Engineering Islington Tunnel

The Islington Tunnel, arguably the main architectural and engineering feature of the Regent’s Canal, was designed and engineered by James Morgan. Morgan was born on 9 March 1774 in Wales and was employed in his early 20’s as an assistant to the famous Regency architect John Nash.

In 1806 Nash and Morgan were appointed as architects to the Department of Woods and Forests and they moved to London in 1811. The Department’s Commissioner requested that Nash and Morgan draft a plan for the development of Marylebone Farm on the Crown Estate. It was a plan for a new park for the London elite, redesigning part of central London including a route from the park to Westminster. This project would later become Regent’s Park. Morgan supervised the work of planting, road making and laying out of the park, including the lake, under the direction of Nash.

Since 1802, Thomas Homer, a businessman and merchant, had been promoting the idea for a ‘London Canal’ joining the Paddington section of the Grand Junction Canal with the River Thames at Limehouse. In 1811 he contacted Nash and Morgan who reviewed the route. This led to Nash becoming a driving force in the promotion of the canal, using his association with the Prince Regent (later George IV) to help influence the project. Morgan drew up plans for the canal which, with the consent of the Prince Regent, became the Regent’s Canal. The Regent’s Canal Act, based upon these plans, was passed in Parliament in July 1812.

Regent’s Canal Act, 1812.

Morgan was appointed as the canal company’s engineer even though he had no experience in canal building. His appointment was possibly assisted by the fact Nash had become a large shareholder in the company. A competition to design the Islington Tunnel was launched in August 1812 to little response. Three eminent engineers of the time, Nicholson, Walker and Jessop were the judges and the ideas received were mostly unsuitable. The ‘winning’ entry, receiving the prize of 100 guineas, was found to be a copy of a Jessop design. The committee instead commissioned Morgan to design the tunnel. He went about building the 249 metre long Maida Hill Tunnel before tackling the much longer Islington Tunnel. Delays and unexpected problems were caused due to ingress of water in the Maida Hill Tunnel and several workers lost their lives in its construction.

The project was continually beset with financial problems. In 1815 William Agar, a landowner and King’s Council issued a writ against Morgan and others as part of a long running legal battle he’d waged against the canal. He was awarded £500 in damages. Only a month previously in May, Thomas Homer, the secretary of the Regent’s Canal Company, had been sent to debtors’ prison for embezzling an unknown amount of the company’s funds. He was tried and sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia although he was never sent.

Constructing Islington Tunnel, 1819.

By the time the Paddington to Camden stretch started to open on 12 August 1816, the Islington Tunnel had been started, but construction was forced to stop as money ran out. Only £254,100 of the estimated project cost of £400,000 had been raised and it had become obvious that more would be needed as time went on. An Act of Parliament increased the capital to £600,000 but the company couldn’t raise any more. Discussions with the Government led to the funding of the project with further loans in return for providing employment for the poor. Thomas Telford was tasked with surveying the unfinished canal and tunnel for the commissioners and an initial loan of £200,000 was promised provided the company could raise £100,000. They succeeded and work resumed in December 1817.

Islington Tunnel interior, 1987.

The tunnel was built through Islington Hill under what is now the Angel area of Islington by the experienced contractor Daniel Pritchard. It was 878 metres (960 yards) long and was excavated using explosives, wheelbarrows, horses and manual labour and brick lined throughout. On its completion in 1818 Thomas Telford was asked to report on the tunnel and remarked “materials and workmanship excellent and it’s direction perfectly straight”.

The canal opened on 1 August 1820. Morgan travelled on the lead barge of a grand procession from St Pancras to the Thames. At the Islington Tunnel bands played and the boats were met with a salute of cannon fire as they emerged at the eastern end. James Morgan remained as engineer to the canal until 1835 when he retired.

West portal of Islington Tunnel, circa 1830.

Originally, canal boats got through the tunnel by ‘legging’ as there were no towpaths on either side to allow horses to draw the vessels through. Men lay on planks on the boat and walked the vessel through the tunnel using the side walls. This was slow, hard work and caused major delays. In 1826 a steam chain tug was introduced and was one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canals. It was attached to a continuous chain on the canal floor and pulled the boats through. In 1880 it caught fire and sank, however, this system remained in place until the 1930’s. It was subsequently replaced with a diesel engine, which, itself, is no longer in use.

The Islington Tunnel is Grade-II listed and its most striking feature is the western portal. This was attributed to John Nash and was constructed of red stock bricks set in English bond with gold stock brick and stone dressings. The inner skin brickwork had started to break away in recent years and the whole tunnel was restored in 2000.

West portal of Islington Tunnel, 2020.

Article by Islington Museum volunteer Johnny Baird, from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

All images courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

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