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Regent's Canal
from Paddington to Limehouse, London, UK
Regent's Canal
associated engineer
James Morgan
date  1812 - 1st August 1820
era  Georgian  |  category  Canal/Navigation works  |  reference  TQ277835
ICE reference number  HEW 1718/02
photo  Jane Joyce
London's Regent's Canal links the Grand Junction Canal with the River Thames. Its course runs from Paddington Basin, through Regent's Park to Camden, Islington and Mile End, terminating at Limehouse. It's no longer a commercial waterway but is well maintained and popular for leisure uses.
In 1801, the Grand Junction Canal opened its branch to Paddington Basin (TQ267815) — an area that would become known as Little Venice. A year later, the idea of building a canal from Paddington in an eastwards loop to the Thames at Limehouse was promoted by Thomas Homer, a commercial speculator. He consulted engineer John Rennie (1761-1821), who proposed a central London route to the East End that was later abandoned as too expensive.
Nothing more was done until 1811, when Homer approached the architect John Nash (1752-1835), who was developing plans for grand estates in Marylebone Park — later renamed Regent's Park in honour of the Prince Regent (1762-1830, King George IV from 1820). Nash was keen to include the canal as a feature in the park and became a director of the Regent's Canal Company, established under the July 1812 Regent's Canal Act.
On 10th August 1812, James Morgan (c.1773-1856), one of Nash's assistants, was appointed "Engineer, Architect, and Land Surveyor" to the canal company. Homer was appointed Superintendent. Morgan was to supervise the canal but the locks and tunnels were to be designed separately. However, the designs the company received were rejected, and on 17th December 1812 Morgan was given the whole project. His salary was £1,000 a year.
The 13.8km canal was designed to be wide enough for laden barges to pass each other easily. It runs level from Paddington to the Hampstead Road Lock, then falls 27.4m through a further 11 locks to Regent’s Canal Dock (TQ363810), now called Limehouse Basin. Two major tunnels and a short one, all brick built, were also required.
Since his appointment, Homer had amassed large personal debts, which he attempted to settle by embezzling money from the canal company. His crime was discovered, and in 1815 he was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.
Work on the canal was suspended temporarily, until the Regent's Canal Company chairman Lord Macclesfield (George Parker, 4th Earl of Macclesfield, 1755-1842) took charge of the finances and work restarted. The canal bridge carrying Avenue Road (TQ275833) in Regent's Park was named Macclesfield Bridge in his honour. In 1816, the canal was completed and opened to Camden, a distance of 3.7km that included two tunnels and three locks.
Maida Hill Tunnel (TQ265822 to TQ267823) is 249m long and takes the canal under Edgware Road, following the line of Aberdeen Place. The 48.5m Eyre's Tunnel (TQ269824), often mistaken for a bridge, carries Lisson Grove and is the only tunnel with a towpath.
Hampstead Road Lock (TQ286840), and possibly the other two locks, was built to Sir William Congreve’s (1772-1828) patented hydro-pneumatic double balance lock design. However, the lock leaked, and had to be rebuilt later at great expense.
In 1817, the company ran short of money again and work halted. Thomas Telford was asked to report to the Exchequer Loan Commissioners, after which successive loans up to £250,000 were made to complete the work. In his report Telford endorsed Morgan's efforts by saying that the canal was "constructed in a perfect manner".
Grade II listed Islington Tunnel (TQ309834 to TQ317833) was completed in 1819. At 878m, it is the longest canal tunnel in London.
All the locks on the canal, including the reconstructed Hampstead Road Lock, are pairs of parallel units. This configuration was designed to reduce water losses from the summit level. Each of the two lock chambers is 23.8m long and 4.3m wide.
Regent's Canal Dock was built in 1819 to accommodate sea-going vessels, and originally covered 1.8 hectares. Canal traffic enters the dock under a bridge carrying the Commercial Road and through Commercial Road Lock (TQ363811). The dock (Limehouse Basin) had an entrance cut with a lock to connect it to the Thames. The River Lea (or Lee) Navigation enters the east side of the basin.
The completed Regent's Canal opened on 1st August 1820. It had cost &pund;772,000 to build — more than twice the original estimate. It was a successful venture eventually, however, with 122,000 tonnes of cargo carried in the first year.
From 1826 until the 1930s, a steam chain tug was used to pulled barges through Islington Tunnel. Previously crewmembers 'legged' boats through it by lying on their backs atop the cargo and walking their feet along the tunnel soffit.
In 1830, a connection was opened between the Regent's Canal south of Old Ford Road and the Lea Navigation at Loop Road. The 2km straight north easterly cut is known as the Hertford Union Canal (TQ357832 to TQ373844), or Duckett's Canal.
In 1835, Morgan resigned as canal engineer. It's not clear if his decision was influenced by the growing water shortage problem in the canal. However, in the same year, the company built Brent Reservoir (TQ216871), damming the River Brent at Hendon. The reservoir was enlarged in 1837 and 1854.
In 1836 and 1865, the dock was extended eastwards, to occupy four hectares. A new ship lock was built in 1868, south of the former entrance lock. It allowed vessels up to 91m long and 18m wide to moor out of tidal waters.
In the mid 19th century, rail began to take over from water as the major transport medium. In 1845, the Regent's Canal Company was offered £1,000,000 to sell the canal so that it could be converted into a railway. In 1883, the company was offered &pund;1,275,000. Both attempts failed when the money could not be raised.
On 1st March 1914, with World War I looming, the Board of Trade took control of the canal. In 1917, the Limehouse entrance lock was refurbished. The board's control lasted until 31st August 1920, despite the war ending on 11th November 1918. In 1929, the Regent's Canal amalgamated with the Grand Junction, Warwick and other canals to form the Grand Union Canal.
The 1947 Transport Act nationalised most of the UK's railways and canals, and some of its roads. In 1948, Regent's Canal became a British Transport Commission asset, looked after by the commission's Docks & Inland Waterways Executive. The British Waterways Board replaced the commission in 1963.
In 1953, small towpath tractors began pulling barges and replaced horse power altogether in 1956. Commercial canal traffic ceased during the 1960s.
The Limehouse lock was infilled in 1968, and a new channel built to connect Regent's Canal and its ship lock with Limehouse Cut. In 1969, the dock closed. During the 1970s, one of each pair of the canal's 12 locks was converted into a flood weir. A modern lock with radial gates was built inside the original ship lock.
On 9th March 1992, the Princess Royal opened the London Canal Museum, located on the east side of the canal's Battlebridge Basin.
There are now 41 road bridges, 12 rail bridges, seven footbridges and four pipe bridges over the canal. It has seven intermediate basins along its length, built to augment water supply. The canal also passes over the railway lines in an aqueduct north of King’s Cross Station (TQ302834).
Earthworks: Hugh McIntosh
Tunnels: Daniel Pritchard
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE1

Regent's Canal