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The 19th-century port

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Canals and distribution

The City Canal

Sketches of shipping drawn and etch'd by Henry Moses 1824. City Canal.
View full size imageMerchant shipping on the City Canal in 1824. © NMM
Although the Napoleonic Wars (1802-15) were a short-term obstacle to the growth of London's trade, the first 30 years of the 19th century saw further development of the port's facilities.

The West India Docks Act of 1799 gave the Corporation of London the right to construct a canal from Limehouse Reach to Blackwall Reach.

They built it to save vessels time navigating around the Isle of Dogs. The City Canal, as it was called, was opened in 1805.

Toll-free failure

South West India Dock.
View full size imageThe South West India Dock. © NMM
The new canal across the Isle of Dogs was not a financial success since the owners did not charge tolls. It soon became a liability and was sold to the West India Company in 1829.

They changed it into a timber dock. Several years later it was enlarged and renamed the South West India Dock.

Pre-railway transport

The City Basin, Regent's Canal.
View full size imageThe City Basin on the Regent's Canal, October 1822. © NMM
For many years, canals were the most efficient way of transporting goods to and from the capital's docks.

It was not until the mid-19th century that railways began to take over.

Sailing ships in the Regent's Dock Canal.
View full size imageSailing ships in the Regent's Canal Dock.  © NMM
For example, the Regent's Canal was built around the north of London to connect the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington with the docks.

City Road Basin in Islington was the most important traffic centre on the Regent's Canal. It handled mainly incoming inland freight. Goods from around the country were then sent on from the basin to the Regent's Canal Dock.


Limehouse Basin

Dock gates for the Regent's Canal.
View full size imageDock gates for the Regent's Canal entrance. © NMM
In 1820 the Regent's Canal Dock opened to connect the Regent's Canal with the Thames at Limehouse. It is now known as Limehouse Basin.

In the 1830s and 1840s it was enlarged. The dock was one of the first to use hydraulic power. A small pumping station was built on the west side of the Commercial Road locks.

A steam engine was used to pump water into a system of mains that supplied the cranes and other hydraulic machinery.

Traffic centre

Limehouse Reach, London.
View full size imageShipping on Limehouse Reach. © NMM
A basin was also built where canal boats could wait for the right state of the tide before passing through the locks.

This basin could also admit sea-going vessels. Goods could be transferred to and from lighters or canal boats. By 1835 three-quarters of the traffic on the Regent's Canal came from the Thames.

Coal trade

Coal whippers discharging a collier.
View full size imageCoal whippers discharging a collier. © NMM
The Regent's Canal Dock was the first in London to allow in colliers. By the early 1820s the trade in coal from north-east England was well-established and expanding.

Coal was transferred to lighters in the dock for onward supply to the new canal-side gas works, such as the one built by the Commercial Gas Company in 1837.

Video File Barging through London
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The attached video file shows a coal barge travelling from Limehouse Basin along the Regent's Canal during the 1920s.


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