The East End’s lost canal

England’s canals were the arteries of the Industrial Revolution; their cargo-laden barges the lifeblood that fed the greatest manufacturing and commercial explosion England has ever seen. Bringing the raw materials from the West India Docks via Limehouse to the factories of the North and the Midlands, they then carried the finished goods back to the Isle of Dogs and thence around the world.

Their heyday was relatively short of course, from the mid-18th century to the mid-1900s, as the much-quicker railways stole their trade. And so the poor canals fell into decay, more likely to contain old prams, bikes and dead dogs than working vessels. All has changed in the last few decades as plucky campaigners cleared the canals and brought them back to life, as leisure craft replaced the working barges, and a new phrase entered the language: ‘canal holiday’.

And so the names of the Lea Navigation, the Regents Canal and the Grand Union are familiar to Londoners today … but where on earth is the City Canal? London has plenty of grand architectural and engineering projects that became white elephants, and the East End more than its share. Often bad planning, dodgy economics or transport cock-ups put paid to (apparently) great ideas.

Until the start of the 1800s, all the cargo vessels which came into the capital was loaded and unloaded in the Pool of London, battling for berths in the area between London Bridge and the later site of Tower Bridge. It was bedlam, and ships could be queuing for days or weeks. The West India Docks was the bold answer. The Isle of Dogs would be hollowed out into two great docks. Northmost was the Import Dock, to the south was the Export Dock. To avoid jams, ships entered into a basin from the eastern (Blackwall) end, lighters coming in from the Limehouse side to the west. Now ships could unload their cargoes of bananas and sugar from the West Indies in the northern dock, before swinging round to load up again in the southern dock.

To the south of the dual docks another grand design was taking shape. The City Canal was dug by the City of London Corporation, slicing the Isle of Dogs in two from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach. Now sailing ships could cut the big loop of the Island out of their journey, as they instead traversed the 1130m of the canal, entering and exiting via locks. The City Canal opened on 9 December 1805. It had cost £168,813 to build, and it immediately became apparent the City fathers had got it wrong. The canal relied on the tide (so was still slow) and the owners felt unable to charge a toll. In 1829, the City sold the canal off to the West India Docks Company for just £120,000.

The West India were less interested in a misconceived canal than in stopping it falling into the hands of competitors: the opening of the St Katharine Docks in 1828 and a bid for a coal dock south of the canal had unnerved the Company. And then, with the exception of a timber dock to the south of the canal in 1832, they let their new acquisition lie fallow. It wasn’t until 1866 that the owners got to work, enlarging the old canal into a new South Dock. Now the West India had the familiar three-dock layout that it kept until the development of Canary Wharf a century and a half later.

You can still just about trace the line of the City Canal today. The western inlet lies just west of Westferry Road as you drive up to the Heron Quays roundabout. To the east, the old canal exits into the Thames just south of the Gun pub. That Blackwall entrance (and the old entrance to the Blackwall Basin which fed the Import and Export docks), effectively sliced Coldharbour off from the rest of Blackwall at the start of the 19th century and turned it into an isolated hamlet. The City Canal had joined the long and inglorious list of the East End’s architectural white elephants.

One of the greatest of them all was the covered Columbia Market, endowed in 1869 by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a philanthropist strong on charity but not so hot on the numbers. Nobody used the building, the market traders preferring to hawk their wares on the streets around. A planned railway line to serve the market was never built, and the market closed in 1886.

Of course you can be ahead of your time. The Thames Tunnel was a labour of love for Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the father-and-son team laboured over 18 years with their revolutionary ‘shield’, and overcoming several collapses (both financial and actual) and the deaths of a number of workers. They finally proved to the sceptics that a tunnel could be run beneath a river, only to find that (at a penny a time) foot travellers would never recoup the costs (£630,000, an enormous amount in the 1840s). The Tunnel was eventually sold off to the East London Railway Company and now carries the East London Line.

The Tower Subway was built by James Henry Greathead in 1870, using his own version of the shield. Another foot tunnel, running from the Tower of London to Tooley Street on the South Bank, it went the same way as the Brunels’ tunnel, with foot passenger revenue insufficient to keep the project alive. The Tunnel now carries electrical cabling.

London being London, we generally press these architectural appendices into new uses, but there is little sadder than a disused tube station. St Mary’s (Whitechapel Road) obviously seemed a good idea when it was built in 1884 by the South Eastern Railway – but who really needs a station between Aldgate and Whitechapel? It closed for good in 1938 and was destroyed by enemy bombs in 1940. Ironically, it was then pressed into service as an air raid shelter, but for nearly 70 years has lain forgotten and unused beneath Whitechapel Road.

Video of St Mary’s Whitechapel at

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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