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British Industrial History

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Grand Surrey Canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal was a canal constructed in south London during the early 19th century.

The Grand Surrey Canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament obtained in 1801, which created the Company of Proprietors of the Grand Surrey Canal, and gave them powers to raise £60,000 by issuing shares, and an additional £30,000 if required.

They were authorised to build a canal from Rotherhithe, on the River Thames, to Mitcham in what was then Surrey, with branches to any places within 1,500 yards of the main line.

Work began on the canal, but at the same time, the London Docks system was in its early stages of development, and there were proposals by John Hall in 1802 to construct a dock at Rotherhithe, close to the lock by which the canal gained access to the Thames.

The canal company agreed to construct it in 1803, and although it was poorly funded, the 3-acre basin, together with a ship lock, was completed and opened on 13 March 1807.

The Croydon Canal, which had also been authorised in 1801, proposed to join the Surrey Canal near Deptford, to save having to construct a parallel route to the Thames. The prospect of rent from this arrangement helped the company to open the first 3 miles of the canal, as far as the Old Kent Road, in 1807, but their resolve to complete the canal had been lost, as the docks seemed a more lucrative prospect.

However, a second Act of Parliament, obtained in 1807, authorised them to raise another £60,000, which was used to extend the canal to Memel Wharf and a basin at Camberwell. This work was completed in 1810.

So far, the route had been level, but to proceed any further, locks or inclined planes would be needed, and the expected costs of their construction did not inspire the company to proceed any further. A short branch of about 0.5 miles was constructed in 1826, running from Glengall Wharf to Peckham Basin.

Two further Acts of Parliament were obtained in 1808 and 1811 to allow new funds to be committed to the project.

The Rotherhithe end of the canal saw many changes, as the docks developed. As first built, the canal ended at the Stave dock, which was connected to the Thames by a lock. This was replaced by a new lock in 1860, built to the west of the original, which linked the Thames to a triangular basin, known as the Surrey Basin, which was itself linked to Island Dock and Albion Dock. Island Dock led into Russia dock, where the canal had an entrance lock.

The Commercial Dock Co built a number of docks to the east, and the rivalry between the two companies ended in 1864, when they amalgamated and the complex became part of the Surrey Commercial Docks.

The canal entrance lock was removed in 1904, when the Greenland Dock was extended, and a new entrance lock was built on its south side.

During the second half of the 19th century, the canal was used by the South Metropolitan Gas Company to supply coal via its own fleet of tugs and barges to its gas works site on the Old Kent Road. The canal was also heavily used to move timber — Whitten Timber at Eagle Wharf in Peckham Hill Street is a family firm which can trace its associations with the canal back to 1935.

The Grand Surrey Canal was the first to have canal police (forerunners of the British Transport Police). "Bank rangers" were appointed in 1811 to keep law and order along the length of the canal.

The Camberwell basin and the final 500 yards of the canal were abandoned in the 1940s, and had been filled in by 1960. The timber trade to the docks ceased in the early 1970s, resulting in the docks closing, and the canal being filled in. The former Camberwell Basin now forms part of the site of Burgess Park.

Peckham Branch

See photos of canal remnants here. These include two cast iron arch bridges: Hill Street Bridge (1870) and Commercial Way Bridge.[1].

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. [1] London Canals website: The Grand Surrey – The Peckham branch & canal wharves