Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal

Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal is a digital exhibition from Islington Museum that explores the history of the Regent’s Canal. Once providing an essential transport route for industry, many Islington businesses relied on the Regent’s Canal for the supply of materials for almost one and a half centuries. Since the 1970s, the canal has transcended its industrial purpose and become a place of leisure and enjoyment.

Islington is no stranger to water, both natural and man-made. For centuries, the River Fleet flowed south through Clerkenwell towards the Thames and the area’s springs have provided drinking water and entertainment; Sadler’s Wells (1683) continues to be living example. The stunning 17th-century engineering feat that is the New River brought fresh drinking water to the City of London from Hertfordshire, via Islington, and still supplies London with much of its water; However, 200 hundred-years-ago a new water feature appeared, the Regent’s Canal, which wound its way from Paddington to the Thames at Limehouse, and through Islington between King’s Cross and Shoreditch.

But what do we really know about the Regent’s Canal’s two-century history? Find out below!

A timeline of the Regent’s Canal

Since opening on 1 August 1820, the Regent’s Canal has been a waterway for industry, sport and leisure. Take a look at how the canal has developed over its two-century history.

Download the large version PDF timeline of Regent’s Canal history.

London’s Hidden Waterway

Once described as ‘London’s Hidden Waterway’, 2020 celebrates the bicentenary of the canal’s full opening on 1 August 1820. The Canal played an integral role in Islington, and north London, serving the local industries and businesses for nearly 150 years. This article explores the development of the Regent’s Canal over time.

Western end of the Islington Tunnel at Battlebridge (now King's Cross) by T H Shepherd, 1822.

Changes Over Time: Regent’s Canal

Much of the Regent’s Canal changed over 200 years. These images compare scenes from around the canal at different points in history.

City Road Basin, 1970s.

Engineering the Islington Tunnel

The Islington Tunnel, arguably the main architectural and engineering feature of the Regent’s Canal, was designed and engineered by James Morgan. Explore the development of the Islington Tunnel from conception to completion in this article by Johnny Baird.

West portal of Islington Tunnel, 2020.

More Changes Over Time: Regent’s Canal

More fascinating images comparing scenes from around the canal at different points in history.

Local business Negetti and Zambra behind the Canal in 1937.

Hollywood by the Canal

A brief history of Islington and Gainsborough Studios, by Mark Aston. Islington Studios opened in 1919, converted from an old railway power station on Poole Street, a quiet road on the border between Islington and Shoreditch (now Hackney), on the south side of the Regent’s Canal. Poole Street rose from obscurity to become known as ‘Hollywood by the Canal’!

‘Hollywood by the canal’. Islington Studios, Poole Street N1, 1920s.

Regent’s Canal Heritage Audio Tour

Regent’s Canal Heritage ‘Canal Connections’ Film

Regent’s Canal Heritage have captured oral histories from locals on life by the Regent’s Canal. Take the tour.

Regent’s Canal Heritage have created ‘Canal Connections’ – a fascinating promo film for the London East End Canal Festival 2020. Watch the film on YouTube.

The Icy Past of Regent’s Canal

Prior to refrigeration, ice from the Regent’s Canal was used by Islington’s businesses to keep their products cold. In the mid-19th Century, Swiss-Italian entrepreneur Carlo Gatti (1817-78) began using the canal’s ice for his ice-cream business, and he also provided ice to other local businesses. As demand grew, ice was imported from Norway and taken by boat to Gatti’s deep ice wells in Battlebridge Basin. Read this blog post on the Friends of Islington Museum website about it.

Carlo Gatti and his ice cart, mid-19th Century.

Canal photo quiz

Test your knowledge of the Regent’s Canal with this photo quiz! Take the quiz.

City Road Basin, 1970’s (courtesy of Bernard James).

The Regent’s Canal in Islington booklet

Want to read more about the history of the Regent’s Canal in Islington. Take a look at the booklet produced by Regent’s Canal Heritage and The Young Actors Theatre Islington, with support from the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund and London Canal Museum.

Sturt’s Lock, circa 1950’s (courtesy of The Waterways Archives).

About this project

Barging Through Islington: 200 Years of the Regent’s Canal is a digital adaptation by Islington Museum of a wider Regent’s Canal Heritage project. Islington Museum will host the Canal Heritage Exhibition in 2021, which includes histories of the Regent’s Canal and the people who have lived and worked by the waterway.

With thanks to Carolyn Clarke, author of The East End Canal Tales, The Shoreditch Tales and The Lower Clapton Tales.

All images courtesy of Islington Local History Centre, unless otherwise stated.

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