hundreds of old bottles and jars, remnants of the nearby British Drug Houses. Bernard James remembers from the 1970’s that “going east, the canal felt very unvisited and still industries there. There’d be a pipe and suddenly a great gushing sound, and this horrible coloured stuff would come out with a load of steam.”


This 1899 water pipe attracted generations of children who called it the ‘banana’, ‘sausage’ and ‘rainbow pipe’ after it was painted in 1980. ‘It was a dare to cross it.’ John Rowlinson recalls, “I fell off that a few times – small boy, short legs and no sense of balance, but could swim like a fish.” A number of adults leaving ‘The Twos’ pubs on a warm evening also took the plunge. Jumping in the canal wasn’t for everyone – some were put off by the debris, such as discarded bikes and prams, whilst others didn’t like the look of the murky water. As Steve Havens states, “if you put a cup in there and pulled it out, it would be as dark as coffee.”


Islington Boat Club on the canal’s east bank was surrounded by old industrial buildings. The new west bank base is surrounded by flats. The club was founded by Crystal Hale in 1970, who encouraged the use if the Regent’s Canal for leisure, especially for children. Hale was a key advocate for saving the City Road Basin, which faced plans to be filled in. The Save the Basin campaign, which ran throughout the mid-1970’s, was a success for Crystal and her club.


The Regent’s Canal was integral for many industries in Islington, as it provided a means of transporting materials to factories along its shores. Thorley’s Cattle Food was one such factory. Thorley’s set the international standard for animal feed. The locust or carob beans were a key ingredient in their product and were transported to their factory by canal boat. Fred Rooke recalls he “used to swim across and throw the locust over to the other boys, you heard them shout ‘Ere you are Fred’. One day, I heard a deep voice say “Ere you are Fred”, and it was my dad. I got a real good telling off.”


From circa 1900 to 1949, Negretti and Zambra engineered scientific and marine instruments in Half Moon Street, expanding into a wharf by Thornhill Bridge. Henry Negretti and Joseph Zambra, both Italian migrants, were particularly skilled manufacturers of thermometers, barometers and optical instruments, such as telescopes. Their expertise saw the pair appointed opticians and scientific instrument makers to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and King Edward VII, and even the Royal Observatory.


In 2020 Opening the Lock Gate (right) was unveiled at City Road Basin to celebrate the bicentenary of the Basin. Sculpted by Ian Rank-Broadley and commissioned by the Berkeley Group property developers, Opening the Lock Gate commemorates ‘the working people of Britain’s canals.’ The plaque at the bottom right of the sculpture reads ‘this sculpture celebrates the toil of the men and women who worked tirelessly on the barges that arrived from across the country.’


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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