Hertford Union Canal
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A pub, named The Italian Job, stands at the top of the ramp. A plaque (1) affixed to the wall between the pub and the ramp commemorates an infamous murder, evidently the first ever committed on the British railway network. At that time the pub which occupied the site was called The Mitford Castle.
A bridge carrying the North London Railway once ran over the Cut here. Sometime after 10pm on July 9th 1864 an engine driver stopped his locomotive close by the canal after 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 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 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 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 when Muller’s trunk was searched and he was subsequently extradited. Back in London he was tried, found guilty and executed. ‘Mr Briggs’ Hat’ by Kate Colquhoun gives a fascinating and detailed account of the case.
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. Beneath them, occasionally, you might see a reminder of the extensive commercial canal traffic that once travelled along this route (2).
Until a few years ago, once beyond the bridges, the Cut seemed rather rural (3). This was because it was not overlooked by any residential developments for the next several hundred yards. Then cranes were erected, heralding a change. The construction of new blocks, some of which house both workshops and apartments, has certainly altered the area on the south bank, known as Fish Island.
Fish Island takes its name from streets in the locality named after fish. It is a kind of island too, being hemmed in by the canal, the Lee Navigation and a great embankment built to carry the great pipes of the Northern Outfall sewer. Had things worked out rather differently it may have been occupied by a substantial Victorian gasworks similar to the one built not far away near Johnsons lock on the Regents Canal. However, the gas company changed its plans and built the gasworks elsewhere, so the land was developed for factories and attendant terrace housing. All the terrace houses have now gone and although some vintage industrial buildings remain they lurk in the peripheral areas, the canalside and central part of Fish Island being dominated by modernity.
The Bottom lock, the third and last lock of the Cut, is only a short distance from the concrete bridges. It has a much lower fall, not even four feet, than either the Top or Middle locks. The short gates look rather curious but the nearby walls are quite striking. They became, essentially, a display board for ‘spray painted graffiti visuals’. I borrowed that description from the website of Silent Hobo who, in the early summer of 2017 produced a mural on the largest of the flank walls. I didn’t manage to get a picture of this before it was partly painted over but, even at that stage, much of the work was clearly visible. However, over the next couple of weeks, most of the mural was obliterated by the work of other spray can specialists who made their own, short-lived contributions.
Click the button on the left to see the gradual disappearance of Silent Hobo’s mural and the work of other graffiti artists too. A bollard once watched from the opposite bank, clearly angry at the incessant destruction (4) but after the invasion of the Ukraine it was painted blue and yellow in solidarity.
The relatively quick change of nearby graffiti visuals means there is always something new at the lock to catch the eye but those who prefer to look for evidence of more traditional canal life may just observe passing boats. I always find it surprising how many working narrow boats have survived after having been converted for leisure use or simply to provide a floating home. Photo 5 shows one boat which, I understand, dates from circa 1925, passing work on the graffiti wall that was barely dry.
The artists (not to be confused with those anti-social sprayers who aimlessly disfigure the lock gates and bridges) who work by the lock week after week seem to accept their creations will be transient so treat the walls as great, free canvas. Once created, their work may be photographed for inclusion in a portfolio and then, like Silent Hobo, they will stand aside to let the cycle continue. But not, I am afraid, for much longer. Photograph 6 was taken in November 2016 and photograph 7 in February 2023. I have been told that all the old towpath walls are scheduled for demolition sometime this year. I cannot confirm that but, as you may see, the last of the trees and shrubbery have gone already. Ironically, this clearance has exposed quite an area of brickwork on which work can still be done (8).
A few yards beyond the Bottom lock the towpath becomes a little wider. There is another metal bridge at the end of this stretch, shown in photograph 9 taken a few years ago. If you are tempted to cross the bridge on a frosty morning take care. It can be rather slippy underfoot. Planning permission has already been applied for to replace the bridge and open a new access route between Fish Island's Roach Road and White Post Lane. Let’s hope the new bridge will be built with a less tricky surface.
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 junction with the navigation. You might see a number of small metal sculptures here (10), which, like the London Stadium across the water, date from 2012. If you arrive when a Premier league match is being played you might, just, hear the distant roar of the crowd. Some of the older residents of Hackney Wick may well remember similar roars when activity was based in another London Stadium, which stood nearby but on the other side of the Lee Navigation. Greyhound racing and speedway took place there and had a strong local following. Both sports generated great enthusiasm and the venue continued to be used until the late 90s when financial problems led to its closure. Within a few years the place was derelict and was eventually demolished, the site then being used for new buildings needed by the Olympics.
Close to the metal sculptures you might sometimes see a pair of mute swans. I doubt if anyone knows how long swans have lived on the Lea 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 King 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, turn right and cross the bridge and go down to the towpath. This area has become quite popular as a social venue over the past few years and is one place where the Village Butty has moored. When the photo on the right was taken (10) snow obscured what was on offer, but click here to read about the current situation.
By going south from here 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), close to the junction of Grove Road and Roman Road. When you alight walk back towards the church, cross Grove Road at the lights and continue west along Roman Road until you reach Twig Folly 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 the blue button on the below to go to the Bethnal Green to Limehouse section).
When London Became An Island