London Canal Museum

From the annoncement in the Spring newsletter:

The London Canal Museum is housed in an old Victorian warehouse which once belonged to the famous icecream maker Carlo Gatti. Ice imported from Norway was transported by ship and canal boat to his warehouse, its layout well-suited for quick transfer from boat to building. Situated on the Regent’s Canal, it is only a short walk from King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations.

At the museum you can see inside a narrowboat cabin, and will learn about the history of London’s canals, the cargoes carried, the people who lived and worked on the waterways, the horses pulling the boats and the canals themselves. The industrial revolution would have been severely hampered if canals had not been constructed, allowing the transportation of fuel, raw materials and finished products!

We will start our visit with a 50-minute guided trip on a canal boat, which will take us through the Islington Tunnel. The information provided by our knowledgeable guide will help us get a lot more out of our museum visit afterwards.

London Canal Museum, New Wharf Road, London N1 9RT.

On Thursday 15 August, optional lunch followed by boat trip, waiting list, members only, pre-registration and payment required.

From the report in the Autumn newsletter :

Our trip to the Canal Museum was an eye opener for ANS members who had not been in the King’s Cross area for some time. Regeneration is well on the way now, and the area is full of galleries, restaurants, cafés, bars and shops, with more and more flats being built, offering great views and a great location. Half of the group had signed up for a lunch before our boat-trip and museum visit. Although some of us thought the German Gymnasium had originally been a German school, it turned out to have been just what its name said: a gymnasium! The food we sampled was delicious, and distinctly German.

A short walk away and we found ourselves at the Canal Museum, which is situated on the eastern side of the Battlebridge Basin, right opposite King’s Place, a great new arts venue. Battlebridge is the old name for the King’s Cross area, and refers to an old bridge further to the West which crossed the now culverted Fleet. The Basin was opened in 1825 and comprised a beer bottling plant, a timber yard, and warehousing. Many of those warehouses have now been converted or demolished to make way for canal-side offices and flats, and the basin is used for private moorings.

The Canal Museum is housed in what used to be Carlo Gatti’s Ice house. Huge blocks of ice were cut from Norwegian fjords and shipped to the Limehouse Canal Basin and from there transferred to Gatti’s storage unit, where they were stored in two wells, 10m wide by 13m deep, before being transported around London. They would stay frozen for months on end. It is interesting to peer down into these wells, and read about the fascinating history of the Gatti family upstairs. Downstairs it is all about canal boats and matters related to canal boats. You can go inside a canalboat, look at the clever use of space, and marvel that a family of 8 could actually live in this tiny space for long stretches of time. There are canal artefacts, memorabilia, displays portraying the history of canal growth and films to watch.
We did not have much time to look at these displays, as our canal boat with knowledgeable guide was waiting to take us through Islington tunnel. As we went through, our guide told us something about the history of Regent’s Canal.

The architect John Nash was the director and largest share-holder of the Regent’s Canal Company, having been excited by the prospect of the canal as an urban feature within Regent’s Park – although he eventually had to settle for it running as an arc around the top of the park. The 900 m. long Regent’s tunnel was built to avoid having to create a series of locks up and over Islington Hill. Re-routing the canal to the south was impossible as the area was already built up. It was completed in 1818 but not opened till 1820, due to cash-flow problems. These cash-flow problems seem to have been mainly due to two men: the barrister Thomas Agar who bought large stretches of land south-east of Camden where the canal was going to be built, and obstructed the building of the canal right from the word go, managing to get the then capital sum of £15,750 pounds of compensation out of the company! Another was Thomas Homer, the main protagonist of Regent’s Canal, appointed as superintendent of the canal works. Unfortunately, he embezzled company funds, was found out, fled England for France and then Scotland, but was later caught, tried, found guilty and sent to Australia for seven years.

It was good there was so much to tell about the Regent’s Canal Company and the tunnel, as the tunnel was very long, and very dark. We felt real admiration for the men who had to ‘leg’ their barges through the tunnel, as there was no towpath, and the barge horses had to be unharnessed and led over the hill. In front of us was a large Dutch barge, which could hardly make it through the tunnel. We came out close to the City Road Lock, where we turned round.

Back at the museum there were very helpful staff, prepared to answer any questions you might have. A visit to the museum can be highly recommended, and the Event Committee is considering organising another trip there next year, as there were 11 people on the waiting list. Another activity to recommend is walking the entire length of the Regent’s Canal, as my husband and I have since done. It is beautiful, and fascinating, especially going east, where so much has changed.