Secret London: South London’s lost canals

I wrote this piece in 2015 for the first issue of Waterfront magazine.

Some of the best secrets are hidden in plain sight. You don’t find them by exploring scruffy back streets and muddy fields, they are standing right in front of you, requiring only a translator to make sense of them. One sits in Burgess Park in Camberwell, ignored by cyclists, dogwalkers and joggers seeking respite from the Walworth Road, one of South London’s busiest byways. It takes the form of a pretty black-and-red iron footbridge with thick brick stanchions and strong stone steps straddling the path. It doesn’t serve any specific function – there’s nothing that needs to be crossed – so is known locally as the “bridge to nowhere”, but this was once a bridge with a purpose. It was built in 1906 to cross the Grand Surrey Canal, one of south-east London’s two lost canals. The park was once a busy industrial basin of wharves and warehouses but over time, the canal was abandoned, closed, filled in and forgotten. Soon, only the bridge remained, a relic or totem of this land’s previous life.

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Like many canals, the Grand Surrey was opened in the brief period between the onset of urban industrialisation and the arrival of railways. It began at Surrey Commercial Dock (now Surrey Quays), a 300-acre system of nine docks two miles east of London Bridge. The original plan was for the Surrey Canal Company to cut a canal from this starting point at Rotherhithe through the south London suburbs. From the main canal, branches would peel off, feeding significant towns on the way south. The object was to create a fast-moving route that could bring produce from Surrey farms into London. An Act was granted in 1801 to build as far as Mitcham, with branches to Deptford, Peckham, Borough and Vauxhall.

At the same time, permission for a second canal was granted. The Croydon Canal was originally going to be its own entity but the Grand Surrey Canal provided a convenient meeting point, and – after some negotiation – the two navigations joined at New Cross. This canal was intended to reach Epsom, but when it opened in 1809 in a ceremony featuring decorated barges, a 21-gun salute and a special song (“Long down its fair stream may the rich vessel glide; and the Croydon Canal be of England the pride”) it stalled at Croydon, having passed through 28 locks from the junction with the Grand Surrey Canal through Honor Oak, Sydenham and Norwood. Nonetheless, it was described by The Times as “one of the highest and best constructed canals in England” and the owners talked about extending it to Portsmouth. Plans for the Grand Surrey also proved over-ambitious, and when it opened in 1807 it went only as far as the Old Kent Road. It reached Camberwell in 1809 and branched off to Peckham in 1826, but got no further.

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There are several bucolic illustrations of both canals, presenting them as splendid streams surrounded by countryside. At the opening of the Croydon Canal, a reporter wrote of “finding themselves gliding through the deepest recesses of the forest, where nothing met the eye but the elegant winding of the clear and still canal, and its border adorned by a profusion of trees, of which the beauty was heightened by the tint of autumn.” In 1811, the Grand Surrey Canal was peaceful enough to be used for bathing, causing one Camberwell resident to write a furious letter to The Times objecting to the “indecency” and “extreme offensiveness to females in so public a situation”. Soon after, ‘bank rangers’ – a sort of private police force – were appointed to keep an eye out for lewd or criminal behaviour.

Quickly, though, the landscape changed. Submitted to parliament alongside the proposals for the two canals, was another for the Surrey Iron Railway, which would become the country’s first public railway in 1803, linking Wandsworth to Croydon via Mitcham. Using carriages pulled by horses over iron tracks, the intention was to create an integrated transport network for the expanding suburbs, but ultimately it put the two technologies in direct competition. At first, they cohabited and connected, and the canal even proved superior, but as steam trains arrived, the canals lost any edge. Croydon Canal’s success was further hindered by its expensive, time-consuming locks and the company could tell where things were headed. The canal was dead by 1836, the first in the country to be closed by parliament. The land was purchased by the London And Croydon Railway, who built their line largely alongside the old canal and turned the basin into West Croydon station.

The Grand Surrey Canal was spared such a fate, even if it was to never fulfil the bravura plans made at the outset. Initially the canal was intended to transport numerous goods – the 1801 Act set out rates for freestone, limestone, chalk, bricks, slates, tiles, corn, hay, straw, faggots, dung, manure, stones, clay, cattle, calves, sheep, swine, lime, timber, hemp, tin, bark, iron-stone, pig-iron, pig-lead, coal, charcoal, coke, culm, flour, wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, malt, potatoes, hops and fruit – but instead of becoming a vibrant link between garden suburbs and London docks, the canal was more like a gigantic wharf, an extension of the Surrey docks lined by warehouses, factories, yards and depots. The canal nonetheless became a useful part of the industrial infrastructure, drawing cargo from all over the world – including a 4ft snake from South America that was fished out the canal at Peckham in 1932 by an angler who at first believed he’d nabbed a particularly fine eel. The industry was largely dirty and unglamorous with numerous timber yards, but there were also R White’s, manufacturers of lemonade, and Edison-Bell, who made 78rpm records and had a recording studio on the premises.

After the Second World War, decline set in. The increase in road traffic offered tougher competition even than rail, while changes in freight transportation threatened the docks themselves. The canal closed in stages from the 1940s. The basin at Camberwell was first to be abandoned, becoming a playground for children, who went fishing for sticklebacks or tore doors off bombed-out houses to sail down the stagnant canal as rafts. Children determined their local sympathies by which side of the bridge they lived.

The bridge was still surrounded by the straggling detritus of light industry, but fears that children would drown – indeed, The Times reported more than a dozen had met this fate since the war, as several had before it – led to the area being cleared in 1974 and replaced by Burgess Park. The canal’s route was turned into a pathway and the bridge retained as a momento. There are further princely bridges on the Peckham arm of the canal, at Willowbrook Road and Commercial Way, while the Peckham basin is now the site of Peckham library. Nearby, a sliver of park connecting Burgess Park to Peckham High Street is known as the Surrey Linear Canal Park, presumably to confuse new arrivals. Elsewhere, there are further pointers: bits of wall, ghosts of towpaths, mooring rings, milestones, and in a park reclaimed from the old Russia Dock in Surrey Quays, a large amount of quayside.

One of the most interesting survivors is a rusting round bollard under a bridge near the junction of the Surrey Canal Road and Mercury Way in New Cross, once the meeting point of the Grand Surrey and Croydon Canals. Embedded in the grassy embankment, it looks as if it has been dropped from the heavens. Little of the Croydon Canal remains, although diligent historians have traced shadows of its passage in the topology of the land between New Cross and Croydon. Some tiny sections are extant in Dacres Wood, a small nature reserve in Forest Hill, and Betts Park in Anerley. The old reservoir in Norwood has been transformed into South Norwood Lake.

There is a strong sense here of what might have been. The Croydon Canal’s life was too brief, and too quickly swallowed by the dramatic forces leading to the rapid urbanisation of south London, to be saved, but the fate of the Great Surrey Canal is not so easily forgivable. Its potential was not unknown. In the 1960s, trip boats from Little Venice would take extended tours across the Thames into the depths of Peckham and Camberwell, and even in the 1970s, some insisted the canal should be saved. One report in 1971 noted the increasingly popularity of the Regent’s Canal and pondered whether similar could yet happen to “the poor, ugly Surrey Canal… [which] had the misfortune to run south of the river.” The author admitted there was an image problem: “Its waters are polluted and filled with rubbish and hunks of wood. Its banks are closed to the public and lined with disused factories and unkempt grass. To many local people it is just three miles of stinking water, which has to be dredged every time a child goes missing.” But should the drastic solution of eradication proposed by Southwark and the Port Of London Authority go unchallenged? “Suggest any redevelopment of Little Venice and fashionable owner-occupiers besiege the local town hall,” he wrote. “Down south of the river, however, they apparently order matters differently. Two public authorities have quietly decided between them to scrub off the map one of South London’s most precious potential assets.” And so disappeared the Grand Surrey Canal, not so much a lost secret as a missed opportunity.

Further reading: http://www.bridgetonowhere.friendsofburgesspark.org.uk/ and http://www.londoncanals.uk/

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One response to “Secret London: South London’s lost canals

  1. Someone told me that the two greyhounds that used to sit by the doors to the Greyhound in Sydenham came from the locks of the canal. They vanished in a pub renovation around the year 2000, before the land was sold for flats and everything since. I wonder where they went, and if they really came from the canal. It would have passed so nearby there.

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