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Happy 200th! Canal celebrations go online

Anniversary was due to be marked with a festival and a brass band playing down the water

07 August, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

A scene painted by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd shortly after the canal’s opening showing the Islington Tunnel at Muriel Street

TWO hundred years ago, it was the controversial big infrastructure project of the day, ballooning over budget and bringing disruption to King’s Cross.

But this week waterway enthusiasts celebrated the landmark opening of the Regent’s Canal in 1820, heralding it as a place where a slower pace of travel now helps people reflect on life.

The 200th anniversary was meant to be marked on Saturday with a festival and a brass band playing down the water.

The Covid-19 outbreak put pay to that, and instead people were urged to go online.

Author and historian Carolyn Clark, who runs the Regent’s Canal Heritage Project said: “We have postponed to next year, but there is still a lot happening that people can get involved with.”

An online exhibition, Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal, was launched by the council to mark the date on Saturday and includes historic images and accounts of how it was built.

The canal was dug by navvies with pickaxes and spades from Paddington to Limehouse, and through Islington between King’s Cross and Shoreditch.

Ms Clark said: “The canal has a chequered history. It is very similar to the HS2 project. It went way over budget, eventually costing about £800,000 [nearly £50million in today’s value].

And how the same canal tunnel and its surroundings look in 2020

“It took eight years of sweat, blood and tears to build. Navvies died as they built the incredible Islington Tunnel. Then, of course, the treasurer did a bunk with the money.”

Thomas Homer came up with the scheme, which was a private venture, and he was appointed Superintendent. In 1815 it was exposed that he had been embezzling company funds. He fled the country but he was captured and sentenced to transportation.

Ms Clark added: “Filling the Regent’s Canal was an unbelievable feat of Victorian engineering. Pipes pumped water back up from the Thames to the City Road Basin.”

The canal networks across the UK were originally built to allow faster transport of goods like coal. Horses towing the boats could pull up to 30 times more weight than they could on land.

Ms Clark said: “Horses made a huge contribution in pulling boats, but also manure was a big commodity. There was a big trade in taking the horse waste from London out to country farms.”

But with the development of rail and road freight, the industrial uses of the canal faded and the waterways are mostly now used for leisure and as a cheaper form of housing on barge boats.

Ian Shacklock, chairman of the Friends of Regent’s Canal, thinks industrial use of the canal could come back and secure the financial future of the system for “another 200 years”.

Speaking of his love of the canals Mr Shacklock said: “My parents had a canal boat in the mid-90s.

“Being on their boat was the first time I remember doing something in slow-motion in London. I was always in a mad rush. I had only ever seen London as a rat race. The canal taught me to slow down and take things in.”

Mr Shacklock added: “Travelling at 4 miles per hour through the centre of the city and out into the country, it was an eye-opener.”

To see the exhibition, go to: www.friendsofim.com

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