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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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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.

Categories
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.