Book reviews — August 2005
'The Regent's Canal: London's Hidden Waterway', by Alan Faulkner
£25. Hardcover 176 pages (March 2005). Publisher: Waterways World Ltd. ISBN: 1870002598
At last, we have a definitive history of the Regent's Canal, and one that is a pleasure to read and admirably illustrated. The subtitle is not a populist gesture but reflects how little some aspects of the canal have been publicly known hitherto, although others have been written on extensively already.
The story has been traced, as it should be, from primary sources, particularly the company minute books (but these are referred to sparingly in the end notes). The level of detail is varied to suit a proper understanding of issues, some of them ignored by past writers.
With his background in banking, the author has not been shy to name costs and contracts as well as the numerous people instrumentally involved.
Relatively familiar matters addressed comprehensively and accurately include earlier schemes back to 1641, the grip of the landowners as the route was steered around the developing fringes of London and through Parliament in 1811-12, the progress of construction, cost over runs and the shortfall of finance that stopped work for two years. More could have been said about the establishment of the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners, who bailed out the project in 1817.
The vital matters of water supply are treated at length for the first time and there is a reconstruction of how the abortive hydropneumatic caisson lock at Camden Town may have looked, although to a confusingly distorted scale.
Competition and collaboration with the railways and the several schemes to run a railway alongside the canal occupy much of one chapter, in which the improvements made after 1850 to the canal and dock at Limehouse are also described, although the stimulus the competition gave to this investment deserves more exploration. The many traders and traffics on the canal over the years and the growth of activity at the Regent's Canal Dock have been a special interest of the author. The story is continued through the 20th century, the Grand Union period and Nationalisation, past the running down of commercial traffic in the 1960s to the opening of the Limehouse Basin Marina in 1994.
Appendices list the many Acts of Parliament, the restructuring of share capital an the progression of dividends up to the merger into the Grand Union Canal Company in 1928, all the locks, bridges, basins and principal wharves, with distances and levels, and the construction contracts awarded from 1812 to 1928.
There are many aptly chosen and crisp archival photographs, mostly not published before, and detailed maps drawn by the late Edward Paget-Tomlinson.
Parts are well known in outline from previous writers, but the book needs to be on everyone's bookshelves for a full and balanced perspective of this waterway's distinctive history. Malcolm Tucker
© GLIAS, 2005