Robert Philpotts is the author of the book When London Became and Island. In May 2011 he gave a talk at London Canal Museum entitled The Key players who Built the Regent's Canal. This set of 9 audio talks is based on that presentation. In them, Robert explains the origin of the idea to build what is now the Regent's Canal and the eventful decade in which it was built, and, overcoming a large number of problems, finally opened. The stories are told in the style of a radio talk and there are touches of humour. See also the author's website When London Became an Island.. The book is sold in the London Canal Museum shop.
Each talk lasts about 16 minutes and is about 15 Mb in size.
Transcripts are provided for hearing-impaired users.
In this first episode Robert explains the background to the proposal to build the canal. Britain's prosperity and trade was dependent on its naval strength ad it was not until Nelson's great victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, that Britain achieved sea supremacy, clearing the way for increased business confidence and optimism and a climate in which the building of a canal to the London docks would find favour. Thomas Homer had suggested the canal in 1802 but the resumption of war reduced support for the idea. Homer revived his idea in 1811, just at a time when the redevelopment of land at Marylebone provided a perfect opportunity and a perfect advocate in John Nash.
John Nash approached Sir Thomas Bernard (pictured), who was to be one of the crucial players in the canal's story. Bernard was a social reformer and saw canals as a social improvement, for they reduced the price of coal and made it available to poor people. Lord Yarmouth came on board and Nash obtained the support of The Prince Regent. On 31st May 1811, a meeting was held at the Percy Coffee House, Percy Street, London, to start the project that was to become the Regent's Canal. On 7th August 1811 a further meeting at Freemasons Tavern heard the news that the Prince Regent had agreed that the canal be called "The Regent's Canal".
We hear how one man, William Agar, began what was to be years of vigorous opposition and subjected James Morgan, appointed as the canal's engineer, to hostile questioning in the House of Lords Committee. Objections being overcome, the Bill became and Act and the time had come to start work. 26 initial Directors were appointed and these included Lord Macclesfield, later the Chairman, and Lt Colonel John Drinkwater, a highly regarded former military officer who was to play so pivotal a role in steering the company through its most difficult financial phase.
From the day of a small ceremony in Regent's Park the work began in earnest. Robert explains how the work was done, and the appointment of contractors. A further Act was passed to add the branch to Cumberland Market, and Lords Cricket Ground was moved to its present site to make way for the new canal.
Morgan selected the English method of tunnelling, which Robert describes. The first two tunnels were built without major problems although there was a flooding incident. A shocking, fatal accident occurs at Chalk Farm. There is more conflict with Agar. Financial storm clouds begin to loom over the company as 1814 dawned. The story of the hydro-pneumatic lock designed by William Congreve is told here. It promised to save water but ended up wasting money.
In early 1815 an anonymous letter, addressed to Colonel Drinkwater, caused shock waves in the company. It emerged that Thomas Homer, the man whose idea the canal was, had been stealing shareholders' money. After first escaping, Homer was arrested and sentenced to transportation. Other arrests also affected the company, this time at the instigation of the troublesome Agar, who had two supervisory staff arrested when they were trying to stake out the line of the canal on his land. A volcano on the other side of the world caused crop failure in Europe, and a new economic recession. Further disputes about Congreve's lock led to the abandonment of the whole project. The main good news of 1816 was the opening of the canal as far as Camden Town. (pictured, above)
As Christmas drew near in 1816 there were riots in London and elsewhere, and later, the Prince Regent himself was attacked in his coach in Brighton. There had been a revolution in France, so there were anxieties that the spectre of revolution and republicanism might yet cross the channel. One approach to head off this threat was to provide employment for the poor. The company had first tried the Bank of England and then the government for a loan but were rebuffed. Then the government did a 19th century U-turn and set up the Exchequer Loan Commissioners to lend money for public works that would make work for idle, and perhaps revolutionary hands. Colonel Drinkwater was consulted about the terms of the scheme and he ensured personally that the Company's application was well prepared. It succeeded, and a loan allowed the company, by now struggling to pay staff and bills, to carry on canal building. The Commissioners engaged Thomas Telford to inspect the works as a consultant.
Telford gave Morgan a glowing report: he must have enjoyed the praise from so great a man. Councillor Agar, though, continued to be less than nice to the Company and indeed was as awkward as possible. Sir Thomas Bernard conducted the negotiations that eventually let to an expensive settlement with Agar and, sadly, died a few weeks later. By a deal with the Grand Junction, and with steam engines at Chelsea, water supply from the Thames was adopted. There may have been enough water but there was still not enough money and the Directors asked the Commissioners for an additional loan. This resulted in near disaster. Drinkwater was snubbed at the Commissioners' offices and he realised that the Commissioners had taken the application as a sign of impending failure. By early 1820 £100,000 would have to be raised from the subscribers. By January 1820, £105,000 had been pledged.
By the middle of 1820 all was ready and on 1st August 1820 there was every reason to celebrate. The canal opened with a fanfare, and a band played as a procession left Battlebridge Basin to pass through the tunnel (pictured). Finally, a grand dinner was enjoyed by all. Robert goes on to tell us what became of some of the great men who made the Regent's Canal a reality in the face of so many difficulties.