The Regents Canal

The Regent’s Canal was built to link the Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington Arm, which opened in 1801, with the Thames at Limehouse. One of the directors of the canal company was the famous architect John Nash. Nash was friendly with the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who allowed the use of his name for the project. The Regent’s Canal Act was passed in 1812 and the company was formed to build and operate it. Nash’s assistant, James Morgan, was appointed as the canal’s Engineer. It was opened in two stages, from Paddington to Camden in 1816, and the rest of the canal in 1820.

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Two serious setbacks, and shortage of money were to blame for the delay in completion. Firstly an innovative design of lock, the hydro pheumatic lock, invented by William Congreve, was built at Hampstead Road Lock. Congreve (later Sir William) was also famous for the invention of military rockets, and in the world of horology. The lock however was a failure, and in 1819 it had to be rebuilt to a conventional design.

Secondly Thomas Homer, once the canal’s promoter, embezzled its funds in 1815 causing further financial problems. To build the canal cost £772,000, twice the original estimate of expenditure. The Canal was short of water supplies and it was necessary to dam the river Brent to create a reservoir to provide them, in 1835, extended in 1837 and 1854. A number of basins were built such as Battlebridge basin where the London Canal Museum now stands, which was opened in 1822. The main centre of trade was the Regent’s Canal Dock, a point for seaborne cargo to be unloaded onto canal boats. Cargo from abroad, including ice destined for what is now the museum, was unloaded there and continued its journey on barges. City Road Basin was the second most important traffic centre, handling incoming inland freight, to a large extent.

By the 1840s the railways were taking traffic from the canals and there were attempts made, without success, to turn the canal into a railway at various times during the 19th Century. The explosion at Macclesfield Bridge (pictured in 2000) of 1874 was a famous incident in the canal’s history, in which a gunpowder barge blew up, destroying the bridge and sending debris in all directions.

In the late 1920’s talks took place between the Regent’s Canal, the Grand Junction Canal, and the Warwick Canals, resulting, in 1929, in a merger between them. The Regent’s Canal Company bought the canal assets of the other two parties and the new enlarged undertaking was renamed as the Grand Union Canal Company.

In the latter part of the second world war (1939-45) traffic increased on the canal system as an alternative to the hard pressed railways. Stop 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. Along with other transport systems the canal was nationalised in 1948, coming under the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, a part of the British Transport Commission, which traded under the name “British Waterways”. The British Transport Commission was split up in 1963 and the British Waterways Board , who still own and operate the canals, took over. They now also use the name British Waterways.

The last horse drawn commercial traffic was carried in 1956 following the introduction of motor tractors three years previously. By the late 1960’s commercial traffic had all but vanished. The canal has since become a leisure facility with increased use of the towpath which has been opened up to the public. Boat trips are regularly available especially between Camden and the picturesque Little Venice in west London where the canal meets the Grand Junction near Paddington.

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