When London Became An Island

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 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 dominate the scene, or at least they did until Covid struck. As was the case with municipal parks all over the country the revenue raised from commercial use helped maintain the facility at a time of increasing financial pressure. Nonetheless, such use irritated some local families and young single people, particularly those without access to a garden, who lost access to a substantial part of the park over an extended period after the perimeter hoarding went up (1). The increased use of the park during the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored what a valuable resource was left to us by the Victorians and, hopefully, a return to allowing full use of the facility by everybody all through the year might become the ‘new normal’.

Beyond Three Colts Bridge the Cut continues in its dead straight line to the point where boats must begin to descend towards the River Lee Navigation. 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 (2). 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 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 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 the 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 (3). 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 not only by tow ropes, but also by generations of passing bargees and boaters pushing the balance beams to open the lock gates (4). Like the original bridges cast iron was used to manufacture these balance beams (5), 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 quietist part of the Cut. The water in the adjacent pound may sometimes seem mirror-like and at present relatively few walkers, joggers or cyclists use the towpath, certainly when compared with, say, the Regents Canal towpath near Broadway Market.

One problem in maintaining the towpath here has been the destructive pressure of tree roots. 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 (6). 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.

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 that would have glinted in the sun. Unless, of course, the sun was obscured by smoke from the fire box.


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Hertford Union Canal


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Invisible Barge