London’s Hidden Waterway: Regent’s Canal

Once described as ‘London’s Hidden Waterway’, 2020 celebrates the bicentenary of the Regent’s Canal’s full opening on 1 August 1820. The canal played an integral role in Islington, and north London, serving the local industries and businesses for nearly 150 years. Although passing through a well-populated area, much of the Regent’s Canal was hidden in an enclosed world behind wharves and waterside warehouses. In recent times, the canal emerged from its veiled existence and is now increasingly used by pleasure craft. Its towpath is enjoyed by walkers and cyclists and many historic wharves and businesses are now focal points for housing, culture, leisure and entertainment.

Beginnings

So-named after the Prince Regent (later George IV), and as a result of an act of parliament, the Regent’s Canal Company began work to construct the £772,000 waterway on 14 October 1812 and completed just eight years later. Engineered by James Morgan, the canal was to link the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm with the Thames at Limehouse. Its 13.84km (8.6 mile) course would take goods to and through Islington and beyond; 120,000 tons of cargo were carried in the Canal’s first year. The Regent’s Canal boasted 40 bridges, 12 locks and a number of basins, two of which are located in Islington: City Road Basin (1820) and Battlebridge Basin (1822). The Islington portion of the canal stretches approximately 2.4km (1.5 miles) from Maiden Lane Bridge (York Way) in the west to Rosemary Branch Bridge (Southgate Road) to the east.

Western end (Battlebridge) of the Islington Tunnel by T H Shepherd, 1822

Islington Tunnel

Two major tunnels along the canal were also constructed. One of these, the Islington Tunnel, is considered to be ‘the’ major engineering work of the waterway. At 878m (960 yds) long, and running from Muriel Street to Colbrooke Row, celebrated civil engineer Thomas Telford inspected the tunnel in 1818 and, in spite of its £40,000 cost, described it as “perfect, the materials and workmanship excellent, and its direction perfectly straight.” With no internal towpath, and room for one craft only, the tunnel was at first operated by ‘legging’, with men lying on their backs on planks aboard the boat who walked the vessel through against the side walls. This was difficult work and caused a great deal of delay. In 1826 a steam-chain tug was introduced, one of the earliest uses of steam power on the canals.

City Road Basin

The main centre of trade was the Regent’s Canal Dock (now the Limehouse Basin), a point for seaborne cargo to be unloaded onto, then, horse-drawn canal boats. Goods from abroad, including ice destined for ice wells in Islington, were transferred at the dock to continue their journey west. Cargo was unloaded en-route in purpose-built warehouses constructed by canal basins, such the Horsfall Basin (renamed Battlebridge Basin). City Road Basin, close to the eastern end of Islington Tunnel, made a huge contribution to the prosperity of the canal. It soon became a distribution centre for goods into London. Due to its convenient location, several firms moved to City Road Basin, including the carriers Pickford’s. There was also growing traffic in coal, timber, bricks, sand and other building materials from the eastern end of the canal to locations west of the basin, where building development was flourishing. It is likely many residents of the St Luke’s parish area (of EC1) would have gained employment with the Regent’s Canal Company and other burgeoning businesses at City Road basin.

City Road Basin published by R. Ackermann, 1822

Coming of the railways

Unfortunately, this early success prematurely hit the ‘buffers’ when, in the 1840s, the railways had begun taking business away from the canals; the North London line was laid initially as a goods service. There were even (unsuccessful) attempts to turn the canal into a railway! The fortunes of the canal ebbed and flowed but cargo tonnage did increase between the 1850s and 1880s. Much activity still took place along the Islington section, with businesses continuing to operate by the basins and wharves. The coming of what was eventually to become the Northern underground line (1901) witnessed tunnelling underneath the City Road Basin, with the canal playing its part by removing excavated spoil.

Western end of the Islington Tunnel, c.1937

Second World War and after

During the Second World war (1939-45) traffic increased on the canal system as an alternative to the busy railways. Gates were installed near King’s Cross to limit flooding of the railway tunnel below, in the event that the canal was breached by German bombs. A number of canal side building were hit by enemy bombs, including some on City Road Basin that were beyond repair. Along with other transport systems the canal was nationalised in 1948, trading as British Waterways. The towpaths were later utilised as convenient underground conduits for electricity cables. The last horse-drawn commercial traffic was carried in 1956, motor powered barges had been commonplace since the 1930s. By the late 1960s business traffic had almost vanished and the Regent’s Canal steered towards use as a leisure facility, with increased public use of its towpath.

City Road Basin, 1980s

Regent’s Canal 2000s

The Canal and River Trust took over guardianship of the canals in England and Wales from British Waterways in 2012, along with a wide range of heritage buildings and structures. The Islington stretch of the Regent’s Canal has gradually been re-energised. While the canal continues to be an oasis of relative calm, cultural and business offers have sprung up along its historic basins. Work completed in 2009 to the City Basin has included the provision of public open space, a landscaped park, and new facilities for the Islington Boat Club. The basin is also home to the Islington’s tallest building, the 36-storey, 115m-tall Lexicon Tower, a residential building of 146 apartments.

In 2008 its Battlebridge ‘sister’ basin at King’s Cross witnessed the opening of Kings Place, a cultural venue and office development. This included the first, new-build public concert hall in central London since 1982. And, of course, the basin continues to be home to the London Canal Museum, itself born from a mid-19th century canal-side building that is an integral part of the fascinating and physical history of the Regent’s Canal, London’s now ‘not-so’ hidden waterway. Happy 200th birthday!


This article is 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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