Battlebridge Basin: King's Cross
In 1986 GLIAS produced this walks leaflet, compiled by five GLIAS members. The area has since undergone a dramatic redevelopment.
We have reproduced it here for historical interest. Links to entries in the GLIAS Database are given.
This circular walk from King's Cross takes in Battlebridge Basin on the Regent's Canal and nearby streets. The canal was opened in 1820, linking the Paddington Branch of the Grand Junction Canal with the Thames at Limehouse. Conveyance of goods by water was far more economic than over the difficut roads of the 19th century — a single horse could easily pull a boat with 45 tons or more of cargo along a canal. Battlebridge Basin was constructed on the outskirts of built-up London with wharves to serve this part of the then radidly expanding metropolis. In turn it, and later the railway, attracted industries which wished to minimise road cartage of their goods or materials.
Many of the premises passed on this walk have archways in the main façade to allow horses and carts to pass through to yards — often with stables — behind. Horses remained the main means of goods conveyance by road until well into this century. Look for granite stones protecting these archways from damage.
Most of these buildings on the walk have changed ownership and use more than once, reflecting changes in scale of operation, technology, demand and means of transport.
The walk is about 1½ miles long; 1½ hours should be allowed.
① Start the walk at the outside corner of King's Cross main line station (GTL00006) in York Way.
The boundary between St Mary, Islington and St Pancras the Martyr parishes runs along York Way (until 1938 York Road). Their markers can be seen: a stone in the station wall and a cast-iron shield high on the wall opposite. A few paces along York Way iron bollards, carrying St Pancras initials, prevent vehicles mounting the pavement.
Continue north along York Way to opposite No. 20-22.
This is the former Times or King's Cross Steam Laundry. It was built in 1901 to replace smaller premises elsewhere, at a time when crowded living conditions and frequent smogs made domestic laudering difficult. It served some 20 shops; the site of one at the laundry itself is occupied by a sub-station. The 'Duke of York' next door carries present and former street name plates.
② Cross York Way into the north side of Caledonia Street.
On the right is an extension of the laundry, in typical Edwardian style (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx). Note the date (1906) and the monogram, repeated in the fragment of railings remaining. An arch at the far end has granite posts both sides to protect it from damage.
Walk on a few paces. Buildings on the left (north) extend behind No 32 York Way; these were built in 1866 (and later) as part of Albion Works, a copper and brass foundry. The easternmost three-storey building features a small wall crane. On the far end of the same wall is a truncated chimney, once 80ft high, for a coal-fired boiler and steam engine.
Return to York Way and turn right.
No.30 was erected in 1868 as the Islington & North London Shoe Black Brigade refuge and home; London had several such organisations. They moved in the 1890s, to be replaced by a canning works and then from 1920 by a motor garage/workshops. This latter change reflected the motoring boom after World War 1 — numbers of cars in the UK rose from 119,000 in 1919 to over 2 million in 1939.
Set back, adjacent is a further garage, built on the site of stables c1918. alongside is the brick and stone gable end of the foundry building seen earlier. This was erected for Pontifex & Sons, who specialised in manufacturing non-ferrous apparatus for brewers, distillers, dye works, etc. The site was taken over in 1885 by the Self-Opening Tin Box Company, in turn succeeded by Shanks & Co., sanitary appliance manufacturers, who used it as a warehouse. It, too, became a garage in 1927. Note the cast-iron post, once part of the foundry's gateway, close to the contemporary handsome office block facing York Way.
③ Cross to the far side of York Way and continue along it.
No.34 was built in the 1890s for Davis & Timmins Ltd. (GTL01566), a then rapidly expanding firm that had patented screw production by machine instead of by hand. The chimney at the far end was for a boiler and steam engine to power equipment. Since the mid-1930s it has been used by a manufacturer of confectionery machinery. The heavily ornamented No.34b, next door, was erected as the main entrance to Albion Mills/Works behind (not visible; we pass the back entrance later). They produced washing blue and black lead from 1832 until c1910.
No.36-40 (GTL03739) has an imposing twin pedimented façade with a large central arch. Built in the 1890s for W.B. Fordham, emery and glass paper manufacturers, this became the headquarters of Meakers, menswear retailers, from the mid 1930s until 1977. Part of St Pancras Ironworks, suppliers of stairs, balconies, stable fittings, etc, occupied the site from c1855 to 1872. The earlier, more austere, building behind, seen by looking along Railway Street, was built as part of these works in 1866.
④ Continue along York Way to a cobbled roadway on the left.
This once continued as a bridge across the railway. To the left is the road provided for cabs to reach the one time 'arrival' platform of King's Cross station (1852). Walk a few paces down the slope to the right. This formed the access to York Road station (1866-1977), served by trains to Moorgate. Look over wall to see remains of the platform. Ahead are Gasworks Tunnels (528 yards) (GTL00431) which dip under the Regent's Canal. Above them is King's Cross good depot (GTL00029), with a five-storey granary (GTL03709). To the west are the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company's gasometers (GTL00416).
Return to York Way.
A short distance to the north, on the right, a garage (No.68) reflects architectural taste at its construction date, 1928. The taller adjacent building, mainly 1930s, with a 1960s three-floor red brick front, was a British Legion poppy warehouse until the early 1970s.
Cross York Way onto the north side of Wharfdale Road.
No.57-63, right, carries the date of rebuilding, 1901, by J W & T Connolly. The firm started in the 1860s at the adjacent No.65 as blacksmiths. By the 1890s it advertised iron tyres for wooden cart wheels; the busy nearby stables, commercial and wharfage premises would have provided a heavy demand. The rebuilding appears to follow a profitable expandsion into supplying and fitting (solid) rubber tyres. For a time the warehouse opposite, on the corner of Crinan Street, was also used. Connolly departed in 1931.
⑤ Walk north along Crinan Street.
The two similar warehouses and bottling stores on the right, refurbished in 1986 as workshops, were erected at the turn of the century. The northernmost, dated 1903, was built for Robert Porter & Co. Ltd., bottled beer merchants, who sued both until the early 1980s. The 'Waterside Inn', beyond, has a terrace alongside Battlebridge Basin.
On the left, after the rear entrance to No.68 York Way, is a brick wall with two tiers of small windows, a remnant of stables for 60 horses. These were owned by Young Bros., bulk suppliers of hay and straw to firms for their cartage horses/stables. This business closed c1920. The next, large doored, building was part of the London depot of Lacre Motors (name from original Long Acre site), here from 1911 until the late 1930s. Their car and lorry production was in Hertfordshire. The corner building has a wall-mounted crane, fabricated from flat iron bars, to take goods to the first-floor workshops. It became ecology centre offices in 1986.
⑥ Continue to rejoin York Way, turn right again after crossing the canal (Maiden Lane) bridge to reach the towpath.
The Regent's Canal now has no regular commercial traffic. Most trade, particularly after the coming of the railways, was by lighter from Limehouse and other docks to factories, works and basins along its 8½-mile length and vice versa. It survived proposals in the 19th century to turn it into a railway to become part of the Grand Union Canal Company in 1929. With most canals, it was nationalised in 1948.
From the water's edge stop-gates can be seen in the canal (GTL02629). They could be closed to prevent flooding of Gasworks Tunnels in the event of a breach. Maiden Lane Bridge (GTL01244) carries York Way over the canal. Go underneath it to see how it has been widened. The lengthy towing rope from a horse (or, post-war, a tractor) which had already passed under the bridge would rub against the abutment — look for abrasion marks.
⑦ Walk east along the towpath until opposite Battlebridge (or Horsfall) Basin (GTL01387).
The natural fall of the land means that part of the basin (1819, 480ft by 155ft) is above street level, made up, it is said, by spoil from Islington Tunnel. Residential narrow boats, formerly used commercially, are often moored here. To the right are Porter's warehouses. At the far end of the basin are several adjoining factory and warehouse buildings. These were used from the late 19th century until 1926 by W.J. Plaistowe & Co., jam, marmalade and preserve makers. The basin was not completely surrounded by buildings; some of the now-vacant land was timber yards.
Closer, on the left, is a five-storey warehouse (1926) which retains its goods doors and remnants of 'cathead' hoists at the top. It provided additional accommodation for Thorley's (GTL00209), passed shortly.
The north-east corner of the basin is Albert Wharf. The rounded-corner single-storey building is partly constructed from various materials of different shapes and sizes, probably spare from the stone merchants and contractors who occupied the site. These were Cooper & Sewell (c1847-1880) and J Mowlem & Co. (c1880-1922). The latter remain major contractors; their recent works include the Docklands Light Railway. A two-storey brick building, with a square chimney, backs onto the canal. Dating from about 1870, it at one time including stabling.
⑧ Continue under Thornhill Bridge to the tunnel mouth.
Islington Tunnel (built 1815-18) is 960 yards long, cut through blue London clay, with a height of 19½ft and a width of 17½ft (GTL00720). There is no towpath. Horses were led over the top to rejoin their boats, which at first were legged through the tunnel by teams of men employed by the Canal Company. In 1826 a steam tug was introduced which hauled itself along a chain laid through the tunnel; similar tugs continued in use until the 1930s.
Retrace your steps a few yards, then walk up the slope, over the tunnel mouth and down the footpath on the far side, passing Fife Terrace. At the end, a part of an early 19th-century terrace remains.
Turn left past No. 16, then right into Wynford Road, continuing straight across Caledonian Road and on into All Saints Street (GTL00209).
⑨ The street side of Thornhill Wharf is on the right, with the name and function of the original occupiers set, appropriately, into cement. Further on, No. 4-6, Mercantile House (1891), was Thorley's head office. The mill buildings stood between it and the canalside ones seen previously.
Turn right at the end into a short cul-de-sac.
Ahead is the vehicle entrance to Albert Wharf, via a bollard-protected archway, within which is a disused weighbridge. To the right is a cast-iron parish boundary post (1869).
Turn round and walk down New Wharf Road.
No. 12-13, a three-storey building (c1870) with a central arch was occupied by Carlo Gatti (subsequently United Carlo Gatti Stevenson and Slater Ltd), ice merchant, until the late 1920s (GTL00514). Gatti stored ice here in several canalside wells, 60ft deep; ¼ million tons per year was imported from Norway, being transhipped at Regent's Canal Dock, Limehouse. 'Ozonal Laboratories (1930) Ltd', next door, manufactured disinfectants, germicides, detergents, insecticides and telephone sterilising equipment. They left in the early 1980s.
⑩ Cross to the far side of Wharfdale Road and turn right.
The extensive warehouse and office block on the right was occupied by John Dickinson and Co. Ltd. (established at Walbrook in the City in 1806), from its construction in 1930/1 to the early 1970s. This paper manufacturer also had factories by the Grand Union Canal at King's Langley, Apsley and Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. More recently, Heal's (furniture makers) used it as a warehouse.
⑪ Take the next turning on the left into Balfe Street.
This attractive residential terrace was previously named Albion Street. At No 17 an archway, contemporary with the street (1846), leads to industrial premises (no access; note the hardwearing granite slabs to give traffic a smooth run). These, the oldest built in 1832 on a then 'green field' site, conveniently close to the canal, were erected by George Crane, washing blue and black lead manufacturer (GTL00533). A later firm, Stephenson & Mager, in the same business, was responsible for No. 34b York Way, seen earlier. Since c1915 they have housed a variety of small firms, such as engineers, motorcycle makers, picture framers, etc.
On the other side of Balfe Street, No. 4-8 was built (c1890) for the Cooper family, sellers of leather footwear and shoe parts (uppers). Barred windows protected the valuable leather.
⑫ Continue to the corner of Pentonville Road.
This was opened as a new road, continuing the Euston Road, in 1756 (GTL01250). Together they skirted the northern edge of built-up central London and thus gave easy access to the City and Smithfield Market from the west.
Opposite is a cinema, initially The King's Cross, later Gaumont and now Scala (GTL00755). Completed in 1921, soon after wartime building restrictions were lifted, it seated 1,800. This was one of the first large cinemas of the mass (silent) movie-going era in densely populated parts of London. Reinforced concrete was used for its construction.
Turn right to reach King's Cross main line and tube stations and the end of the walk.
The area today on Google Maps
© GLIAS, 1986