London is known for its tourist attractions, tall buildings and river; however, a short walk from King’s Cross Station in a former ice warehouse, is a museum that tells a little known history of the city. The London Canal Museum, established in 1992, displays information about the history of London’s canals. Today, these canals are a peaceful area away from the busy roads, but they were not always like that. Once vital for industrial London, these canals had a significant part to play, a role that is gradually disappearing from memory in an increasingly technological world.
On entering the museum, the first thing visitors see is the remains of an unpowered narrowboat named (rather unfortunately) Coronis. Built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff, an offshore construction company, Coronis accompanied a motorboat known by the (even more unfortunate) name, Corona, on the Grand Union Canal. Carrying goods, such as wood, metal, fruit and grain, Coronis regularly travelled from London to Birmingham and back again.
Narrowboats are unique to the United Kindom and were built to fit the narrow canals and locks that had a much shorter width than the canals in Europe. The average narrowboat is 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m) wide and no longer than 72 feet (21.95 m). Despite the lack of space, narrowboats were also used as floating homes for many people. The rear portion of the boat, known as the boatman’s cabin, was designed to make use of every bit of space. Although rather cramped, the cabin contained a stove, a folding table and a couple of folding beds. These would fold out of cupboards meaning the floor space could be kept clear during the day.
What inhabited narrowboats lacked, however, were bathroom facilities. Instead, families had to use rather primitive methods, such as going to the toilet in a bucket and washing with rainwater collected in a “Bucky” can on the roof of the cabin. These cans were usually decorated, as was the rest of the narrowboat.
By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to either decorate a narrowboat with painted flowers or with images of castles. The origin of these designs is unknown but may have been influenced by Romani communities.
Today, narrowboats are motorised, however, during the 19th and early 20th century, they were powered by horses. Running alongside the canals is a towpath, which the horses used to walk, pulling the narrowboats behind them by rope. Some people regarded this as cruel, however, bargemen maintained it was far easier than dragging a carriage through the street. The hardest part for the horse was to get the boat moving, but once this had been achieved, the narrowboat would move easily across the water. The horses were regularly changed, rested and fed throughout the day.
The main danger for the horses was losing their footing and falling into the canal. This was most likely to occur during thick fogs when it was impossible to see anything in front of you. Whilst this problem could not always be avoided, horse slips or ramps were built into the canal walls so they could easily climb back out. Passing trains often spooked the horses, which also caused many to fall into the canal. As a result, it was made certain there were horse ramps within 100 yards of train bridges.
By the 1950s, horses were replaced by tractors. Of course, many faced the same fate as the horses and found themselves in the canals. To prevent this from happening, railings were added in areas where the towpath was harder to navigate.
As roads and railways were developed, more bridges were built over the canal. This, however, caused problems for horses and tractors because, unless a towpath had been built into the construction, they could not go through the tunnel. Therefore, bargemen had to “leg” the boats through. This involved a couple of men lying on planks hooked at right angles to the front of the boat who would use their legs to “walk” along the tunnel wall, gradually inching the narrowboats through.
For some years, the main canal in London was the Grand Junction Canal, which was built between 1793 and 1805 to connect the River Thames to the Midlands. Since 1929, this canal has become a part of of the Grand Union Canal, which the narrowboat Coronis used to sail. Today, London’s most famous canal is Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Union Canal at Paddington and stretches across the north of London to Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, a total of 8.6 miles (13.8 km).
Regent’s Canal was first proposed in 1802 by Thomas Homer, although it was not constructed until after 1812 when it was agreed by Parliament. Designs for the canal were drawn out by John Nash (1752-1853), who is better known for designing Buckingham Palace and Marble Arch. Most of Nash’s architectural work was financed by the Prince Regent, later George IV (1762-1830), which is why the canal was named Regent’s Canal.
Nash appointed his assistant James Morgan (1776-1856) as the chief engineer of the canal company and construction began on 14th October 1812. The first section, Paddington to Camden, was completed by 1816 and the rest was opened in 1820. There were, however, a couple of problems along the way.
The first problem was the hydropneumatic locking system invented by William Congreve (1772-1828), which did not work when first installed. A lock is a device used to raise or lower boats between different water levels in a canal. Usually consisting of two gates, the boats enter through one, which is then sealed shut while the other gate gradually lets water in or out until the water inside the two gates is level with the outside. Once this has been achieved, the other gate opens and the boat continues on its journey.
The most common type of lock is known as the mitre lock and is based on designs by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), which he produced to show how improvements could be made to the canal system in Milan. This type of lock was first used in England on the River Lee in 1577, however, Congreve wished to impress the Prince Regent with a more impressive design.
In 1813, Congreve patented a “hydro-pneumatic double balance lock”, which involved a boat entering a box or caisson submerged in a cistern. The cistern would then either descend or ascend and release the boat onto the new water level. Unfortunately, there was not enough water for this to work in Regent’s Canal, which was only discovered after its construction. Various alterations were made to the lock, however, it was soon replaced by a more conventional design.
Today, there are nine locks on Regent’s Canal between Islington Tunnel and the Thames: City Road, Sturts, Acton’s, Old Ford, Mile End, Johnson’s, Salmon Lane, Commercial Road and Regent’s Canal Dock. These were initially manned by lock keepers who would open and close the gates for the passing boats for a small toll fee. Today, narrowboat owners each have their own Windlass Handle, which opens the majority of the locks around the UK, therefore, lock keepers are no longer needed.
The second problem faced during the construction of Regent’s Canal involved money. It cost a total of £772,000 to build the canal, which was twice the amount predicted. Getting an adequate water supply was a big issue, therefore, further digging needed to be done to create dams, make reservoirs and build basins. This, however, was not the main money problem.
Thomas Homer, the man who first proposed Regent’s Canal, became known as the Villain of the Regent’s Canal after embezzling funds in 1815. Homer was born on 27th March 1761 and was one of seventeen children born to the Rector Henry Sacheverell Homer, who was considered to be the finest classical scholar of his day. Out of the twelve sons, Thomas Homer was the only one not to go on to become a clergyman. Instead, he followed his father’s passion for canals.
After completing an apprenticeship in Coventry in 1782, Thomas Homer was qualified as a solicitor. By 1795, Homer had become the Auditor of the Grand Junction Canal Company and began making plans for what would become Regent’s Canal. All seemed to be going well until 1815 when the canal construction ran into some difficulties. The company was also facing financial problems caused by shareholders not paying up or, if they had paid, not paying directly to the treasurer but Thomas Homer.
Suspicions about Homer’s actions began to arise after he repeatedly failed to produce records when requested by the company’s chairman, Charles Monro. Homer soon fled the country and it came to light he had been declared bankrupt. It also became clear he had been syphoning off money from the company in an attempt to cover his debts. The company immediately reported Homer and offered an award for his arrest.
Thomas Homer was arrested and brought back to London where he was placed in debtors’ prison. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. It appears, however, that he never went and there are no records about how he spent the rest of his life. Despite his arrest and admission, the Grand Junction Canal Company was unable to claim any money back as there was no knowledge of how much money Homer had stolen.
Fortunately, funds were found to complete the construction of Regent’s Canal and it officially opened in 1820. Yet, within two decades of its completion, the canal was already under threat from the increase in railways. Several attempts were made to turn the canal into a railway and the idea to run a track alongside the water was also rejected. As a result, rail construction companies built bridges over the canal, however, these caused their fair share of problems, such as scaring the horses and making it difficult for narrowboats to pass under the bridge.
Bridges were also built over the canal for cars to pass over the water. One famous incident involving one of the bridges occurred in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a barge called The Tilbury exploded underneath Macclesfield Bridge. The barge was carrying a couple of barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder when it caught light passing under the bridge at the north of Regent’s Park. The resulting explosion destroyed Macclesfield Bridge and killed all three men on board.
The explosion was heard up to 25 miles away and many people mistook it for an earthquake. Animals in the zoo were frightened and debris flew in all directions, damaging nearby buildings and shattering windows. Eyewitnesses claimed that dead fish from the canal “rained from the sky”.
Fortunately, the majority of the iron legs of Macclesfield Bridge were salvaged and the bridge was successfully reconstructed. The explosion caused the government to amend the laws about selling and buying explosive substances to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Although explosive substances had been limited on canals, barges became vital during the World Wars for transporting munitions and equipment across the city. On one occasion, Londoners were surprised to see a tank being sailed along the canal. After the Second World War, the usual trade resumed upon the canals, delivering goods and materials that could not easily be reached by ships and cars. Horses continued to be used to tow the crafts until 1956 when they were replaced by tractors. By the late 1960s, however, commercial traffic on the canals had almost disappeared and it was opened to the public. Today, Regent’s Canal has become a leisure facility, used by those who own narrowboats for fun rather than for work or domestic living. The towpaths are also opened to the public and have become a popular place for cyclists.
Before canal boats were motorised, the most difficult sections to pass through were the tunnels. In London, there are three tunnels, all of them on Regent’s Canal. Getting a barge or narrowboat under a bridge without a horse or tractor was difficult enough but a tunnel required far more strength.
Two of the tunnels were opened as early as 1816 before the full extent of Regent’s Canal was completed. One of these is the Maida Hill Tunnel, which lies to the west of Camden Locks. It was not a part of the original plan but, due to protests about the route of the canal, it was agreed a tunnel would be constructed.
It took a while to complete the Maida Hill Tunnel, not least due to damage caused by the water. Eventually, the 272 yards (249 m) long tunnel was completed, however, due to its narrow width, there was no towpath. The only way for narrowboats to get through was to manually “leg” it through. This required much more energy than walking a boat under a bridge and, in 1825, two people lost their lives in the process. Three men were legging a boat through Maida Hill Tunnel when the boards they were lying on slipped. One man was seriously injured and another was crushed to death. The body of the third man was never found.
The other tunnel constructed in 1816 was Eyre’s Tunnel, also known as Lisson Grove Tunnel, near St John’s Wood. It was originally called Eyre’s Tunnel because it went through land belonging to Richard Eyre. Today, more people refer to it as Lisson Grove after the name of the road that passes above. Often mistaken for a bridge, Eyre’s Tunnel is only 52 yards (48 metres) and has a towpath that was once used by horses and tractors.
The third tunnel on Regent’s Canal was Islington Tunnel, which was completed in 1818. At 960 yards (878 m), the tunnel, which travels under Angel, Islington, was built by the canal’s engineer, James Morgan. When Morgan began the project, he had little knowledge of locks and tunnels, so the Grand Junction Canal Company decided to hold a design competition.
Advertisements were placed in August 1812 for the competition with a 50-guinea (£52.50) prize for the winner. William Jessop (1745-1814), who had designed the Grand Canal of Ireland, was invited to judge the entries along with two engineers, Ralph Walker (1749-1824) and Nicholson. Unfortunately, the competition was not as successful as they had hoped and they only received a handful of entries. Although the prize was awarded, the designs were not considered suitable, therefore, the project fell to Morgan once again.
By 1816, the company were low on funds, so work had to temporarily cease on the tunnel. Before then, Morgan had also discovered the construction of the tunnel was not as easy as he had hoped. To begin with, there were protests from landowners to overcome before work could commence. To dig the tunnel, men had to be lowered down on shafts with their equipment, which added to the cost of the project. The tunnel also needed to be straight for boats to pass through easily, which was a difficult thing to achieve. Although slow, progress was going well until they neared the other side where the earth was a lot less stable than Morgan had anticipated. It was at this point the company’s money ran out.
The company needed at least a further £200,000 to complete the tunnel and canal but had no means of raising the money. Fortunately, a chance meeting with the Society for the Relieving of the Manufacturing Poor resulted in talks about government loans and providing opportunities for poor people to work on the canal’s construction. Following this discussion, the Poor Employment Act was passed in 1817 followed by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission. On behalf of the commissioners, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who had built canals in Shropshire, was sent to survey the canal’s construction progress. After reading his report, the commissioners agreed to provide the company with a loan of £200,000 if they could raise at least £100,000 in match funding.
Finally, work on the tunnel and canal was able to continue and was opened on 1st August 1820. Islington Tunnel alone had cost £40,000 to build, making it the most expensive section of Regent’s Canal.
Islington Tunnel has no towpath, so before motors were added to the boats, they had to be legged through. This was extremely hard work due to the length of the tunnel and people were grateful when the steam chain tug was invented in 1826 to pull the narrowboats along – although some complained of almost being gassed out in the tunnel!
Due to the length of the tunnel, it was not as simple for the horses, and later tractors, to meet the boat at the other end. To help people find their way, towpath link waymarkers were placed on the pavements for people to follow. By following the waymarkers, people are taken up Duncan Street, through Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road into Chapel Market, then through Penton Street, Maygood Street and Muriel Street where they finally rejoin the towpath.
Today, the canal is less busy than it was in its early years and is no longer used for commercial purposes, except for short boat trips near Camden. Whereas narrowboats tended to be owned and worked by the poorer people of London, it is the richer citizens that own them now for pleasure. Yet, the history of the canal will not be forgotten thanks to the London Canal Museum, which has collected personal records and memories of those who used to live by and work on the canal. There are plenty of happy memories but also stories about the dangers of the canal.
For a small fee, visitors can explore the London Canal Museum and learn about the background of England’s canals and the introduction of canals to London, including information about locks and horses. As well as this there are exhibits of painted items belonging to narrowboats and decorative pottery, a history of the life on the canal and examples of narrowboats and barges, including Coronis, which visitors are welcome to enter. Also, there is a history of Carlo Gatti’s icehouse that once stood on the site.
Of course, there is no better way to explore the canals than by walking along the towpath. If you do, look at the architecture of the bridges and tunnels, marvel at the engineering of the locks and enjoy seeing the narrowboats going past, all the while remembering the work that went into the canal’s construction.
The London Canal Museum is usually open Tuesdays to Sunday (Friday – Sunday at the moment due to Covid-19) from 10 am-4:30 pm. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £2.50 for children between 5-15 years old.