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The Regent's Canal Iron Works and the roof trusses at 49 Eagle Wharf Road, London N1

Malcolm T Tucker

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    The Regent's Canal Iron Works was situated on the south bank of the Regent's Canal at Eagle Wharf Road, Hoxton, formerly in the parish of Shoreditch, Middlesex and now within the London Borough of Hackney. In operation from 1841 to 1866 under the noted ironmaster Henry Grissell, it manufactured ironwork for many important buildings and bridges in Great Britain and abroad. This article investigates the ironworks' history from the limited surviving records and identifies an extant range of iron roofing as Grissell's work. It is based on material sent by GLIAS to the Hackney planning department in response to a redevelopment application submitted in 2015.1

    Henry Grissell

    Henry Grissell (1817–1883) was one of the most prominent and respected structural ironfounders in England in the mid 19th century. Assiduous in his work, he earned the nickname 'Iron Henry'.2,3 He was well connected in the construction industry from an early age, since his much older brother was the well-known builder Thomas Grissell (1801–1874).4 Between 1830 and 1846, Thomas Grissell was in partnership with their cousin Samuel Morton Peto in the prominent building and railway contracting firm of Grissell and Peto. Henry and Thomas both became Associate Members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. After pupillage with John Joseph Bramah, Henry Grissell established the Regent's Canal Iron Works in Hoxton around 1841, in partnership with his younger brother Martin De La Garde Grissell. As ironwork contractors, the firm produced a vast array of bridges and building structures in cast and wrought iron and other iron products of high quality, most components being sent out by barge from the lay-by on the Regent's Canal in front of the works. Much work came to them through Grissell and Peto, and probably Peto's subsequent railway contracting firms.5 Henry was the constructor of important railway bridges for the leading civil engineers of the day. Overseas work included bridges and cast-iron lighthouses. Work in the Royal Dockyards included the No. 7 Shipbuilding Shed at Chatham and the Boat Store at Sheerness, both very important historically for their cast-iron frames, and many wrought-iron roofs that have now gone. In London, they made the structures for various important buildings including 'a very large proportion' of the cast-iron floors and roofs at the Houses of Parliament (where brother Thomas was the main contractor until his retirement to the life of a gentleman in 1850) and the elaborate cast-iron facades of the Floral Hall in Covent Garden. Henry's name is seen on John Fowler's very fine cast-iron arched bridge of 1864 across the Regent's Canal in Regent's Park east of the Zoo, while at a lesser scale 'H & MD GRISSELL REGENT'S CANAL IRON WORKS' appears on several small bridges on the Lee Navigation, Coal Duty boundary marks and sundry building components.

    Henry Grissell was the only iron founder called to give evidence to the Royal Commission on the Application of Iron to Railway Structures (1848), which investigated safe practice for the building of iron railway bridges.6

    The Regent's Canal Iron Works

    The Regent's Canal Ironworks eventually occupied the sites of the present Nos. 48 and 49–50 Eagle Wharf Road, but initially it was somewhat smaller. On 23 August 1842, Henry Grissell and Martin DLG Grissell signed a 61 year lease from the local landowner, Henry C. Sturt, for land with a frontage to Eagle Wharf Road of 308 feet (93.9m). A copy plan accompanying the summary of the lease in the Middlesex Deeds Register7 shows this extending from Sturt's Lock westwards and matching the land that later became No.48 Eagle Wharf Road (Figure 1). The Grissell brothers termed themselves Smiths, Engineers and Founders, already of The Regent's Canal Iron Works. The Lease ran for 61 years from 29 Sept 1841, suggesting they had been in occupation for some months. Already there was a canal lay-by west of the lock, and there was unoccupied wharf ground further west. Incidentally, the occupier to the east was Henry Dodd (the 'Golden Dustman').

    Figure 1. 1842 lease plan as copied into Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1842/6/449 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, X73/729)

    Figure 2. 1859 lease plan as copied into Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1859/6/633 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, X73/160)

    Martin Grissell left the partnership with Henry in July 1858.8 On 8 April 1859 Henry and Martin De La Garde Grissell surrendered the 1842 lease9 and on 9 April 1859, Henry alone entered into a new lease.10 This had a frontage of 549ft 6in. (167.5m), i.e. the previous land plus a further piece with a frontage of 241ft 6in. (73.6m), which matches that of the present Nos. 49-50 and increased the site area by fifty percent (Figure 2).

    Stanford's 6-inch Library Map of London, published in February 1862 but surveyed over a period of years preceding that, shows buildings indicatively on the earlier site but the extension site largely unbuilt upon (Figure 3).11

    The Regent's Canal Iron Works Company Limited

    The early 1860s were a period of commercial expansion in the UK economy, while the raising of capital for enterprise was aided by the introduction of companies with limited liability in 1856. The Regent's Canal Iron Works Company Limited was formed on 2 July 1864 under the 1862 Companies Act, with a permitted capital of £250,000 in 12,500 shares of £20.12 Its principal objects as summarised in The Engineer magazine were to purchase, carry on and extend the engineering works of Mr Henry Grissell, Eagle Wharf Road, Regent's Canal.13 At 30 August 1865, 5,905 shares had been taken up and partly paid, raising £47,575. Henry Grissell was the largest of the 89 registered shareholders, with 1,250 shares. The others, mostly London businessmen and some 'gentlemen', had much smaller holdings, Thomas Grissell having 100 shares.14

    Figure 3. From Stanford's 1862 Six-Inch map

    Figure 4. Subdivision of the site, Jan 1871, from Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1871/6/804 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, X98/43)

    Figure 5. Robert Legg sub-lease plan, Jan 1871, from Middlesex Deeds Registry, 1871/2/921 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, X98/43)

    In July 1865, Henry Grissell made an application to the Metropolitan Board of Works for consent to build a 'furnace chimney-shaft'.15 It must have fallen outside the routine stipulations of the London Building Acts. It may be presumed this was part of a programme of expansion and it might possibly have been the chimney subsequently shown within the site of No. 49 Eagle Wharf Road (see below).

    This was a boom period for construction and some projects were fuelled by a network of credit. The hitherto respected banking firm of Overend Gurney and Co had been heavily involved in such finance and in May–June 1866 it crashed and went into liquidation. This precipitated a national crisis in which more than 200 other firms failed.16 Particularly hard hit was Samuel Morton Peto, who was embroiled in the finances of the London Chatham and Dover Railway. The chain reaction of called-in credit, unpaid bills and drying-up of orders affected many more and put the economy into recession for several years. The Regent's Canal Iron Works was forced to close its doors.17 In due course liquidators sought the sale of the premises, although Henry Grissell escaped the indignity of personal bankruptcy.

    No plans have been found of the buildings of the Iron Works while it was in use by the company. They would have included not only foundries, furnaces, pattern shops and stores but also forges and machine shops and erecting shops for the manufacture of wrought-iron roofs and girders. Many would have had iron roofs for reasons of incombustibility. There would be open yard space near the canal for the trial erection of structures. The Ordnance Survey sheets, surveyed in 1871 and 1872 are discussed below.

    The disposal of the property

    On 13 January 1871 Henry Grissell surrendered the residue of his 1859 lease, so that the site might be re-leased to him in three separate leases as shown and dimensioned on the accompanying plan (Figure 4). These correspond to the parts that later were numbered 48, 49 and 50 Eagle Wharf Road.18 Then, on 17 January 1871, Grissell and the Company, through its liquidators, jointly granted a sub-lease of the middle portion to Robert Legg, a mechanical engineer.19 The plan with this lease is shown in Figure 5. The Sturt family remained the freeholders throughout.

    Subsequently, the eastern portion was sub-leased to the Henry Rifled Barrel Company Ltd (becoming No. 48) and the western portion to Hoskins and Sewell, bedstead manufactures (becoming No. 50). Legg's 'City Engine Works' was first entered in Kelly's directory for 1873, the Henry Company's 'Blenheim Works' for 1874 and Hoskins and Sewell by 1876, which probably indicates the order in which the new businesses got into production. The ground rents of these three properties were offered for sale at auction on 22 July 1874 on the instructions of the Liquidators of the Regents Canal Ironworks Company Limited.20 They were described as a 'Well-secured Leasehold Investment of £616 per annum ... in the occupation of three respectable tenants'. The sale particulars gave wharf frontage lengths of 174ft 9in for Lot 1 (Henry Rifled Barrel Company) and 121ft for Lot 2 (Legg), which are within 1 foot of the figures on the 1842 and 1871 lease plans.

    These premises were un-numbered until 21 December 1877, when the street was renumbered and the present numbers were assigned by the Metropolitan Board of Works.21

    No. 49 Eagle Wharf Road and its iron roof

    The first large-scale Ordnance Survey of the area (excepting the outline edition of 1850 which showed only street lines) was surveyed here in 1871, although not published at the 1:2,500 scale until 1877. Figure 6 is based on the 1:2,500 map22. The larger-scale, five-feet-to-one-mile map, with more sheet divisions and published earlier, shows no more information. I have superimposed the post-1877 numbering and the 20th-century outlines of Nos. 49 and 50, by locating these against features in No. 49 that were still there on the 1891 Goad insurance plan (see Figure 7 below). They also match the frontage dimensions given in the lease plans and 1874 sale particulars presented above.

    It will be noted that none of the boundary lines created by the site's subdivision is yet shown on this map. The map does show a wall line across the site, offset one bay westwards from Legg's eastern boundary. However, the 1891 Goad plan shows that this wall separated a section with incombustible metal roofs associated with hot processes from a timber roofed workshop (probably making foundry patterns in 1891), and so it was a fire separating wall with fire-stopping parapet that the OS surveyors recorded, not a property boundary. The outline of the main building and chimney in the middle portion of the site match what is shown on Robert Legg's lease plan, presumably drawn up prior to his purchase, except for a new entrance way cut through the roadside range of buildings and a small building extension added east of the chimney. It can be concluded that the map survey was made not long after Legg had moved to the site, before boundary walls had been built. Moreover, the chimney and the ranges to its south predated Legg's lease, so they can be presumed to have been built for the Regent's Canal Iron Works in the early to mid 1860s, before their insolvency made further investment impossible. The existence of such workshop buildings from the iron works, of a type suited to Legg's engineering business, would have been a factor attracting him to the site, with the Henry Rifled Barrel company similarly attracted next door, the future No. 48.

    Figure 7 is taken from the Goad Insurance Plan published in 1891.23 Upon this I have outlined the original Legg lease in dark grey and superimposed the outline of buildings from the 1871 Ordnance Survey in black. Compared with 1871, the yard on the west side of No. 49 has received a glazed roof, the range next to it has been extended north past the chimney, the north-east corner has been rebuilt as a foundry and the canal lay-by has been partly reclaimed for open storage. Occupying the pre-1871 part there are two north-south ranges described as Machine Hammer Shops and Forges, with light iron truss roofs, and a third range marked with the circle symbol for a timber and slate roof used for Patterns and a Machine Shop. It is within the first of these ranges that four bays of iron trussed roofs survive today, which I have indicated by the diagonal line X–X.

    Figure 6. From the OS 1:2,500 map surveyed in 1871 with the iron works site outlined in grey and present numbers 49 and 50 identified with grey tint

    The 1893 Ordnance Survey revision shows a similar layout to the Goad, with less detail.24 The 1891 Goad plan and a drainage plan of 1893 provide details of iron-roofed workshops that also survived from the iron works in the gun-barrel works at No. 48 Eagle Wharf Road.25 That site had been largely redeveloped by 1914.26 At No. 50, nothing from 1871 remained by 1891 and some good-looking 3-storey warehouses that now face the canal post-date 1893.

    By 1914, the chimney at No. 49 had been replaced by one nearly twice as tall and about 12 metres northeastwards, on land reclaimed from the layby. It served Legg's foundry department and boiler house27 and it remains as a prominent feature of the canalside (Figure 12). Its externally stepped profile might have been deliberately reminiscent of the earlier ironworks chimney. Legg's continued in occupation at No. 49 until the 1960s, with various rebuilding.28

    Figure 7. 1891 Goad Plan with 1871 building outline superimposed in black and sub-lease of No. 49 in grey. The present extent of the iron roof is indicated by the line X–X

    Figure 8. Polonceau trusses with round bars, forged connections and cast-iron struts, above Studio 6

    Figure 9. Polonceau trusses of a simpler design with wrought-iron flat bars, above Studio 7

    Figure 10. Valley girder formed from wrought-iron flat bars as an under-slung truss, in Studio 6

    Figure 11. Connection detail of particular significance

    Figure 12. The site from the west in 1977, showing the later chimney built around 1900. All photos Malcolm T Tucker

    Nos. 49 and 50 are now both occupied by Holborn Studios Ltd. as fashionable photographic rental studios. The wrought-iron roof that survives within No. 49 occupies four structural bays above Studios 4, 5, 6 and 7. Its pitched roof trusses span approx. 8 metres (26.5 feet) and are spaced at approximately 1.6 metres (5.3 feet). On the east side they bear onto an original line of wrought-iron under-slung trussed girders beneath the roof valley, in four spans also of approx. 8 metres. The supporting columns are now hidden within concrete and blockwork. The pitched trusses are of the 'Polonceau' configuration and there are two types. Thirteen visible trusses have round bars for the tensile members, smith-forged 'clevis' connection details, cast-iron struts of cruciform section and T-section rafters (Figure 8). Four trusses at the north end have flat tensile bars with riveted connections and flat bars paired and bellied outwards for the struts, again with T-section rafters (Figure 9). The girders supporting both types of truss use multiple flat bars for the downwards-bellied lower chords, paired flat bars for the struts and T-sections for the upper chords (Figure 10).

    The trusses of the first type are particularly finely made and elegant, and moreover the main connection detail is a clever and unusual variant design, with three bolts (Figure 11), which I suggest is an indication of the particular care that Henry Grissell applied to his work: here working for himself. The striking, under-slung-trussed configuration of the valley girders was not common and is also of special interest. While the trusses made of flat bars may be thought of by some people as less refined, their elegance is in the creation of robust, three-dimensional forms out of one-dimensional pieces and eminently practical design. Trusses both of round bars and of flats were quite widely used in industrial structures over many years, but examples become increasingly scarce through demolitions and now verge on rarity, especially in London.


    These trusses have historical significance as the principal surviving feature of Henry Grissell's manufacturing base. They also exemplify one of the types of work he produced. They are one of the increasingly scarce reminders of London's major industrial importance in engineering manufacture during the mid-nineteenth century. Finally, their presence is a reminder of the 1866 financial crash.

    Architecturally, the trusses are fine examples of industrial roof trusses of the mid-19th century, and of types of roof construction that are increasingly scarce, especially in London. The unusual and cleverly arranged connection detail in the trusses with round bars is noteworthy in its own right.


    Nos. 49 and 50 are within Hackney's Regent's Canal Conservation Area and they make an important contribution to the canal scene. In 2014, Hackney Council added the buildings to its Local List of heritage assets.

    However, in July 2016, the council approved a scheme for the redevelopment of the site, against many objections. The prominent chimney, later than Grissell, is to be retained as a feature, as are the circa 1900 workshop and warehouse ranges of the bedstead makers at No. 50, but the roof trusses are to go. National listing of the site has been turned down; with regard to the trusses, Historic England were sceptical of the evidence now presented in this article as to dating and provenance and commented that 'the survival of fabric relating to the Grissell ironworks is fragmentary at best'.29

    The Author

    Malcolm Tucker is an engineering historian. He has acted as consultant to GLIAS for many years.

    Notes and references

    1. Planning application to London Borough of Hackney, no. 2015/2596, 49–50 Eagle Wharf Road, including heritage statement by Montagu Evans LLP, Executec Ltd, 49–50 Eagle Wharf Road, London N1, Heritage Statement, July 2015

    2. Obituary memoir of Henry Grissell, Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol. 73 (1883), pp.376–8

    3. James Sutherland, 'Grissell, Henry', in M M Chrimes et al., editors, Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers, Vol. 2 (hereafter BDCE2), Thomas Telford Publishing, 2008, pp.354–5

    4. James Sutherland, 'Grissell, Thomas', in BDCE2 pp.355–6

    5. J G Cox, 'Peto, Sir Samuel Morton , Bt., MP', in BDCE2, pp.614–8

    6. Report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the application of iron to railway structures, London, HMSO, 1849, pp.303–4

    7. Middlesex Deeds Register, 1842/6/449, London Metropolitan Archives

    8. London Gazette, 2 July 1858, p27 of 48, quoted by Grace's Guide under Regent's Canal Ironworks

    9. Middlesex Deeds Register, 1859/6/632, London Metropolitan Archives

    10. Middlesex Deeds Register, 1859/6/633, London Metropolitan Archives

    11. Stanford's library map of London and its suburbs, 6 in. to 1 mile, Edward Stanford, 1862, sheet 7

    12. Memorandum of Association dated 2 July 1864, in winding up papers of Regent's Canal Iron Works Company Limited, The National Archives, BT 31/973/1401C

    13. The Engineer, 15 July 1864, p.44, col.1, para.1

    14. Summary of Capital and Shares made up to 14 Sept 1865, in BT 31/973/1401C

    15. Metropolitan Board of Works, Minutes, 21 July 1865, p.901, item 41

    16. Wikipedia, accessed Oct 2015

    17. Not listed in Kelly's London Post Office directory after 1867. Successor occupiers do not appear until the 1870s

    18. Middlesex Deeds Register, 1871/6/804, London Metropolitan Archives

    19. Middlesex Deeds Register, 1871/2/921, London Metropolitan Archives

    20. London Gazette, 3 July 1874, p.3340, col.1

    21. MBW Renumbering Plan No. 2068, 21 Dec 1877, London Metropolitan Archives

    22. Ordnance Survey, London 1:2,500, First Edition, sheet XXVI, surveyed 1871, engraved 1876, published 1877, and sheet XXVII, surveyed 1872, engraved 1876, published 1877. Most of the iron works site is on sheet XXVI

    23. Charles E Goad, insurance plan, London Vol. XII Sheet 395, 1891

    24. Ordnance Survey, London 1:2,500, Edition of 1894–6, revised 1893–4

    25. Drainage application plan to Shoreditch Vestry No. 3648, 48 Eagle Wharf Road, 13 Oct 1893, Hackney Archives

    26. Ordnance Survey, London 1:2,500, edition of 1916, revised 1914

    27. Goad insurance plan updated by over-pasting to 1921, Camden Local Studies Centre and Archives

    28. Kelly's London Post Office directories

    29. Historic England, designation case no. 1438262, Advice Report, dated 15 Dec. 2016

    © GLIAS, 2017