When London Became An Island

The Hertford Union Canal (or Duckett’s Cut)

Only four years after the Regents Canal was opened a bill was presented to Parliament to authorise the construction of a link to the River Lee Navigation. The River Lea (or Lee), which rises in the Chiltern Hills and flows into the Thames at Bow Creek, always formed something of an obstacle to travellers and carriers. A crossing point may have existed long before the first century AD but archaeologists have revealed the definite existence of a Roman settlement on the road between London with Colchester. In the medieval period a triple arched, stone bridge at Bow made the river crossing safer but the Lea continued to present problems because the river split into several meandering channels in its lower reaches. These channels, which were utilised as a power source for water mills, became known as the Bow Back Rivers. During the eighteenth century a great deal of work was undertaken in improving the lower reaches of the Lea but the opening of the Regents Canal provided an opportunity to providing an alternative route to and from the Thames from the Lea Valley.


The map shown to the right (1) is part of one published by Laurie and Whittle in 1813 and updated in 1819. The Regents Canal was at that time nearing completion, the line to be excavated being shown in yellow. Note the meandering channels in Bow Marshes. The Gardens would have been market gardens producing food for the rapidly growing population of London, but the Tea Gardens did not grow tea. They were places of recreation where tea, brought by East Indiamen from China would have been sold.


From the start the new link was not a consistent commercial success but eventually much of the south bank, and, to a lesser extent, parts of the north bank, were lined with all kinds of industrial enterprises. These were well served by the waterway. A huge amount of timber, sometimes brought thousands of miles across the oceans, eventually ended up in the saw mills and veneer works along the canal, which was often called Duckett’s Cut or simply the Cut (a name which I will now mostly use).


Following the path which runs from the Regents Canal towpath at the point where the hump of the Stop Lock bridge ends will take you past hoardings erected by the company building the Bow Wharf development. This now straddles the entrance to the Cut. Unusually, the building contractor has erected an inspirational sign with a text taken from a book by John Ruskin, published in 1849 (2). The sentiment, underscoring a concern for posterity, would have struck a chord with his contemporary John Richards, who was to take command of the Saracen (see Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys) a couple of years later. A consolation for the hardships endured by so many crews of Victorian survey vessels would have been the thought that thousands of sailors might be saved from shipwreck by the Admiralty charts which they helped produce. These seamen too may well have hoped someone would one day say ‘See! This our fathers did for us’. And many of those thankful mariners may well have been on ships with a cargo of exotic wood bound for the old, industrial, Bow Wharf which served the timber trade.


Walking straight ahead will take you past enterprises housed in a series of wooden units, industrial buildings converted for leisure and exercise use and a children’s playground. You will enter a short road which will take you to Grove Road. Turn left here and walk over Grove Road bridge. If you look to the left as you go you will see the canal junction (3). Today the Cut is unrestrictedly fed by water from the Regents Canal, but initially the Regents Canal Company ensured that there would be no unauthorised encroachment on its resources. Canal companies were, understandably, very jealous of their water supplies and the parliamentary Act under which the Cut was built stipulated the ‘summit level of this canal is to be 6 inches above the top water mark of the Regents Canal’. Consequently, even though Duckett’s canal was only a little over a mile long it originally had its own small reservoir and a steam engine was used to pump water from the lower pound back to the upper level.

A terrace of residences face Bow Wharf across the Cut. They were built on land between the canal and the backs of a row of houses which, in the nineteenth century, were also designed to take in the view. In this case it was a view of Victoria Park. The park was built a few years after the Cut, and as the Regent’s Canal defined the western border for James Pennethorne’s park plans so Duckett’s waterway defined a good deal of the southern perimeter. These houses were, and still are, attractive and one was, for a time, the home of Israel Zangwill.

Israel Zangwill was the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Poland, which at that time were within the Czarist Empire. He was born, in 1864, in the East End of London and considered himself a ‘Jewish Cockney’. After working as a teacher he turned to journalism and soon achieved success as a novelist and playwright drawing heavily on his youthful experiences in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. He found international fame with the publication of ‘Children of the Ghetto’ in 1892. Only a couple of miles from Whitechapel, life in the relatively grand house facing Victoria Park must have been something of a contrast to the conditions which faced most East Enders of the period, but Zangwill never departed emotionally from his roots. No doubt he would have walked over Grove Road bridge on some days and looked down on the activity in the Cut, which would have been a constant reminder of how the drive of late Victorian industrialisation depended on long hours of grinding, heavy, manual labour. Always politically active Zangwill gave support to those whom he considered oppressed and exploited. He was, for example, a founding member of the ‘Men's League for Women's Suffrage’.

If you want to see the blue plaque that marks Zangwill’s residence walk past the zebra crossing and down to the roundabout and then turn left. Walk along Old Ford Road to number 288. Then, on returning use the zebra crossing over Grove Road and take the steps down to the towpath. If you don’t want to see the plaque use the crossing to get to the steps anyway.

It is not only commercial gyms and banqueting suits which have utilised the old industrial buildings on the Cut. Hard by a new development on the south bank you will see a derelict redbrick building, with smashed glass panes in the windows frames. This abuts another, in a better state of repair, which has CHN on the side (4). In their heyday these buildings were linked to the veneer trade. CHN stood for CHN Veneers, which had been established by an entrepreneur named Morris Cohen in the 1930s. Perhaps surprisingly the factory was expanded and rebuilt in the middle of the second world war, but this was to facilitate the production of war material, including propellers and plywood for the de Haviland Mosquito, a fast twin-engined aircraft that was constructed almost entirely of wood. When the war was over veneer production continued, in what was called the Chisenhale Works, until the 1970s. At that time there was something of a revival of brewing in London and for a period after the closure of CHN barrels of Godson’s Black Horse bitter might have been seen being loaded into barges adjacent to the defunct factory. The brewery did not stay long, however, and in the 1980s the Chisenhale Works became an arts centre with studios for dancers and artists. Well known just as the Chisenhale, it is still used in this way today.

It is impossible to miss the bulk of the old CHN factory, but easy to overlook a series of tiny sculptures on the towpath wall right opposite. They are by Jonesy, a bronze caster who works from a studio in Tower Hamlets. His miniature works may also be seen on the Regents Canal and in other parts of the East End too. The artist’s bronze works sometimes allude to environmental causes - fracking being a particular target - but often just seem rather haunting in their own right (5). In any event the sculptures are always intriguing and thought provoking.

Walking on a little further will take you under Skew bridge, so called because that is exactly what it is - a bridge that carries Old Ford Road obliquely across the canal. It was shown like this in James Pennethorne’s plan of Victoria Park (6) but the awkward skew predates the creation of the park (the original plan is kept in the National Archives at Kew).

Passing under Skew bridge will bring you to the boundary of ‘Vicky’ park. This, eastern, part was once home to the local Lido, which, sadly, was demolished over twenty years ago. The Forum (or For ‘em and Agin ‘em as it was sometimes known), a kind of East End Speaker’s Corner, was also located in this area but has also fallen into disuse.

Although Skew bridge has, of necessity, been strengthened over the years and must bear little resemblance to the original construction, the next one on the line of the Cut is a scheduled ancient monument. Three Colts Bridge (7) dates from 1830, the year when the waterway was opened. The elegant central metal deck, which now carries foot and pedal power traffic to the park from Gunmakers Lane, was probably brought to the works in pieces and then assembled on site. Go on to the bridge and look over the side and you can still see the nuts used when bolting on the parapet. It was one of seven similar bridges that initially spanned the canal.


The bridge plaque (8) itself is something of a historical artefact too as it dates from the period when the Liberals Democrats were in power in Tower Hamlets. During those eight years, between 1986 and 1994, the borough was divided into seven Neighbourhoods, one of which was Bow and which developed its own heritage trail.


Gunmakers Lane is a reminder of an industry that was established on adjacent land in 1866. 1866 was a significant date in the development of small arms. Much of the credit for the victory of the Prussian Army over the Austrians in that year was due to the use of the needle guns, a kind of breach loading rifle far superior to the old-fashioned muzzle loader. For many years this type of weapon was commemorated in a nearby pub on Roman Road, called the Needle Gun. Here, presumably, knowledgeable workers could drink as they talked shop and gave their opinions on the latest development in armaments. No heritage plaque ever graced the front of the Needle Gun (although the building remains) but close to the junction of Roman Road and Gunmakers Lane is one which commemorates another pub, The Gunmakers Arms, although it is on the wall of a modern block of flats.


The Gunmakers Arms was no longer being used as a pub when, in 1915, it was bought by the pacifist Suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst and renamed the Mother’s Arms. There was then a radical change of use as it became a kind of welfare centre, the East London Federation of Suffragettes setting up a baby clinic, staffed by trained nurses and a crèche. The childcare provision was of immense benefit to women who could then take the opportunity to take paid employment, meagre though the wages might be. Click on button to the left to find out more about the Suffragettes in this part of the East End.


The arms factory itself, which mostly produced rifles, was owned by the London Small Arms Company. Its main competitor was based in Birmingham. Although the quality of the LSA guns were prized, the company was never able to complete in quantity or to diversify because of restriction on space. Consequently, there are no LSA bicycles or fabulous cafe racers like the Birmingham Small Arms Gold Star. Around the time LSA was wound up in the 1930s BSA was progressing to be the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. Indeed the company was arguably the largest company on the globe at one stage but this did not stop it from going bust in the early 70s. It was not too big to fail.


One small enterprise that was apparently swept away when the Cut was developed was the Three Colts Tea Garden. All tea gardens in the area would have been an easy walk from the more developed parts of east London such as Spitalfields and their loss to encroaching industrialisation keenly felt. But young people need somewhere to go and enjoy themselves and Victoria Park would have been some compensation. It still is, in a way. In the 70s and 80s free music events with a political base (building on a tradition of demonstrations in the park and other radical East End movements) such as the 1978 Anti-Nazi League or the 1985 Jumping and Jiving for Jobs concerts took place here. Now commercial concerts, such as Lovebox, dominate the scene. As is the case with municipal parks all over the country the revenue raised from commercial use helps maintain the facility at a time of increasing financial pressure. Nonetheless, such use irritates some local families, particularly those without access to a garden, who may loose the use of a substantial part of the park over an extended period after the perimeter hoarding goes up (9).

Beyond Three Colts Bridge the Cut continues in its dead straight line to the point where boats must begin to descend towards the River Lea (10). Continuing along the towpath you will soon see, if you look right, a piece of sculpture that appears to celebrate the horses and barges which worked the Cut when the towpath really was used for towing (11). It is a little more complicated than that. It is called The Barge of Invisible Memories. A notice, which has now disappeared, explained that the sculpture was a symbolic representation of the history of the East End. Should you like to read the full text of what the notice said click on the yellow button to the left.

The further the Cut gets from the junction the more it seems to take on a separate identity to the Regents Canal even though they have been run by the same company or organisation since the 1850s. This is not only expressed in the vintage iron parapet of Three Colts Bridge. The overhanging trees of Victoria Park add charm to the towpath and moorings as do the locks, lock keepers cottage and a second fine bridge at what is officially called Hertford Union Top Lock.

The final touches to the Cut would have been made in the winter of 1829-1830, supervised by Francis Giles, an experienced canal engineer who had been responsible for the construction since inception. It was opened without, it seems, much ceremony. Certainly there were no newspaper reports like the one in the Times at the time the Regents Canal was completed. A standard account was carried in a number of provincial newspapers, such as the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, which reported on May 3rd 1830;

A new canal has just been opened at the eastern part of London, which is intended to form a junction between the Regent’s canal and the Lea river. It is called the Lea Union canal and has been formed at the expense of an individual, Sir George Duckett.

The Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent was a little more forthcoming about the advantages of using the new canal, drawing the attention of its readers to the fact that it would prevent the inconvenience felt in navigating in the neap-tide on lower Lea.

There would doubtless have been some well-wishers watching as the first toll-paying boats passed through the new canal, amongst them being shareholders in the Regents Canal which stood to gain if traders began to opt to use the ‘Ducketts and Regents’ route to and from the Thames rather than continuing to ship via the Lea and the Limehouse Cut. Steps were taken to encourage these traders to use the new route through adverts in the press. It was made clear that the general conditions of transport of various bulky commodities, including coal, would follow established practices on the Lea and that ‘no charge would be made for the return of empty sacks’.  

Once you arrive at the Hertford Union Top lock note the bas-relief on the cottage (12). The clog-wearing blacksmith is hard at work but does the horse look a little apprehensive to you? And spy the fish from which the globe light emerges. There is another Bow Heritage Trail plaque here (by the footpath that runs into Victoria Park) which indicates the bridge, another of the original seven, was known as the Homerton Footpath bridge.

The lock itself has a fall of over 6 feet. Stonework on the abutment has been well worn (13) not only by tow ropes, but also by generations of passing bargees and boaters pushing the balance beams to open the lock gates (14). Like the original bridges cast iron was used to manufacture these balance beams (15), which were known as levers when first installed. As a type they are are now quite rare.

Once under the bridge it is a short walk to the Middle Lock and this is probably the most tranquil part of the Cut. The water in the adjacent pound may sometimes seem mirror-like (16) and at present relatively few walkers, joggers or cyclists use the towpath, certainly when compared with, say, the Regents Canal towpath near Broadway Market. Very occasionally the adjacent trees and associated climbers may combine to make a kind of green tunnel (17).

One problem in maintaining the towpath of the Cut has been the destructive pressure of tree roots. This is particularly the case here. A reinforced concrete wall runs towards the lock, unattractive for the most part but, where steel mesh has been placed in front of it, faces peer through fabric (18). The faces look rather tortured but then so would yours if you spent night and day worrying what would happen if a wall behind you gave way. Beyond the faces smoother concrete panels sometimes sports fine murals, like this one of an eel (19).

Close to the Middle Lock is an entrance to the Growing Concerns Garden Centre. The enterprise clearly makes substantial efforts to improve the look of the canal with towpath-side plantings, which add colour in spring and summer and interest all the year round. If you live in the area and have a garden, patio or even a window box why not consider paying a visit?

The towpath descends quite steeply by the side of the Middle Lock, which has a fall of almost nine feet, and then turns sharply under Wick Lane bridge so take good care on the blind corner. Compared with the section through which you have just walked the next part of the canal might seem more hazardous, especially during rush hour, when, partly as a result of being designated as part of the National Cycle Network, the towpath is used by many commuting cyclists. The confluence of the ordinary towpath and that designated to be part of the National Cycle Network is at the bottom of the ramp which leads to Wick Lane.

Close by the bottom of the ramp you might see recycled water feeding into the Cut. This has been used to cool the high voltage electricity cables that run under the towpath. When the Cut was originally opened water was also recycled but in that case to counter the water loss that was an inevitable consequence of the conventional locking system. A ‘Thirty five Horses Power’ steam engine was employed for pumping the water, which was returned to the upper level, but I am not quite sure just where the engine house was. It must have been as fine a sight as the bridges though, especially when new. It was built of brick with a cast iron roof that was sheathed in sheet copper which would have glinted in the sun. Unless, of course, the sun was obscured by smoke from the fire box.

Until recently a pub stood at the top of the ramp. It was last known as the Top O’ The Morning and had a plaque (20)(now affixed to a new wall) on the front that commemorated an infamous murder, evidently the first ever committed on the British railway network.This took place when the pub was called The Mitford Castle.

A bridge carrying the North London Railway once ran over the Cut here. Sometime after 10 pm on July 9th 1864 an engine driver stopped his locomotive close by the canal as he spotted a suspicious object lying between the tracks. On investigation the train’s stoker and guard found a man who was both severely injured and unconscious. After the alarm was raised the man, who turned out to be a senior bank employee called Biggs, was carried to the Mitford Castle but his injuries, which it appears were a caused by an attack and having been thrown from the train, were so grave that he died within a day or so. It quickly became apparent that Biggs had been the victim of a robbery and subsequent detective work soon pointed the finger at a a Franz Muller who had departed for the United States by sailing ship on July 15th. Had the only way to pursue the suspect been on another sailing ship it is possible that Muller would never have been intercepted but such was the speed and efficiency of transatlantic steamers that on arriving in New York he was met by two London police officers who had been there for many days. A watch belonging to Mr Biggs was found on Muller when his trunk was searched and he was subsequently extradited. Back in London he was tried, found guilty and executed.

If it were not for Victoria Park it is quite possible there would be none of the original cast iron bridges left on the Cut, for, although suitable for carriages, they could not have carried the motor traffic generated by the industry and residential developments which grew up around it. Continuing beyond the ‘ramp junction’ will take you under two reinforced concrete bridges which carry heavy traffic of all descriptions to and from east London and the Blackwall tunnel. There is a gap between them (21) that lets in light, which is certainly welcome on this gloomy stretch.

Once beyond the gloom the Cut seems even more rural than before but this is partly due to the fact that it is not, as yet, overlooked from the south bank by any developments, residential or otherwise. This situation will not last long. Substantial work is taking place beyond the metal fence and plastic sheeting (22) and there is considerable concern amongst many artists and craftspeople who work in the adjacent area that the re-development will, for one reason or another, drive them out.

The Bottom Lock, the third and last lock of the Cut, is only a short distance from the large bridges. It has a much lower fall, not even four feet, than either the Top or Middle locks and the short gates look rather curious (23). They may display a welcome sign for boaters about to travel towards the Regents Canal (24).

A little beyond the Bottom Lock the towpath, now unpaved, becomes a little wider with a tree root emerging from surface. There is another metal bridge at the end of this stretch (25), but even though it is for pedestrians and cyclists it is not of cast iron and is of a quite different design to the ones ordered in the 1820s. It has its own attraction, but if you are tempted to cross it on a frosty morning take care. It can be rather slippy underfoot.

You will now be near the end of the Cut and if you feel in need of refreshment you might think of calling in at the White Post Cafe, the entrance to which is a little beyond the ramp that runs up to the metal bridge. If not continue a few more yards and you will arrive at the River Lee Navigation junction (26). You might see a number of small metal sculptures here, which, like the London Stadium (27) across the water, date from the 2012 Olympics. You might also see a pair of mute swans. I doubt if anyone knows how long swans have lived on the Lee (28) but if you see their gravitas and stately progress it is not difficult to imagine why these birds are often associated with royalty. At one point, in the medieval period, the Crown claimed ownership of all swans in the kingdom, and even today, the Queen has special rights to some of the swans on certain stretches of the River Thames.

At this point the excursion ends. Should you wish to explore the River Lee Navigation, either north or south, then follow the towpath round, cross the bridge and go down to the towpath. By going south it is possible to reach Limehouse Basin via Three Mills and the Limehouse Cut towpath. However, if you want to return to the Regents Canal (and don’t wish to simply turn round and walk back the way you came) you could use public transport. Instead of turning right at the bridge, turn left and walk down to the bus stop. You can catch a 339 here which will drop you at St Barnabas Church (stop Y). This is close to the junction of Grove Road and Roman Road. When you alight walk back to the junction, cross Grove Road and continue east along Roman Road until you reach Twig Folly Bridge bridge, which crosses the Regents Canal just south of the entrance to Duckett’s Cut. Steps will take you back to the towpath and you may continue your walk along the Regents to Limehouse (click on the Back to Bethnal Green to Limehouse button below).
















Commanders and clippers

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Sources Buskival