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East Enders making waves for grand festival for Regent’s Canal’s 200th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 12:00 24 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:26 28 June 2016

Members of Laburnum boat club in Haggerston are ready for Regent's Canal festival

Members of Laburnum boat club in Haggerston are ready for Regent's Canal festival

Friends of Regent's Canal

Hundreds of spectators are expected for Sunday’s free grand festival to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Regent’s Canal, with narrowboats running trips by east London’s Victoria Park.

Friends of Regent's Canal running workshop getting ready for festivalFriends of Regent's Canal running workshop getting ready for festival

Family activities are being staged at the Art Pavilion in Mile End Park, 11am to 5pm, with a painting workshop, exhibition, history walks and stalls.

Children’s activities include pond dipping, while Mile End’s Ragged School heritage museum in Copperfield Road opens for the day and the bandstand in Victoria Park has live performances.

Preparations have been going on for several weeks with workshops getting costumes and decorations ready.

Volunteers have been gathering archive photos to put on show and getting stories of the Regent’s and Hertford Union canals, collating memories of working boats and their loads, the horses and tractors which towed them, the factories and wharfs along the banks, swimming and fishing in The Cut and dodgy goings on.

Barge at Victory Bridge on Regent's Canal, 1907 [photo: London Canal Museum]Barge at Victory Bridge on Regent's Canal, 1907 [photo: London Canal Museum]

The festival—part of the East End Canal Heritage project—has narrowboat trips between Bethnal Green and Mile End, heritage walks along the towpaths, an exhibition of canal history, a painting workshop and stalls for family and local history.

Children’s activities include pond dipping, canal storytelling and face painting.

The Ragged School heritage museum in Copperfield Road opens for the day and there are bandstand concerts in Victoria Park.

PROUD HISTORY OF THE REGENT’S CANAL

Bow Wharf, c1970 [photo: Tony Hall Collection, Bishopsgate Inst]Bow Wharf, c1970 [photo: Tony Hall Collection, Bishopsgate Inst]

We were still bashing the French in the Napoleonic Wards when Thomas Homer first mooted the idea on the Regent’s in 1802, as a transport link starting at Paddington with the newly-opened Grand Junction Canal from the Midlands to join the Thames at Limehouse.

The Regent’s Canal Act was passed in 1812. But there was a bit of an argy-bargy and an embezzlement scandal that almost bankrupted the project.

Homer himself legged it in 1815 in true canal bargee style with the funds raised to build it. He was eventually caught and sentenced to transportation. There was also a big punch-up that year between canal workers and land-owners.

The first leg opened from Paddington to Camden Town the next year and eventually down to Limehouse by 1820 with a tunnel under Islington at The Angel. The total cost was £772,000, twice the original estimate.

Regent's Canal's Mare Street Bridge in 1907 [photo: London Canal Museum]Regent's Canal's Mare Street Bridge in 1907 [photo: London Canal Museum]

Several basins were added later for cargo loading, such as the City Road, the Wenlock, the Kingsland and the Limehouse.

But then the railways came along in the 1830s and 40s and spoilt it all for waterborne cargo transport.

There were moves in the 19th century to convert the Regent’s into a railway. The canal company was even offered £1 million—but it came to nothing.

The Regent’s survived and later took over the Grand Junction and Warwick canals in 1929 to form the Grand Union Canal system.

Watercolour of Regent's Canal at Victoria Park in days of horse-drawn barges [photo: London Canal Museum]Watercolour of Regent's Canal at Victoria Park in days of horse-drawn barges [photo: London Canal Museum]

Then came nationalisation in 1948 when it came under the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, trading under the name British Waterways, then under British Waterways Board in 1963 which still owns and operates the canal as the Canals & Rivers Trust.

The last horse-drawn barge was carried in 1956 after motor tractors were introduced.

But commercial traffic had all but vanished by the end of the 1960s. There were suggestions of turning the Regent’s into a highway connecting Kings Cross right round to Limehouse. But somehow it survived into the 21st century.

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