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Company of Proprietors of the Regent's Canal


Records of the Company of Proprietors of the Regent's Canal: administrative, financial and legal and engineering records 1802-1883, plans of the canal 1811-1875, work carried out under agreement with the Great Northern Railway Company 1850-1851, Limehouse Dock 1852-1878, enlargement of Brent Reservoir mid-late 19th century, proposed conversion into a railway 1845, Regent's Canal railways 1860-1866, papers collected by the company for information 1810.



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Administrative /​ Biographical history

It took almost forty years from Robert Whitworth's first report on a canal from Waltham Abbey to Marylebone in 1773 to get the Act for the Regent's Canal. As well as Robert Whitworth's survey, another had been made from Grand Junction Canal's Paddington branch to London Docks in 1802. Enough money was subscribed to make the project feasible and a committee was assembled, but the attempt failed because the Grand Junction Canal company refused to supply water. Thomas Homer had resurrected the canal idea in 1810 and a fresh survey was done by architect John Nash and his assistant James Morgan. They proposed a canal from Paddington on the Grand Junction Canal to the River Thames at Limehouse near Limehouse Cut. The Grand Junction CAnal company relented over the water supply issue. Once the Act passed in July 1812 James Morgan became engineer. Thomas Homer was appointed superintendent. He had previously held positions in the Coventry Canal and Grand Junction Canal, and held a number of shares. The decision to employ him was later regretted when he was caught embezzling company funds in 1815, for which crime he was sentenced to transportation. Unsure as to whether their water supplies would be adequate, any locks were to be built side-by-side to save water until a scheme for using lifts was put forward. Lifts were still new technology and their success had been limited at best. The directors were hesitant but allowed a trial hydro-pneumatic lift, designed by Sir William Congreve to be constructed at Camden Town. Boats were to be lifted vertically in tanks, thus ensuring no water was lost. In 1815 Sir William Congreve reported only minor difficulties. A year later it still was not fully operational and the company ran out of patience. A dozen locks in pairs were built on the canal instead. Despite financial problems, the section from Paddington to Camden Town and the 5/8-mile branch to Cumberland Basin was completed in August 1816. It was opened on the birthday of the Prince Regent, who had given his name to the canal. Of note was the Maida Hill Tunnel, 272 yards long and the length through Regent's Park. An Act authorised raising more money but there were few subscribers. The Earl of Macclesfield replaced Charles Munro as chairman, and Lieutenant Colonel John Drinkwater was appointed deputy. The first course of action was to reorganise the structure of the company. The canal committee collaborated with the Society for Relieving and the Manufacturing Poor to get the 1817 Poor Employment Act passed. Britain was no longer at war and unemployment was rising. The Act established the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners, which allocated government loans to public works that provided jobs for the unemployed. Thomas Telford surveyed the canal on behalf of the Loan Commissioners during the canal company's successful bid for funding that year. The 8 5/8 mile long canal was completed in August 1820, having cost more than double James Morgan's estimate. It had 12 broad locks and two tunnels, Maida Hill and the 600-yard Islington. Neither had a towing path. The second branch was ¼ mile long and went to City Road Basin, Islington. That dock later succeeded Paddington as the foremost canal depot in London due to its more central location. A 4-acre ship basin was constructed at Limehouse with an entrance lock to the River Thames. A further loan was granted by the Loan Commissioners to finish off various outstanding works. The Grand Junction supplied the canal with limited volumes of water initially, the main source being the River Thames. The Regent's Canal company were authorised to build a supply from the River Thames at Chelsea and the two companies agreed that the Regent's Canal company would transfer it to the Grand Junction Canal in exchange for water from the latter. In 1835 the Chelsea supply was discovered to be tainted and the works moved to Kew Bridge. Later the Regent's Canal shared the Grand Junction Canal's two reservoirs at Ruislip and Aldenham, and the Grand Junction took water from the Welsh Harp Reservoir when the Regent's Canal company completed it in 1835, the same year engineer James Morgan left the company. Traffic on the Regent's Canal was good from the moment it opened, most of it local, and actually encouraged further development along its route. Basins were added and a chain tug was used in the Islington Tunnel from the 1820s to avoid delays. This was in operation for almost sixty years until it caught fire and sank. In 1830 the Hertford Union Canal provided the Regent's Canal with a direct link to the River Lee. Railways were initially little threat to the Regent's Canal. The first one to have any impact upon them was the London and Birmingham Railway. They opposed it but the Act passed in 1833. Tolls were reduced as soon as it opened after several carriers expressed intentions to switch to using the railway. Until a special dock was constructed in 1848, goods at Camden Town were transshipped. Interchange facilities for the railways were increased. In 1847 the company made the unusual move of taking over horse towing on the canal, except that trade to the River Lee. After a problematic beginning, the venture ran smoothly. The Welsh Harp Reservoir was enlarged in 1853, and the size of Limehouse Basin, later Regent's Canal Dock, was increased twice in the 1840s to cope with the volume of traffic and in the 1850s a cut with 2 stop-locks to the River Lee was constructed. Further work was done including a new ship entrance and dock extension the following decade and continued into the 1870s. Aldenham Reservoir ceased to be used after 1861. Pumps to return water to the summit were installed in 1865. Its strategic position linking so many rail termini, the company considered converting to a railway. After two outside parties had made such a suggestion, in 1845 the Regent's Canal engineer William Radford proposed constructing a railway along the canal. An outside company agreed to pay a million pounds to buy and convert the canal. The deposit was paid but the remainder of the balance was not produced and the sale fell through. A second offer from a different company was accepted in 1859 but the Bill was defeated due to opposition. A third attempt fifteen years later also came to nothing; an Act was obtained but lapsed because the promoters never acted upon it. Finally, in March 1883 the Regent's Canal was sold to a new company called the Regent's Canal City & Docks Railway Company. For further information on the Regent's Canal see Edward Paget-Tomlinson's 'The Illustrated History of Canals & River Navigations' and Charles Hadfield's 'The Canals of the East Midlands'.

System of arrangement

It has not been possible to ascertain the complete original structure of record-keeping from the records held for this company. The fonds has been arranged into series by subject, which is how some of the records were originally kept. The company's administrative, financial, legal and engineering records have been placed first, followed by plans of the canal, wharves, basins and property. These are followed by records concerning work carried out under agreement with the Great Northern Railway Company. These progress through records of Limehouse Dock and records relating to the enlargement of Brent Reservoir. Records concerning proposed conversion into a railway and Regent's Canal railways follow this. At the end of the collection are papers collected by the company for information. Within each series the records have generally been arranged chronologically while keeping records relating to the same subject together. This means that some records may fall slightly out of the chronological sequence.

Associated material

[See also: BW66 for records of the Hertford Union Canal, BW103, BW105, BW108, and BW58 for records of the Regent's Canal during other periods of ownership]