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A look back at Regent’s Canal history 200 years after plans were approved

15:36 13 July 2012

Murky past? A tug tows a barge laden with timber on the Regent's Canal.

Probably 30s-50s though we don't have a date for this.

Murky past? A tug tows a barge laden with timber on the Regent's Canal. Probably 30s-50s though we don't have a date for this.

Archant

A world famous Islington waterway celebrates a special anniversary tomorrow.

On July 13, it will be 200 years to the day since Regent’s Canal got the go-ahead.

The canal was given royal assent by the Prince Regent while his father George III lapsed into mental illness. Although it wasn’t completed for another seven years, to mark the occasion events are taking place at the London Canal Museum this weekend.

As well as a special guided tour and talk about the history on Friday afternoon, a folk opera at the museum that night will trace the life of the canal through song.

Then, on August 23, a 100-year-old barge will be tugged to the canal museum by horse and cart.

Martin Sach, chairman of the museum, said: “It’s all going to be a lot of fun and Friday should be a great day. To hear the history of the canal told in song is quite unusual. It’s not often history and music go together. Maybe we should do it more often.

“The guided walk will be very good – one of our experts Lester Hillman will be doing the honours, and a 100-year-old boat being drawn by horse and cart should be a special event for everyone.”

Construction was beset by problems when work began in 1812, including embezzlement, faulty inventions and the challenge of constructing the Islington tunnel.

Mr Sach said: “At Camden, an experimental lock designed by William Congreve was built but didn’t work properly. Everybody blamed everybody else and the whole thing had to be scrapped.

“Another disaster happened in 1815 when a man called Thomas Homer ran off with all the shareholder funds. He was eventually caught and deported to Australia – a pretty harsh sentence. And the Islington tunnel is without a doubt the major work of the canal. It’s three quarters of a mile long and was a huge undertaking without today’s modern equipment.”

The project had the support of celebrated architect John Nash, who enlisted the help of his friend the Prince Regent, who in turn allowed his name to be used. “It was a bit of a double edged sword, because the prince wasn’t universally popular,” said Mr Sach. “He was seen by some as a womaniser and an extravagant philanderer.”

More helpful was the Poor Employment Act of 1817, to provide work for the poor and ex-servicemen after the Napoleonic War. It meant the canal could borrow money from the government when the project ran out of cash again in 1817.

In 1820, Regent’s Canal finally opened to great fanfare – with a brass band playing on boats to mark the occasion.

Around 120,000 tonnes of cargo was shipped in the first year and the canal flourished until after WW2, when road travel took over.

The waterway never closed though – unlike many across the country – and in the 1960s interest began to increase from those keen on walking, cycling and fishing.

In 1987, developers wanted to fill in City Road basin and build on it – but campaigner Crystal Hale successfully fought the plans and went on to start the The Angel Canal Festival, now in its 26th year.

The London Canal Museum in New Wharf Road, Islington, was opened in 1992 by patron Princess Anne. The building was previously used by Swiss entrepreneur Carlo Gatti, who stored ice imported from Norway, before selling it on to caterers and hospitals.

Now the museum has exhibitions about the history of the canal, the horses and the people who worked on it, sometimes in terrible conditions, as well as a historical map and a tug boat. Call 020 7713 0836.

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