Barging Through Islington

The Icy Past of Regent’s Canal

Prior to refrigeration, ice from the Regent’s Canal was integral to Islington’s businesses for food preservation, particularly to meat, fish and dairy merchants. Ice also played and important role in hospitals where it was in use to relieve inflammation. It was a difficult product to gather and store in the quantities required by Britons, thus its quality was often poor. This meant that innovation was required. The Regent’s Canal was home to developments that meant that ice could go from a scare luxury to product available to most: imports and artificial manufacture.

Trading Ice

During the 19th Century, demand for ice in London far exceeded what could be collected locally. A way of combatting this shortage was importation from countries with much colder climates. This began in the 1840’s, with ice trade commencing with America. The Wenham Lake Ice Company in Massachusetts, USA, was one of the most prominent American exporters of ice and received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria to import their product.

Andrew Wynter, in Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, published in 1865, the mystical ice imported by the Wenham Lake Ice Company, “A very long way off, in the New World, there is a great cup, hundreds of feet deep, made in the mountains. This cup is always full of crystal water, which in the winter season gets so cold that great ships come and carry it all over the world, so that every person, when he is heated as you are, can, if he likes, have a draught of its delicious icy contents.”

Ice being transported via ship (courtesy of London Canal Museum).

In 1844, the Wenham Lake Ice Company opened a storefront in The Strand, London where they would put on display a large block of ice in the window every day. A newspaper was placed on the other side of the block of ice so that passers-by could read the print through the ice, from outside the store looking into the window. It was a truly unique site to the people of London, many of which had never had the opportunity to see proper chunks of ice before.

The Wenham Lake Ice Harvest destined for London

The ice harvesting season generally commenced when the ice was approximately 30cm thick on the lake. It was imperative that no recent snow had fallen and melted on the ice. A line 5-7cm deep was ruled across the surface by a small, sharp hand-plough, which served as a guide to a horse-plough called the marker. The marker cut two parallel lines, about 45cm apart, and then repeated at a right angle the frozen surface to make perfect squares. About 15cm deep after the horse-ploughing the lines were sawn off individually and floated over to be transported into the ice house via a ramp out of the water and sledge.

To get these blocks of ice to London still frozen was quiet the feat. The real reason Wenham Lake ice was so popular in England was not necessarily due to the lake being of better purity than others that also produced ice, but largely due to its location. Just 29km north-east of Boston, Wenham Lake was in close proximity to the sea, provided a shorter route to the ship it would cross the Atlantic on, and therefore maintain its frozen state better. The ice was packed as tightly as possible into a train car which could reach the port within an hour. The blocks were then packed into the hull surrounded by saw dust with every effort made to reduce contact with the salty sea air. In spite of best efforts, a third to half of the volume of ice could be lost during the journey. Wynter talks of one ship that arrive in London with just 326 tonnes of ice when it left Boston 51 days earlier with 502 tonnes of ice on board. The main reason for loss was accounted to the salt air and poor drainage meaning that saturated sawdust became a conductor of heat and exacerbated the problem.

Common use of ice in England

Any block of ice that was remotely tainted in colour, or presented any impurity, was immediately put aside as rough ice for freezing purposes. Consequently, those using Wenham Lake ice were always confident in the safety in using the product in direct contact with food and beverages.

Wynter rejoiced the proliferation of ice houses from the mid-19th Century, with a new portable refrigeration method developed by the Wenham Lake Ice Company that meant ice was no longer a luxury for the rich, but one that could be shared by anybody with £10 a year to spare: “Henceforth, no decent householder need tolerate swimming butter or lukewarm drinking water in the dog-days. Neither should tough joints, warm from the slaughter-house, be suffered to pass as heretofore, on the plea that “there is no keeping meat this hot weather.” We have invented a shield that the arrows of Apollo cannot penetrate, and the iced larder will, without doubt, soon become as much a universal comfort among us as the bright fireside.”

A Swiss Italian in Islington

Carlo Gatti (1817-1878) was born in Ticino, Switzerland. He was one of the many migrants who left in search of a better life elsewhere during a period of extreme hardship. He would go on to become a hugely successful entrepreneur, making a big impact both here in Islington and across the capital.

Carlo Gatti and his ice cart in the mid-19th Century.

In 1847, Gatti moved to London, settling in Little Italy, and started selling waffles from a stall in Greville Street. In 1849 he went into business with a fellow Swiss countryman, Battista Bolla, opening a café and restaurant in Little Italy specialising in chocolate and ice cream. The same year, Gatti established a stand in Hungerford Market, near Charing Cross, selling pastries and ice cream in little shells. The ices sold for one penny, gaining them the nickname ‘penny licks’. The cost of these penny licks allowed the masses to enjoy ice cream, a luxury that was previously only afforded by the wealthy. There are claims that he sold up to 10,000 penny ices per day by 1858.

The Regent’s Canal was integral to Gatti’s ice cream business, but he also to other local businesses that he supplied ice to. As the local demand for ice grew, there was a pressing need to find additional supply of ice. Carlo Gatti’s solution was not to jump aboard the America ice trade, but to look to Norway.

Norwegian Ice and Gatti’s Ice Wells

Gatti began importing ice from Norway in 1857, with 400 tonnes of imported Norwegian natural ice brought to Islington in that first year. The ice was shipped to London via the Thames and transferred onto barges in Limehouse. The barges took the ice up the Regent’s Canal to Gatti’s ice warehouses. One of these warehouses was located on Battlebridge Basin, the first well established in 1857 and the second in 1863, and there was another ice warehouse on Caledonian Road established in 1862.

Green plaque commemorating the ice well on Caledonian Road.

Prior to refrigeration, the best way of storing ice was away from sunlight, underground in circular brick-lined ice wells. These wells were approximately 9 metres in diameter and 12 metres deep, therefore able to store vast amounts of ice. To minimises melting, the ice was packed closely together, just as on the transport ships; The larger the volume of ice stored together the colder it stays. The ice could remain for many months, losing only about a quarter of its weight between Norway and the customer in London. The ice would periodically be cut and distributed across the city on Gatti’s distinctive yellow and brown wagons to ice cream makers, though the bulk was bought by merchants.

By 1900, as a direct result of having far more ice available locally, selling ice cream had become the dominant trade for Italians in London. With some 900 ice cream vendors living in Little Italy, the Ice-Cream Man or ‘okey-Pokey Man was a common sight. This colloquial name came from the cry of Ecco un poco! meaning ‘Here’s a little (taste)!’ in Italian.

Italian ice cream vendor in Clerkenwell Green.

Artificial Ice

By the end of the 19th Century, artificial ice manufacturing was taking off. In the Islington area of Regent’s Canal, Barnett and Foster, as well as G.J. Worssam in Wenlock Road, manufactured ice making and brewing equipment. With the rapid advance of technology in the Victorian Era, these businesses and many more would begin replacing the natural ice trade that was the backbone of businesses like Gatti’s with widespread availability of artificial ice made locally.

Artificial ice began replacing the ice trade in London. This advert dates to 1899.

Carlo Gatti’s ice wells remained in use until 1904. The natural ice trade declined swiftly and Gatti’s company converted the building into a horse and cart depot, installing new floors and making extensive alterations. The company United Carlo Gatti and Stephenson used the building until 1926, after which it was used by a number of different occupiers for warehousing and light engineering.

Business expansion: United Carlo Gatti and Stevenson ice company. Staff of their Battersea depot on an outing to Hastings, 1921-22.

The London Canal Museum has occupied the site from 1992. Carlo Gatti’s original ice wells in Battlebridge Basin are understood to be the only such wells to have survived in London. With other wells throughout Britain and Europe buried and inaccessible, these are also the only known ice wells available to visit in Europe.

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

With thanks to Carolyn Clarke and London Canal Museum. All images courtesy of Islington Local History Centre unless otherwise stated.

Barging Through Islington

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.


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.

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.

Barging Through Islington

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.

Barging Through Islington

Regent’s Canal Photo Quiz

Test your knowledge of the Regent’s Canal with this photo quiz!

Want to know the answers? Take a peak below:

This quiz is from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

Barging Through Islington

A Timeline of the Regent’s Canal

Since opening on 1 August 1820, the Regent’s Canal has been a waterway for industry, sport and leisure. Take a look below at how the canal has developed over its two-century history.

This timeline is from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

Barging Through Islington

Hollywood by the Canal: A brief history of Islington and Gainsborough Studios

One hundred years ago, in November 1920, Islington film studios trade-screened its first movie, The Great Day. While the film was not a critical success, it marked the beginning of a distinguished 30-year production run. For those three decades Islington Studios, and then as Gainsborough Studios, produced some of Britain’s best-known early films, such as The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), as well as launching the careers of the many of the country’s cinema stars. Above all, one of the world’s greatest film directors learned his trade at the studios, east London-born Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).  

‘Hollywood by the canal’. Islington Studios, Poole Street N1, 1920s.
Famous Players-Lasky

Islington Studios opened in 1919, converted from an old railway power station on Poole Street, a quiet road on the border between Islington and Shoreditch (now Hackney), on the south side of the Regent’s Canal. The building became the home of American film company the Famous Players-Lasky and was hailed as the biggest, most technically advanced film studios in the country. It boasted three stages, workshops and offices, as well as a sunken concrete tank with windows for water scenes. Poole Street was now rising from obscurity to become known as ‘Hollywood by the Canal’!

Architectural section of Islington / Gainsborough Film Studios, 1920s.

Most local people welcomed the opening of the studios and the accompanying glamour. They often looked out for the arrival of the film stars in their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce’s and limousines. However, the young of the area missed the old power station. It poured hot water into the canal and had provided them with a free, heated swimming pool!

Gainsborough Pictures

Between 1920 and 1922 Famous Players made 11 films but none were judged a success by the critics or the public so, instead, studio space was hired to other production companies.  By January 1924 Players decided to call it a day and return home to the States. Some of the independent films made enjoyed some success, including Flames of Passion (1922) and Paddy-the Next-Big Thing (1923), both under the direction of Graham Cutts and producer Michael Balcon. The two film makers set up their own production company, whose name was to become synonymous with Islington Studios, namely Gainsborough Pictures with its well-known introductory sequence.

Studio no. 2 at Gainsborough Studios, 1920s.
The Rat

Gainsborough Pictures acquired Islington Studios for the much-reduced price of £14,000 and this to be paid in instalments. The first Gainsborough film was The Passionate Adventure (1924) but it was with its second film, The Rat (1925), that the company was to enjoy huge success. Written by and starring Ivor Novello, The Rat was a romance feature set in the Paris underworld. Gainsborough placed Novello under contract and he proved a key figure in establishing the its reputation with two more ‘Rats’ (Triumph and Return) and other various dramas and romances.

Alfred Hitchcock

In 1919 a young man who was passionate about films, replied to an advertisement placed by Famous Players to design and write subtitles for silent films. In 1924, when the studios changed hands, he stayed on to work for Gainsborough, keen to learn all aspects of the business. He was soon given the opportunity to work with Graham Cutts as assistant director. After working on a couple of ordinary pictures, the young man was allowed to direct a subject of his own choosing. The Lodger: A story of the London fog (1927), a disturbing adaptation of the Jack the Ripper story and starring Ivor Novello, was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The young Alfred Hitchcock had arrived!

Local residents and scenes

In the film’s final scene, the titular character is pursued by a violent mob of Poole Street residents, who each received half-a-crown (12.5p) for 30 minutes filming. In fact, local people made up most of the studio’s workforce of extras, carpenters, plasterers, labourers and secretaries. It took a lot of skill to transform a disused power station into a royal palace, an alpine village or a desert island! On occasion, films were made using the canal with, for example, ordinary rowing boats altered to look like gondolas. Unfortunately, in January 1930 while shooting a film called Balaclava, the studios caught fire. Some melted wax ignited the highly inflammable wooden studio walls, resulting in sixty-foot high flames engulfing the building. One person died in the fire, which also caused the closure of the studios for almost 12 months.

On set filming of Good Morning Boys (1937) starring Will Hay.
The Lady Vanishes

Now under the control of the Gaumont British Group, film production continued throughout the 1930s. Gainsborough Pictures was now concentrating on producing films for the home market rather than trying to break into America. A variety of film genres were tackled, including comedies, musicals and thrillers. Popular comedians such as Will Hay, Arthur Askey, and the Crazy Gang, and singers including Gracie Fields and Jessie Matthews all appeared in successful productions. However, the biggest success came with Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery thriller The Lady Vanishes in 1938. The story follows the disappearance of an elderly woman from a train – a passenger that everyone denies ever having seen. The plot thickens as the travellers speed their way across Europe, although in reality the whole film was shot at Gainsborough Studios.

The war years

The following year, when war broke out in September 1939, there was a fear that enemy air raids could halt production, with exploding bombs potentially causing the building’s chimney – the third tallest in London – to collapse and fall through the roof. The studios did close temporarily but, in the event, neither happened and production restarted. The Rank Organisation bought Gainsborough in 1941 and an output of period melodramas followed, bringing some welcome box-office success. Films such as The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) all served to provide escapism from the rigours of life on the Home Front. Other notable releases, a mix of comedies and war films,  included Shipyard Sally (1939), They Came by Night (1940), It’s That Man Again (1943), We Dive at Dawn (1943),and Waterloo Road (1945). It had been assumed that The Wicked Lady (1945) was also produced ‘by the canal’ but it was, in fact, filmed at Gainsborough Picture’s Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush.

Closure and rebirth

Despite the studio’s success in the 1940s, cinema audiences began to decline and film studios became expensive to run. After nearly 170 films, the final production at Gainsborough was Here Come the Huggetts (1948), a light-hearted drama centred around a family obtaining its first telephone. In January 1949 the closure of Islington Studios was announced. In October that year all the equipment and props were auctioned and the building put up for sale. It was bought in 1951 by James Buchanan and Co., Scotch whisky distillers for warehouse storage and, later, it was acquired by Kelaty Ltd as a store for oriental carpets, with no reminder that it was once the country’s biggest film studio.

This, however, was to change when the former power station and studios were to be incorporated and converted into waterside apartments, penthouses, workspaces and shops. Developed by Lincoln Holdings PLC, and designed by Munkenbeck and Marshall architects, the scheme was once more to be called Gainsborough Studios and, in April 2000, sales commenced. The new complex was completed in 2004.

Sales flyer for the ‘new’ Gainsborough Studios complex, 2000.

As a last homage to the location, two Shakespearean productions by the Almeida Theatre Company were presented in the Spring and Summer of 2000, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Ralph Fiennes A final closing Hitchcock season took place in October 2003.

Hitchcock’s head

The chimney has now gone but the surviving redbrick frontage on Poole Street and adjoining Imber Street remains. Further reminders of its cinematic past are also present at the site in the forms of a sculpture and a plaque. The building’s courtyard features a large sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock’s head by Antony Donaldson, which was installed in 2003. And, a plaque commemorating Gainsborough Studios was unveiled a few years ago on the Poole Street façade by Hackney Council.

Celebrating the bi-centenary of its opening in 2020, Regent’s Canal has witnessed many and varied businesses and trades operate along is waterside. Perhaps, though, the most unique and historic of all these was the Islington/Gainsborough Studios and, although production has long since finished and the ‘lady now vanished’, the location will always be remembered as ‘Hollywood by the canal’!

Article title and source information taken, with grateful thanks, from Chris Draper’s Islington’s cinemas and film studios (1990)

Further reading
  • Chapman, Gary. London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studios in the silent years. Edditt Publishing, 2014
  • Draper, Chris. Islington’s cinemas and film studios.  Islington Libraries / London Borough of Islington, 1990

Article by Mark Aston, from Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, an exhibition exploring the two century history of the Regent’s Canal.

Barging Through Islington

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.