When London Became An Island

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, 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 was constructed over the Lea at Bow, because, so the story goes, Queen Matilda, wife of Henry the First, was soaked in an unfortunate incident when she was crossing the river. This made a road journey safer at that point 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 C18th 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 open an alternative route to and from the Thames from the Lea Valley. The River Lee Navigation was created to improve navigation in the Bow Back Rivers area but there appears to be no definitive answer as to why it is not called the River Lea Navigation.


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 and other refreshments would have been sold.


From the start the Hertford Union 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).


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.

Walking along the towpath will take you past Bow Wharf (2) on the opposite bank, where a series of enterprises are housed in either wooden units or industrial buildings converted for leisure and exercise use.

The residences by the towpath, which overlook the canal and Bow Wharf, were constructed on a strip of land between the canal and the backs of a terrace of houses that were built in the nineteenth century. These were also designed to take in the view. In this case 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 the Cut 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 under Grove Road bridge, climb the steps on the left and then cross the zebra crossing. Turn right and follow the footpath round to the left to 288 Old Ford Road.

It is not only a commercial gym and a banqueting suit which have utilised the old industrial buildings on the Cut. As you pass under Grove Road bridge, hard by a modern residential 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 (3). 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 Havilland 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.


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