The inaugurative meeting of the Paddington to Limehouse canal project had been held on May 31st 1811 at the Percy Coffee House, on Percy Street, which is off Tottenham Court Road. On May 31st 2011 that first meeting was celebrated by a group of supporters and enthusiasts in a modern coffee shop, which stands within a few yards of the site of the original Percy Coffee House.
Part 1 of the website features the Regents Canal as it is today. It was first created when the book was being written and is updated occasionally. There is also a section on the short Hertford Union Canal (or Duckett’s Cut as it is sometimes called) which links the Regents Canal with the River Lee Navigation.
Part 2 carries the texts of three documents dating from the time when the canal was being built and a link to a relevant series of podcasts. See Notes on Part 2 below for more details.
Part 3 subtitled Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys, goes forward four decades from the time the canal was built and outlines the voyages of HMS Saracen in 1854,1855, 1856 and until March 1857.The Saracen was a British survey vessel that worked in the waters off China, Korea and Japan and in the Gulf of Siam in those years. The work of such small ships were essential to the safety of Royal Navy vessels and merchant ships too, so helping facilitate the expansion of international trade on which the success of the Regents Canal ultimately depended. Click here to go to the introduction.
Notes on Part 1
Part 1 offers a guide to a walk along the towpaths of the Regents and Hertford Union canals. It is divided into five sections. Look at the blue buttons above and you will see what they are. Click on a button to go to that section. Within each section are pages. To go directly to a page click here to go the links page.
Direct quotes are italicised in the text and there are references to events mentioned in When London Became An Island. As you read through each page you will see numbered photographs on the right linked to references in the text. At the top of the first page of each section there are two dated photographs ‘from the archives’.
Within the text you will find hyperlinks, accessed by clicking on underlined words, to external and other site pages that have current interest. There are also hyperlinked buttons on the left hand side. The green ones should take you to websites that have relevant historical information, whereas a multi-coloured button will take you to a song, a podcast or art work images. A yellow button will take you to a page within this website that has historical information pertinent to that point in the main text.
A note about safety
Running from the junction with the Grand Union Canal at Paddington to the Thames at Limehouse, the Regents Canal towpath has been a place for leisurely strolls for many years. Given the choked state of the capital's roads, it is hardly surprising that, like other London towpaths, it became well used as a cycle path too, which prompted this comment by a towpath ranger in a local magazine in 2012.
‘They are Greenways, not highways, on which pedestrians have priority. Our campaign ‘Share the Space, Drop the Pace’ asks everyone to be mindful of others, take it easy and ensure the towpath remains a haven of tranquility.’
Before London reacted to the pandemic, I am not sure if ‘tranquil’ would have been the word that would have immediately sprung to mind when negotiating the towpaths of either the Regents or Hertford Union canals in any rush hour, which is probably also true of urban canals elsewhere in the country. The Autumn/Winter 2020 edition of Waterfront (the Canal and River Trust magazine) pointed out that in a collision a pedestrian is generally more vulnerable than a cyclist and drew attention to a trial that was taking place on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal which might lead to new signage, floor markings and speed inhibitors in order to change behaviour. The current Code of Conduct for cyclists and pedestrians on the towpath is listed below
Cyclists - Ring with two tings, Pass people slowly, Give people space.
Pedestrians - Listen for two tings, Allow cyclists to pass.
And for both remember that - Pedestrians have priority, Considerate cycling permitted, Give way to oncoming users at bridges, Be careful at bends and entrances, Consider other users.
A note about the present Covid situation
All the Covid-19 restrictions in England have now been lifted. This means the cafes, restaurants and pubs mentioned in the text may be fully re-opening but, as with museums and markets, not necessarily with the same times as before the pandemic began. You should bear in mind that the requirements, as decided by an organisation’s management, to wear masks may remain in some cases. Having said that, you will be quite safe if you simply use this website to access either of the featured canals and view from the comfort and safety of your own home.You might consider following the route from the air via Google Earth and, if so, put Little Venice in the search box to go to the beginning. So, best foot forward on this imaginary walk. Click the button below to start at Paddington, just like the navvies on the Regents did two hundred years ago.
This website was initially uploaded in conjunction with When London Became An Island, a book which covers the planning and construction of the Regents Canal between 1811 and 1820. Today the website features both the Regents and Hertford Union canals.
The map below is part of a draft plan of the proposed Regents Canal dating from 1811. Before construction began a Bill had to be presented to Parliament and during the period of scrutiny a member of the House of Lords said The effect of this canal will be to render the metropolis completely an island. Perhaps this statement exaggerated the likely impact of the pipes through which water would be be pumped up from the Thames to Paddington, but the Grand Junction Canal already formed a barrier to the west of London as did the Thames to the south and the River Lee to the east. Consequently, once the Regents was completed, it would not be possible to reach the city without crossing a commercially used waterway of one kind or another.
Three informative organisations and a Kindle edition of When London Became An Island
The London Canal Museum, housed in a canal side building at Kings Cross, is the best place to find out more about London’s canals. The Friends of Regents Canal is a voluntary organisation that cares for the upkeep of the Regents Canal. It aims to promote the benefits of the canal, monitors current and future developments and disseminates information to interested parties. Regents Canal Heritage offers links to historical films, books, classroom resources and much more. A must for those interested in the industrial history of both the Regents and Hertford Union canals. Click on the relevant button below to reach the website of these organisations.
A text only edition of When London Became An Island may be found on Kindle. The Kindle edition is called London’s Regency Canal. Click on the button below to go to the site.
Notes on Part 2
Three historical documents and nine podcasts with transcripts
In an attempt to drum up financial support a prospectus was published in August 1811. I know of only one accessible copy. It is held in the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects and I would like to thank the organisation for allowing me to copy it. A note attached to the prospectus indicates it was presented by Mr John Woody Papworth in 1867, a thoughtful act that preserved a most important document.
In 1815 Thomas Homer admitted embezzling company funds and fled London. He was eventually caught in Edinburgh, put on trial and sentenced to transportation. The second document is a copy of the letter in which he admitted his guilt.
Despite all the tribulations and troubles the Regents Canal was eventually opened in 1820. The third document is a report taken from The Times about the opening celebrations.
Nine short podcasts may be downloaded from the London Canal Museum website. They are based on talks given at the museum in 2011. Transcripts are provided.
The buttons below will take you to each of the documents or the podcasts
Wall painting by City Road basin locks, October 2023