Sluice talk at the Lock-keepers Cottage

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Sluice talk at the Lock-keepers Cottage


Thu, 11/08/2016 - 16:16


Walker’s Purfleet Wharf at Camden Lock circa 1911 Photo: Alan Faulkner
11 August, 2016

IT was exactly 200 years ago on Friday that the first canal barge was gently guided into the locks at Camden Town, the sluice gates cranked and the boat gently lowered to the cheers of onlookers into the Camden Lock basin.

On August 12, 1816, the Camden Lock was officially opened – a brilliant piece of engineering, requiring both the muscles of hundreds of navvies brought in to dig out the channel and the ingenuity of the civil engineers who had to master such issues as routes, water loss and a gradient that meant lock gate technology was needed. 

While it has now become a defining feature of the neighbourhood, Regent’s Canal did not have an easy birth. 

The Regent’s Canal Company faced expensive legal battles with the land owner at Agar Grove, who sued the canal firms for trespass. 

They had to battle the Hampstead Water Company, who owned two ponds on the Heath and a pumping station and supplied fresh water to homes in central London. Their pipes were made out of hollowed elm trunks that sat just below the surface and saw the canal as destroying much of their network.

Then there was the crooked behaviour of Thomas Hosner, the Regent’s Canal Company’s treasurer. He saw funds filling the coffers and couldn’t resist pilfering them. The theft was discovered – as was his past history as a bankrupt – and he was sent to Australia for his troubles. 

But help came in the form of the end of the Napoleonic wars: there was the threat of mass unemployment in a post-war slump as the war economy collapsed. It led the government to throw its weight behind the scheme and lend the Regent’s Canal Company £200,000 – thus finding employment for returning soldiers and factory workers who had produced the equipment that had won the battle of Waterloo. 

As historian Jack Whitehead writes in his  book The Growth of Camden Town, 1800-2000, the stretch in to Camden from Little Venice came from the success of the Paddington basin, built by the Grand Union firm. 

Paddington had already become a transport hub, a centre for goods heading into London from the Midlands.

“By using four horses and travelling at a trot, Pickfords could take a barge from London to Birmingham in two and half days,” writes  Whitehead. “While Camden still slept in her fields, Paddington was becoming an industrial centre.”

As stocks of coal, hay and pottery piled up on Paddington’s wharves, it soon became clear that businesses wanted goods to be able to make onward journeys through London and to the Thames Docks. A map of 1810 shows the canal ending at Paddington – and soon after, surveyors and engineers were drawing up plans to bring the canal eastwards. 

But the route of the canal wasn’t simply about drawing a straight line on a map. 

Careful negotiations with landowners were required, and the input of John Nash, who was building Regent’s Park at the time, was crucial. He liked the idea of a canal to the north of his park and his influence helped shape part of the route. 

Then there was a gradient for engineers to deal with. From near Uxbridge​​​, boats can have a lock-free journey through Little Venice and into Primrose Hill. But when they reached Camden Town, technology had to step in. 

An average lock holds 50,000 gallons of water, lost each time a boat passes through. In 1812, work began on experimental locks in Camden Town designed by the MP and inventor Sir William Congreve. He had previously made rockets, colour printers, a clock based on a marble run that used a ball running along a zig-zagging track, and attempted to create a perpetual motion machine using water and pulleys. 

His locks were designed to save water using a hydro-pneumatic system but despite spending the vast sum of £12,000, they never worked. Instead, by 1816, engineers had installed double locks with a system that saved half a lock of water each time it was used. 

Eventually the canal opened – but its success was curtailed by the age of the steam engine. 

As Whitehead writes, earlier canals were financially successful – but the Regent’s Canal simply came too late.

“In a few years the railways would thunder into London and gradually steal the canal’s trade,” he says. 

Now it is seen as both a place for a walkers and a commuter route for cyclists. House boats moor on its towpath and holiday-makers use it to see London from another angle.

But in recent years, as road freight has become unsustainable and huge projects such as the King’s Cross Railways Lands bring added traffic to Camden, the original use of the canals has not been forgotten. Campaign group the Friends of Regent’s Canal have lobbied for the canals to be used to remove spoil and bring in materials. 

The Canal and River Trust have presented evidence to the Greater London Authority as to how the canals could be become working bodies of water once more. It means 200 years after Camden Town’s first lock gate was pushed open, a new industrial chapter in the canal’s history could be about to start.  

• The Friends of Regent’s Canal will be marking the 200th anniversary tomorrow (Friday) from 2-3pm at the Lock-keepers Cottage at Camden Lock. See

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