When London Became An Island

From Maiden Lane bridge walk up to the entrance of Islington tunnel. You may see a number of moored boats, but few will be more unusual than the one shown in photo 1. Given that Islington is a name of Anglo Saxon origin  I think the arrival of a Viking longship must always be a cause for concern. Best pass quietly and concentrate on more tranquil things. Before you walk under the flat, concrete, Caledonian Road bridge you will see a board giving information about wildlife on the canal and a little beyond the bridge you will come to the entrance to the tunnel (2) where the towpath stops.

The tunnel took a long time to build because work had to be halted due to lack of money so it is unclear just how much was constructed by direct labour under Morgan rather than by Daniel Pritchard, the contractor who had also been involved at Maida Hill. Nonetheless, however responsibility was shared, the standard of workmanship was high. In 1817 when the canal company was moribund and looking for funds the unfinished works were subject to inspection by Thomas Telford, who found them constructed in a perfect manner. His confidence contributed to construction restarting.

When the canal was being planned many Islington householders were anxious that miscreants might use a tunnel towpath to make good an escape from the area. Their apprehension was not without foundation as a report published in several newspapers in October 1819 made clear. At the time it would appear water had been let into at least part of the tunnel but a path at the side remained, presumably for the use of construction workers. A thief who had broken into a nearby house was pursued into the tunnel by law officers and on realising he would be unable escape through the other end threw himself into the water and tried to remain submerged. Despite the darkness he was discovered but managed, by going rigid, to convince the officers he was drowned. When the constables went off to find something to carry a corpse on, the thief became ‘animated’, pulled himself out of the water and ran off. He left his coat and waistcoat behind but on meeting a group of brickmakers convinced them he was in shirt sleeves as he had been dragging for the body of a drowned man. He then made good his escape.

This news item had national coverage being reproduced by letterpress in several places including Hull, Bristol and Durham and no doubt the story helped raise anxiety levels in Islington, especially amongst those who were unclear as to whether the tunnel would have a towpath when finally put to use. In the event no towpath was constructed in the tunnel, so when it first began to operate boats were propelled along in a way described in an item in the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal. This asserted bargemen ‘must lie on their backs, and with moving their feet on the top of the tunnel, make their passage to the end, which is practicable and easy’. It would be interesting to know if the author of this assertion had much experience in legging a boat through a tunnel!

As trade on the canal began to develop bottlenecks inevitably occurred and only a few years after the tunnel was opened a small steam tug was employed, which could haul itself and a train of barges along by means of an iron chain. No steam boat travel for us however - we must continue over Islington Hill.

Leave the towpath by the ramp and steps. Cross Muriel Street and walk a few yards to the right and you will see an entrance to a footpath and a marker on the ground. Walk up the footpath. When you leave it continue to walk up the hill along Maygood Street until you reach Barnsbury Road. Turn right here and walk along to the next corner. Notice the small blue plaques on the pavement and the larger one at the junction with Eckford Street (3) This indicates the canal tunnel runs below. Given how far you have climbed from the towpath it might come as something of a surprise to know that the foundations of local houses were affected by the tunnel, but they were and the canal company had to field complaints of, doubtlessly irate, local residents. Not all of the hill had been built over at the time work on the tunnel began, which was fortunate as Morgan wished to construct six vertical shafts both for ventilation and in order to move material. Picture 4 shows a contemporary illustration of work in the tunnel. Note the twin track railway which was also used to speed construction.

Barnsbury Road has now become Penton Street and if you continue to the next corner you will find yourself in front of the Church of St Silas, Pentonville, which stands at the junction of Risinghill Street. If you look right down Risinghill Street you will see the buildings of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. This street was once home to Risinghill School, a cause celebre in the early 1960s because of the radical policies introduced by Michael Duane, the Headteacher. Islington has something of a reputation as a cauldron of radical politics. James Mill wrote his treatise 'Government' here as the tunnel was being completed and one of the streets nearby is named Tolpuddle Street in honour of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six pioneers of trade unionism transported to Australia for administering illegal oaths. In April 1834 a huge rally was held in Copenhagen Fields, which was a short distance from the canal, to protest about the transportation. This helped maintain pressure for the release of the men, which was later achieved.

Crossing Penton Street on the the zebra crossing will take you into Chapel Market. This is one of London's better known street markets and if you walk along it on any day except Monday you will find it in operation. Note the fine facade of the Alma (5), which dates from the Crimean War era. This means it would have been built during the period HMS Saracen was on survey duty in the Orient. Note the list of beers too, one of which was very popular at the time the pub was opened. Porter was a dark brew developed in London. It may have taken its name from its popularity with those who had work to do portering heavy loads. I think it would have been very popular with bargees too and I imagine British sailors on vessels all over the world sometimes craved for pint of warm, strong, dark beer from a pub in whichever port their ship had sailed from.

At the end of Chapel Market you will come to Liverpool Road and see the Angel Central shopping centre. Cross Liverpool Road and turn left and you will come to a circular building which has a large winged sculpture, made of chrome tube, on the roof. Turn right here, walk through the shopping centre and you will arrive at Upper Street. Looking across Upper Street you will see a road running off by the side of The York pub. This road, Duncan Street, will take you to the east end of the Islington tunnel. To get to Duncan Street you will need to cross Upper Street on the pedestrian crossing, which is to the left.

At the bottom of Duncan Street you will reach Duncan Terrace and then Colebrooke Row. In between there are public gardens, which follow the course of the New River, a man-made waterway constructed to bring water to London from Hertfordshire. There is a board giving information about this important conduit, which was already over two hundred years old when the canal was being built, in the garden to the right. When the Islington tunnel was built great care had to be taken by Morgan to ensure the supply of water was not disrupted and that, of course, no water would leak from the New River into the tunnel once the canal was open.

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