The growing interest in gutta percha led at least one established business to show an interest in importing the solidified gum for onward sale. Wilkinson and Jewsbury could trade in commodities on their own account and decided to take a calculated risk by placing a commercial order in Singapore. This, possibly, was because they became aware of the intentions of the Society of Arts from which Montgomerie was due to receive official, indeed royally approved, recognition. According to a report in The Morning Post, the society’s gold medal was presented by Queen Victoria’s consort at a ceremony held on the first Monday of June 1845. There was a good chance such a prize would stimulate further interest in gutta percha and when the event took place it was attended by a highly respectable company, a large majority of whom were fashionably-dressed ladies. These ladies would doubtless have been the influencers of their age although the only ‘tik tok’ they knew came from mechanical clocks. Wilkinson and Jewsbury’s first commercial order was made before the month was out.

In the published record of the Society of Arts awards, Montgomerie was listed after a producer of Italian tiles and an importer of Australian wines. Unfortunately, the recipient, who did not receive the medal himself as he was in Singapore at the time of the ceremony, seems to have been under a misapprehension when he found out about it. The award was not, in fact, made for his tenacity in seeking out gutta percha but for his contribution to nutmeg cultivation. As far as Wilkinson and Jewsbury were concerned it probably didn’t matter. In the public mind Montgomerie was already linked with gutta percha and positive reports from other fields could only help sales.

Any confusion over Montgomerie’s award may not have had much effect on the casual newspaper reader who would probably have been far more interested in skipping over the prize winners list and finding out what was happening in one of those sporadic, speculative bubbles which inflate when a sure-fire, get-rich-quick opportunity suddenly seems to present itself. Wilkinson and Jewsbury were well aware of the road to ruin that could be a consequence of rash investments and a warning was given later in the year in one of their monthly circulars, where the focus was on buying and selling railway shares rather than tiles or tipples.

Fifty or so years previously the supposed opportunities to make a fortune were linked to canal shares but no-one was much interested in investing in canal companies in the 1840s. Now the path to prosperity ran over iron rails rather than floating along artificial waterways. After an initial spurt in the 1830s there had been five lean years in track laying prior to 1844 but in that year a dramatic increase in the number of railway bills presented to parliament occurred. If any bill in the list of well over 200 rail projects progressed to become an act of parliament construction would be authorised and, in theory at least, the profits would soon begin to roll in. At this stage, although there was often no shortage of subscribers hoping for a substantial dividend income and a steadily increasing share price, many others just anticipated selling their purchases for a quick profit. Unfortunately, a large number of these novice investors were being carried along on the tide of what became known as railway mania. All classes in society were involved and some risk-takers, often due to luck rather than judgement, made a good deal of money whilst more lost everything. Many others simply had their fingers burnt. No one could say they hadn’t been warned. The Times, which was distributed nationally by rail and the most well known newspaper of the day, consistently drew attention to the dangers of such dressed-up gambling.

It was at this time that serious offers were made to run a railway by the side of the Regents Canal and it was possible the idea may have been successful had things gone according to plan. Perhaps the shareholders of the Regents Canal Company were looking anxiously at how steam locomotives everywhere were competing with barge horses in the movement of goods and wonder how the value of their shares, in contrast with those held in railway companies, might fall as a result. After the company accepted an offer of £1,000,000, many would have anticipated receipt of sale money and, perhaps, of then investing in the new Regents Canal Railway Company.

Down river and on the opposite shore to the entrance to the Regents Canal was another waterway, which did succumb to the advance of the railways. The Thames and Medway canal, which dated from the beginning of the century, linked Gravesend with Strood. Like the Regents, it had a single tunnel although this was later divided in two. In 1844 the Gravesend and Rochester Railway and Canal Company had been established with the canal clearly relegated to a junior partner. An unusual check was carried out before the railway began operating, a cannon being fired at a tunnel entrance to see if there was a fall of rock. Unlike the one at Islington, the Thames and Medway tunnel had been cut through solid chalk.

Initially, the line of the canal was not wholly devoted to the passage of trains and in order to keep the canal operational it was decided to build a single track railway on the south side with a rather tricky solution for passage through the tunnels. Here trains would travel on rails laid on a bed partly created from the old towpath and partly from an adjacent, trellis supported section built out over the water. When the railway became operational trains ran through the tunnel, although the carriages were very close to the wall. So close in fact that apparently several curious travellers who opened a wall-side door when in transit were nearly decapitated and a number of doors were ripped off their hinges. It did not take long for the company to order all wall-side doors to be locked, which meant that in the event of a train getting stuck stranded passengers would have to be rescued by boat. Fortunately, within a couple of years the danger passed as the canal was closed and filled in and relocation of the rails in the tunnel meant passengers could then travel in safety.

Had the Regents Canal been converted or adapted by a new company on a similar basis to the one adopted on the Thames and Medway we might speculate if it would have survived as a continuous waterway link between the Grand Junction and the Thames. Islington tunnel was smaller than those on the Thames and Medway and as it had no towpath it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to feed both trains and boats through it. In 1842 a plan had been put forward by the Thames Haven Dock and Railway Company to replace the canal with a rail line from Limehouse to Camden Town. This would have meant the Islington tunnel would have been used purely by railway stock and the Regents Canal would probably have been reduced to a single pound running from Camden Town to Paddington. However, the plan failed to get off the ground. Although others always seemed to be in the offing, ones that covered the entire distance between Limehouse and Paddington invariably generated opposition from Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Woods and Forests, which did not want John Nash’s wooded valley turned into a smoky railway cutting. Such an opponent was quite formidable.

Back to Chapter 3          On to Chapter 5

Return to Introduction

Footnote; Get-rich-quick opportunities never seem to go away and neither do the warnings. On 12th March, 2024, City AM, a free, financially orientated, London based newspaper, carried an article warning of the potential dangers that lay in the establishment of crypto currency trading through the London Stock Exchange. It cautioned that unsophisticated investors might see the City as giving a guarded thumbs up to crypto and pile their life savings into a bet just as risky, if not more so, than today’s 1:30 at Cheltenham.

In fact, the winner of the Cheltenham 1:30 came in at 7/2 and was ridden by Rachael Blackmore, the first woman jockey to win the Grand National, a race that had already been running for six years in 1845. Backing crypto might be far, far more risky than backing Rachael!

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 4  Railways threaten the Regents

Commanders and clippers

Railway tunnel originally built for the Thames and Medway Canal

Train on the old canal line. Could this have been the fate of the Regents?