I have a print of a map here above my desk, a map called ‘Environs of London’. The map shows no railways, bar one*, but it does feature London’s (very few) canals. This suggests that the original map dates from the 1820s or 1830s.
Two of the canals have long since vanished, while another went within my memory. One is the Croydon Canal, which ran from the Surrey Canal southwards from New Cross down to (you might guess this) Croydon. It was bought out by a company wishing to build a railway from London to Croydon and beyond – ultimately to Brighton and the south coast. When you travel south from New Cross Gate by train you may wonder why the cutting is so much wider and grander than usual for a railway, and this is because that is how canal builders tended to build. The railway uses much of the civil engineering from the canal, and one or two canal features survive at Forest Hill. The Surrey canal is the one that I can remember. That one became a road.
The third canal on the map to have vanished came as a surprise to me – this is a short canal running east to west across the middle of the Isle of Dogs. It’s on the left side of the rather elegant 1802 painting above, by W Daniel, which seems to have been an early ‘artists impression’ – a picture intended to show how something will look when finished.
I thought I knew this city well enough to at least know its canal routes, past and present. Clearly I don’t. The ‘City Canal’ opened in 1805 and ran just south of the West India Docks, which were built around the same time. The City Canal was built by the City of London Corporation, although the project was miles outside their area of jurisdiction as the City lay several miles west. The aim was to provide a shortcut, an alternative to taking your sailing ship laboriously around the great ox-bow loop in the river, where the winds and tides might not be favourable on at least part of the way round. In fact it wasn’t that helpful in practice.
You can clearly see the Isle of Dogs on the map currently at the the top of my blog, unhelpfully labelled “Docklands” (unhelpful because the IOD is only one part of the great swathe of Thames-side London, some eight miles long, which properly bears this name).
Since 1987 or so the West India Docks have been home to the Canary Wharf development (more on that anon), which has steadily grown well beyond the narrow wharf of that name which lies between the two original dock basins, built for trade with the West Indies. In fact it’s the finger of land in the centre of the painting. These were London’s first enclosed docks, the whole site being enclosed by a vast high wall, partly to keep out local residents with light fingers, but also to prevent the landed goods ‘taking a walk’ , as we say, with the assistance of the casual labour employed in the docks.
As demand for the enclosed docks system on the Island increased, the unsuccessful City Canal was absorbed and effectively became a third long dock basin. Eventually it was widened. The smaller basin at its eastern end with its large lock gates is now the sole means of waterborne entry and exit from the docks system on the island. The dock system that started life over 200 years ago remain largely open to vessels although it is many decades since any cargo was handled here – apart from the barge traffic which helped build many of the new (well, new to me) buildings that have sprung up since 1987.
Remnants of the massive 20 foot high dock walls can still be seen on the Island, along with some of the original and very attractive warehouses that survived both World War 2 and the attempts to modernise the docks before the system eventually closed down because the nature of shipping and trade changed so much. One houses the very excellent Museum of London in Docklands.
I might add that the Isle of Dogs is not an island, and features no more dogs than anywhere else, though you can find llamas, goats, sheep, donkeys and pigs. Oh, and a lot of dead fish up at the top end (in the UK’s largest indoor fishmarket).
*The Surrey Iron Railway – the world’s first public railway, from Wandsworth to Croydon. Also built at around this time.