The Regent's Canal

Urban Engineering


Macclesfield Bridge, Regent's 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.

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.

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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.

Regent's Canal EmblemThe 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.

The canal has three tunnels, see Canal Tunnels of London

Key Dates in the Regent's Canal's History

Year Event
1802 Thomas Homer proposed a canal between the Paddington Canal, and the river Thames at Limehouse
1810 The Maonor of St. Pancras, including land needed for the canal route was bought at auction by William Agar, for £8,000
1811 Homer approached the architect John Nash, who was building Regent's Park. Nash showed an interest in the canal running through the park.
1812 An Act of Parliament granted authority for the canal to be built and the Company of Proprietors of the Regent's Canal was formed and held its first meeting. Appointments were made: John Nash, Director, James Morgan, Engineer, architect, and land surveyor, Homer, Superintendant. Work began on 7th October, in Regent's Park
1813 A further Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the construction of the branch to Cumberland Market, near what is now Euston Station. A number of workmen died during the construction work.
1814 William Congreve, an inventor, approached the company with a patent for a hydro-pneumatic double balance lock. An attempt was made to build this at Hamstead Lock, but it was not successful and was abandoned in 1818.
1815 The year was marked by fighting between canal workers and the gardeners employed by landowner Mr Agar, and by the embeszzlement of funds by Homer, the Superintendant. Subscribers to the Comapny were asked to contribute more funds. Homer was caught, and sentenced to transportation. In the autumn construction work came to a standstill due to lack of funds.
1816 An Act of Parliament permitted the Company to act as a supplier of water to the Grand Junction Canal, and also sought to settle the dispute with Agar over land. The first part of the canal, from Paddington to Camden, was opened.
1817 The work on the construction of the Canal stopped again due to financial problems. However, the Comany was able to borrow money from the government under a scheme for relief of unemployment amongst the poor.
1818 The Company finally reached agreement with Agar over land, paying him a very high price for it.
1819 Islington Tunnel, three quarters of a mile long (878 metres) was completed. A fourth Act of Parliament authorised a branch to City Road, and the enlargement of what became the Regent's Canal Dock, at Limehouse, to cater for ships. Work began in the autumn to rebuild Hamstead Road Lock as a conventional lock.
1820 The canal was opened at 11 a.m on 1st August 1820. It had cost £772,000 to build - twice the original estimate. 120,000 tons of cargo were carried in the Canal's first year
1822 Opening of Horsfall Basin, now known as Battlebridge Basin.
1826 Wenlock basin was contructed. A steam chain tug was introduced in Islington Tunnel to reduce bottlenecks caused by boatman manually "legging" through it. The tug service continued until the 1930s.
1835 The Regent's Canal Company took over the concession from the Grand Junction Canal Company to build the Brent Reservoir by damming the river Brent at Hendon.
1845 The Company received an offer to convert the canal between Paddington and City Road basin into a railway. This was approved when the offer was increased to £1 million, but the finance could not be raised.
1847 Towing on the canal became the responsibility of the Company, which provided its own horses and added a charge for this service to its tolls.
1854 The size of Brent Reservoir was increased to meet the need for water
1874 A barge carrying gunpowder exploded on 2nd October at 4.55 in the morning, at Macclesfield Bridge. The bridge was destroyed and three crew members were killed. The canal was closed for four days. This bridge has become known as "Blow Up Bridge".
1883 Failure of a further attempt to buy the Canal for £1,275,000 and turn it into a railway.
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1914 On 1st March, the Canal was taken into the control of the Board of Trade, because of the war. This control lasted until 31st August 1920
1929 The Regent's Canal purchased the canal assets of the Grand Junction Canal, and of the Warwick canals, and the enlarged concern became called the Grand Union Canal.
1942 Cumberland Basin and arm were filled in with rubble from buildings damaged during the Second World War.
1948 Nationalisation of most UK railways, canals, and some road transport under the Transport Act 1947. The Regent's Canal became part of the British Transport Commission's system. The Commission's Docks and Inland Waterways Executive became responsible for the canal, trading under the name "British Waterways"
1953 Narrow tractors started to replace horses on the canal towpath
1956 The last horse drawn cargo travels along the Canal
1963 Reorganisation of the nationalised transport industry saw the break-up of the British Transport Commission and the canal was taken over by the new British Waterways Board.
1968 Old Limehouse Lock, on the Limehouse Cut, was filled in and a new connection was built between the Regent's Canal and the Limehouse Cut. The City of Westminster opened towpaths within its boundaries to the public for recreational use.
1974 Camden Council followed the Westminster lead by opening towpaths within its boundaries to the public.
1979 A further part of City Road Basin was filled in. Some of it, south of City Road itself, had been filled in in the 1930's. The towpaths were used as a route for electricity cables, underground.
1992 Opening of the London Canal Museum by HRH The Princess Royal on 9th March
1996 Formation of London's Waterway Partnership by British Waterways and a range of other interested organisations to bid for a programme to regenerate the canal under the government's Single Regeneration Budget.