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Regent's Canal Dock

An introduction to its industrial archaeology by Tim Smith

Over the 170 or so years of its existence the Regent's Canal Dock has witnessed growth, diversification and decline of its traffic. In recent years the dock has undergone major alterations with luxury flats appearing on the quays, a new entrance lock and, even more dramatically, the building of the Limehouse Link Road beneath its waters. How much today's changes will leave of the past remains to be seen, but the original size of the dock, its expansion northwards and eastwards, the changing nature of its traffic and its different connections with the Thames and with its neighbour, the Limehouse Cut, all left evidence which could be seen before the present upheavals and much of which will remain afterwards. The road pattern to the west and south of the dock even reflects alterations to plans before the dock was built.

The Regent's Canal Dock connects the Regent's Canal with the River Thames at Limehouse. It was sometimes known as Limehouse Dock and nowadays is usually referred to as Limehouse Basin. To add to this confusion of names there was another "Limehouse Basin" at the western end of the West India Dock system until its in-filling by the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1927. The Regent's Canal Dock was never part of the PLA, which was formed in 1908. It remained in the control of its parent canal and eventually passed into the hands of the British Waterways Board.

The canal has itself been described as an extension of the dock, so much were the fortunes of canal and dock interlinked. In 1835 three-quarters of the canal's traffic came from the Thames, passing through the dock. The canal, completed in 1820 was a latecomer. Ten years later the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway heralded a new era. The response of the Regent's Canal's various proprietors was to make several attempts to convert their canal into a railway, a feat they clearly failed to achieve.

Wherever a canal joined a tidal river it was usual to build a small basin where canal craft could await the right state of the tide before passing through the locks. The Limehouse Cut, built in 1770, had just such a basin, with an island in the middle upon which was later built the "Island Lead Works". In the river craft could tie up and wait at a squat wooden tower known as a "dolphin".

A similar basin and dolphin was planned by the Regent's Canal Company, on the boundary between the hamlets of Limehouse and Ratcliffe. But soon after the passing of its Act of Parliament in 1812 grander ideas began to emerge. Trade could be attracted to the canal if the basin was built large enough to admit sea-going vessels. In the enlarged basin goods could be transferred to and from lighter or narrow boat. These plans for the dock were not finalised until well into 1819. Surprisingly it is still possible to see how, and why, the plans for the dock changed at such a late stage in development.

There had been a ferry across the Thames at Limehouse at least since the Middle Ages. It was a route pilgrims took from Canterbury to Waltham Abbey. To give access to this ferry, the Commercial Road Company intended to build a branch road which would have passed right through the middle of the present dock. The entrance lock was built to the west of the ferry road next to a timber yard used by one John Boulcott. The canal, on the other hand, passed beneath Commercial Road to the east of the proposed road. James Morgan, the canal engineer, planned two basins, a ship dock, to the west of the proposed road to the ferry, and a barge basin to the east. The road would cross passages linking the two basins on movable bridges.

But there was a dilemma. The canal had to pass beneath Commercial Road, yet, ideally, the quay level ought to have been at the same level as this major artery. The level of water in the ship basin had, therefore, to be higher than that in the canal and could only be maintained by pumping. Additional locks would have been required to gain access to this dock. The plan was rejected in favour of the simpler solution of having a single basin and a slope to the quays. The Commercial Road Company moved their road to the ferry. Now known as Branch Road it lies to the west of the dock. It is then connected by a west to east road to Horseferry Road which runs parallel to it to the former ferry terminal.

The slope to the east quay from Commercial Road can be seen on an old print of the dock, by Sheppard. When the London and Blackwall Railway was built in 1840 it had to cross over this slope. The railway was built on a brick arched viaduct but wherever it crossed a street cast iron beam bridges were used. Thus a beam bridge a little to the east of Commercial Road Locks marks the position of the slope, long since removed. The railway viaduct crosses the north side of the dock on three magnificent arches, each of 87 ft span. One crosses the canal as it enters Commercial Road locks but the other two seem to serve no obvious purpose. When the railway was built the dock was extended a short distance to the north, the new basin being connected to the rest of the dock by arms passing beneath these large arches.

In the early 1850s a timber warehouse, underneath which narrow boats could load and unload, was built over the eastern half of the basin for the use of the Grand Junction Canal Company. Later this building became first a store for Henry Page's rice mill, then a Scotch Soda factory before being demolished in the early years of this century. The in-filled basin became part of the adjacent scrap yard of George Cohen.

The Regent's Canal Dock was the first, and for many years the only dock to allow in colliers. By 1820 the trade in coal brought coastwise from north-east England, was well established and expanding rapidly. Coal began to be transhipped into lighters in the dock for onward transit to new canalside gas works such as the one built by the Commercial Gas Company in 1837, on a site now opposite the Ragged School Museum. Coal for both commercial and domestic use was handled in the dock. Some was taken up the canal; some went back out to riverside establishments; some was carted away for more local use. The Regent's Canal Dock became an important centre for the coal trade with well known merchants located there.

This lucrative business was thrown into disarray by the opening of the Great Northern Railway to Kings Cross in 1851. The railway company began to bring coal from Yorkshire and to undercut seaborne coal rates. Another new-comer, the North London Railway, began to distribute coal around north London from its own dock at Poplar. Furthermore the Poplar Dock was equipped with the latest hydraulic cranes for unloading the new, larger, iron-hulled screw-driven colliers. The first of these vessels, the John Bowes, docked at Poplar after a record breaking maiden voyage in August 1852. Quite naturally the coal merchants at Limehouse began to press for improvements.

So the dock was enlarged and projecting timber jetties with hydraulic cranes were built to speed unloading of colliers. An eastwards extension took the dock as far as the next beam bridge of the railway viaduct which crossed Mill Place. Cottages were demolished to make way or the quay. Railway enthusiasts will be interested to know that Mill Place was the birthplace of William Adams, the famous locomotive engineer. William's nephew, Henry Adams, was later to become involved, as the London representative of Sir W G Armstrong & Co, in the construction of the swing bridge carrying Narrow Street over the New Ship Lock entrance to the Regent's Canal Dock.

The Regent's Canal Dock was one of the first to use hydraulic power, soon after the system was developed by William Armstrong (later Baron Armstrong of Cragside). A small pumping station was built on the west side of the Commercial Road locks. The building is now derelict. A team engine was used to pump water to a pressure of around 700 psi into a system of mains which supplied the various cranes and other hydraulic machinery. The pressure was regulated by means of a weight loaded hydraulic accumulator, which could also store a certain amount f energy. The accumulator consisted of a heavy weight (as much as 80 tons of gravel), supported by ram on a column of water in a vertical cylinder. The weight moved up and down inside a tower according to whether water was being pumped into the system or used by the machinery. The tower of the first pumping station here has been demolished but that of the second, built in 1868-9, can be seen just north of the railway viaduct near Mill Place.

Originally the dock had only one entrance of a size suitable for sailing ships, appropriately known later as the Old Ship Lock. In the 184Os an entrance lock for barges was built to the east of the Old Ship Lock. In the 1850s coal-traffic passing through the dock increased considerably but most of it was in lighters. The seaborne coal trade had rapidly moved from use of the old collier brigs to the ore efficient steam colliers but these were too large for the Old Ship Lock. The New Ship Lock was built in 1868 so that steam colliers could enter the dock. The old lock was partly in-filled to provide a new riverside quay which became known as Chinnock's Wharf where, on the quay, there is the merest hint in the timbering of the corner of the old entrance. The short stretch of canal between the lock and the dock was kept to serve the wharf at Boulcott's timber yard.

The barge lock was retained as a water-saving device. Water shortage as a perennial problem with the Regent's Canal in the nineteenth century. Back-pumping was introduced in the 1860s but by the 1890s many of the back-pumping engines, and more particularly the boilers, had fallen into disrepair. The company had to resort to hiring portable steam pumping engines from the well known firm of Henry Sykes. The problem was solved under a scheme devised by the engineer of Tower Bridge, Sir John Wolfe Barry. He built new pumping stations ta various locations up the canal together with a large multi-purpose pumping station over the remains of the Old Ship Lock, on the opposite side of Narrow Street to Chinnock's Wharf. With machinery by Tangyes and Armstrong Mitchell & Co, the building provided back-pumping up the canal to above Mile End Locks, impounding for the dock and hydraulic power. The engine house was demolished in the mid-1980s, the boiler house having already gone. One relic of the back-pumping system is the 3 feet diameter pipe which crosses the canal on the south side of the Commercial Road bridge. This carried water up the towpath to be discharged into the canal above Mile End locks.

The building of the New Ship Lock and a further eastwards extension of the dock about the same time allowed the Canal Company to diversify its trade at Limehouse. A granary and warehouses were built to attract new custom to the dock. By now there were four jetties at which colliers could unload their cargoes and huge timber bunkers for storage of coal on north-west and south-west quays. The company even built a river quay with its own large warehouse, Victoria Wharf, just east of the entrance lock. On the west wall were painted the destinations of ships using the dock. Just before the Second World War there were regular sailings to many German and Norwegian ports.

Coal traffic diminished rapidly in the years before World War I due largely to the building of Beckton Gas Works. The old jetties were demolished and a new larger concrete jetty equipped with six high capacity electric grab cranes was built out from the north-east quay. This was done in 1924 as a joint venture between the coal merchants and the Gas Light and Coke Co. It too was demolished to make way for works for the new Limehouse Link road.

The narrow west quay had always been given over to the Baltic timber trade, after coal the second most important trade of the dock. Much timber was taken up the canal for use by the many furniture makers in Shoreditch and elsewhere. There were several timber yards on the opposite side of Branch Road together with the Norwegian Seaman's Mission. The mission building has recently been rebuilt behind its facade.

In the 1920s the west quay and the adjacent south west quay acquired warehouses and new names, Bergen Wharf and Medland Wharf. The Bergen warehouse has only recently been demolished but Medland Wharf has been a vacant site for many years. Medland Wharf was equipped with electric luffing cranes to handle fruit cargoes from Spain. There were other sheds on South Quay, west of the New Ship Lock and on the South East Quay but all have now gone.

If one stands on the Narrow Street bridge now one can overlook the newly rebuilt entrance lock amid new luxury apartments. In the dock itself the coffer dams, which were built to protect the huge hole where the Limehouse Link Road was being built by the same cut-and- cover technique used when the East London Railway was taken under the London Docks in the 1870s, have now gone. It is hard to imagine the dock full of sailing ships, steam colliers, lighters and narrow boats with all the hustle and bustle and noise of that bygone age. The men who sailed into the dock would not recognise it but the evidence is still there.

I must thank British Waterways for permission to visit the dock before the redevelopment work started, and members of GLIAS and the Ragged School Museum Trust who helped in fieldwork.

© GLIAS, May 1993