Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Grand Surrey Canal 1801-1940

Rotherhithe before the Grand Surrey Canal in 1799
The church of St Mary's Rotherhithe is marked in red.

Although there are various posts that mention the Grand Surrey Canal, and I have posted a walk that takes you from the Thames lock where ships entered to the point at which the canal leaves Rotherhithe, I have not assembled all the information about its history in one place.  This post, therefore, pulls all the threads together and provides a history of the Grand Surrey Canal and its builders.  Inevitably there's some overlap with earlier posts.

The above is the Richard Horwood map of 1799 and shows the natural water courses before the establishment of the Grand Surrey Canal.  St Mary's Rotherhithe church is marked in the red box to help readers get their bearings (it still stands today).  

Grand Surrey Canal in 1811
from Stuart Rankin's
A Short History of the Surrey Commercial Docks)

In the late 1700s a number of new canals were proposed in the south London area, and in 1801 the Grand Surrey Canal Act was passed, which would permit the construction of a canal, an accompanying dock basin and an entrance lock.  The vision was to build a canal system that would reach Greenwich, Croydon, Epsom and even Portsmouth, mainly for carrying timber. To this end the Grand Surrey Canal Company was formed to raise money by issuing shares and to run the project.  It was envisaged that the canal would provide an efficient link between the docks and the south London towns, and would stimulate commercial growth and expansion along its route.  The 1799 map at the top of the page shows how the existing waterways were of use, and how they would influence the path of the Grand Surrey Canal.

As excellent schematic
of the canal and its
two branches,
Inland Rotherhithe in 1801 was rural, a series of marshes, streams and fields.  However, the Thames banks were lined with shipyards where ships, barges and lighters were built and repaired.  Rotherhithe's most prominent ship builders were producing vast wooden vessels for the Royal Navy and the East India Company.  The only incursion inland was Greenland Dock which had been established on the east side of Rotherhithe in 1699. 

The Grand Surrey Canal Company appointed Ralph Dodd as its engineer.  and the canal's design and implementation was his inspiration.  Ralph Dodd, was something of an unpredictable character, involved in numerous engineering projects some of which either failed or which he abandoned. In his 1999 booklet Stuart Rankin describes him as "a plausible visionary, with a tenuous grasp on reality." In 1795 Dodd published an Account of the principal Canals in the known World, with reflections on the great utility of Canals. In 1794 he invented a canal cutting machine which was trialled on the Grand Junction Canal at Dawley but was not adopted long-term. In 1801 he was appointed engineer to the Rotherhithe South Dock but fell out of favour with the Eastern Dock Company who owned it, and he was paid off and dismissed. Dodd was also involved in the first attempt to build the world’s first under river tunnel from Rotherhithe. This attempt failed and it was Marc Brunel who eventually succeeded, working a short distance away from the remains of the failed first attempt.  However, in spite of this succession of dubious projects he oversaw the successful implementation of the canal, which opened in 1807 and reached to the Old Kent Road before being extended later to Camberwell and Peckham. 
The entrance lock in 1826. By George Yates.

The works for the canal started in 1802.  The canal, the first lock and the original entrance basin were supposed to have been built simultaneously but the company ran into financial difficulties so it was not until 1804 that the two-pronged basin was added.  The locks, basins and canal are shown on both the 1811 and 1843 maps (see images above and below) with the basins surrounding an artificial island, one intended to act as a a dock and the other to mainly handle through-traffic. Collectively they were named the Grand Surrey Basin, and in the 1850s were renamed Stave Dock (the upper basin) and Island Dock (the lower one).

The main role of the entrance lock and the basin were to provide access for barges that wished to get into the Grand Surrey Canal from the Thames or to offload cargo onto barges and narrowboats.  The lock was located just to the east of where the modern Old Salt Quay public house  is located today (the west entrance lock, which survives as an entrance to Surrey Water was built later).  An inlet just downriver of that location is all that remains both of the lock entrance and the complex set of dry docks and wharves that clustered around this site.  The canal could handle vessels of up to 18ft width. 

1843, showing the expansion of the
canal along its flanks
The first ship to enter the canal was ship builder Sir John Hall's brig Argo.  Sir John Hall was one of the major contributors to the design of the basin arrangement, and one of the project's investors.  Although the Grand Surrey Canal was originally supposed to reach Croydon, Epsom and Portsmouth, providing the Thames with links to south London towns and a direct connection to south coast, it never did. It only ever reached Camberwell (Addington Square) in 1811 and Peckham (Canal Head) in 1826.

It soon became clear that the canal was not going to generate the profits that the company had hoped for.  The canal was used mainly by local market gardens and handled much less timber than had been originally predicted, failing to act as the busy artery that had been envisaged.  It was therefore much less profitable than expected.  Nor did it stimulate the major development of the area that its investors had hoped would happen, and the Grand Surrey Canal Company began to look for alternative ways to generate revenue from their canal system.  At the same time, the Commercial Dock Company was successfully carving out docks on the other side of Rotherhithe and the Grand Surrey Canal Company followed suit.  In 1811 they received parliamentary permission to expand the the channel of the canal that led from the island to create docking areas and wharfage.  The result was that the section of the canal that passed out of the entrance basins and passed over Rotherhithe towards Greenland Dock became the Grand Surrey Inner Dock, through which the canal and its traffic now passed. 

The route of the canal by 1868, showing
Surrey Basin and both old and new locks.
The map of 1811 shows it as a conventional canal passing from Surrey Basin across a nearly empty Rotherhithe, but the 1843 map above shows the extent to which the canal had been widened at this time, being renamed the Inner Dock, whilst the basin was the Outer Dock.

In 1855, to reflect its increasing investment in the creation of docks, the company's name was changed to the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company.  The company immediately set about making substantial changes in order to accommodate the larger and deeper vessels that were being built and purchased land from the Lord of the Rotherhithe Manor, Sir William Maynard Gomm with a view to seriously extending their operations.  An extended lock was built upriver and the old one was eventually filled in, certainly by 1888.  The new lock, the Surrey Lock, opened into a new basin, the Surrey Basin (now known as Surrey Water).  The basin was filled in when the docks were closed but re-excavated by the London Docklands Development Corporation to provide a focal point for new housing projects.

By 1860 the new basin was connected not only to the Thames via its new lock, and to the newly modernized docks that flanked the canal channel but also to a new dock to its south, named the  Main Dock, later renamed Albion Dock.  All these improvements were completed by 1860. 

By 1862 the Grand Surrey Canal Dock and Canal Company had added four timber ponds to their system named  Timber Ponds 1, 2, 3 and 4 (later renamed Albion Pond, Centre Pond, Quebec Pond and Canada Pond respectively)., all accessible from the Grand Surrey Canal.  The network of docks and ponds was parallel to, but completely separate from the Commercial Dock Company's Russia Dock.  This was soon to change.
New hydraulic lock gates. 1870s
The Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company embarked on a pricing strategy designed to undermine the Commercial Dock Company, which promptly retaliating, creating a mutually harmuful price war.  Both companies suffered from this at a time when there was increasing competition from docks on the northern banks of the Thames and the decision was made to amalgamate the two.   In 1864 the two companies became the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and links between the two systems were created and the docks and ponds renamed.  Lavender Pond was connected to Stave Dock (formerly the northern part of the old Outer Basin), and Russia Dock (formerly the Inner Basin) was connected to Centre Pond, thereby linking both systems to the canal and to each other. 

In the 1870s hydraulic lock gates were added to the Surrey Lock, one of a number of improvements that were being made throughout the system.
Hydraulic gear for the lock connecting the Grand
Surrey Canal, which ran through Russia Dock,
to the newly enlarged Greenland Dock.
The canal was impacted by the decision in the late 1800s to extend Greenland Dock.  This was accompanied by significant engineering work, which must have disrupted the operation of the canal for some time.  Eventually, however, instead of passing across the end of the dock it passed across the centre of it, which must have presented an interesting challenge both for ships navigating up and down the dock and for those crossing it.  It did have the advantage, for canal users, that large cargo ships that were too big for the Surrey Basin entrance could access the canal via the Greenland Dock lock entrance, which was bigger.  Locks were built both at the Russia Dock entrance to Greenland Dock and opposite, at the entrance to the Grand Surrey Canal.  The Russia Dock lock survives, minus its gates, as the underpass connecting Greenland Dock with the Russia Dock Woodland, passing under Redriff Road and some of the hydraulic machinery remains (albeit horrifically overgrown) in a recess at the side side of the road.  The lock that used to connect the dock to the canal on the other side has not survived but its location is marked by the beach next to the watersports centre and the hydraulic gearing that operated it has been preserved on the quayside. 

The Surrey Canal Office
Beyond the Surrey Canal lock were the Grand Surrey Canal Office, which was tragically knocked down in the mid 1980s to make way for the watersports centre, and a tiny building whose original function is unknown.  The Canal Office doubled as both offices and the lock-keeper's home.   Nearby, in 1902 a tiny little building was built and today survives, after a fashion, at what is now the corner of Plough Way and Sweden Gate.  It matches the design of the lock keeper's cottage and the tide gauge building next to Greenland Dock's lock, as well as the former Grand Surrey Canal Office.  Although the plaque affixed to the building states that its function was unknown it seems logical to assume that it was connected with the Grand Surrey Canal, which would have passed immediately in front of it, and was perhaps used for collecting tolls or similar administrative work.  Now an electricity sub-station (although it is unclear whether it is still in use) it is, at the time of writing, somewhat neglected and continues to remain in a state of disrepair in spite of complaints about its poor condition.

The canal was partly abandoned in 1940, drained in the 1960s and in-filled in 1971 two years after the Surrey Commercial Docks were closed to shipping.  The Surrey Basin had been closed in 1967, but was re-opened as an enclosed water feature by the London Docklands Development Corporation.  Russia Dock was filled in, but became Russia Dock Woodland, an attractive park that crosses Rotherhithe along the canal's route, and its eastern quayside has been preserved. 

1902 canal office
Traces of the canal have been identified by a number of writers on the web, including
On the London Canals website:

Apparently there were plans afoot some years ago to mark out the route officially, but this has never been done. 

Aeriel view from the 1930s showing the Surrey Basin
on the left and Island and Stave Docks.
From the PortCities website.


Anonymous said...

Hello Andie
Thank you very much for this post and for the blog!
A question: by any chance did you see any information on why the Russia Dock was named Russia Dock? And the same for Odessa street & wharf? Or probably you know where I might find it?



Andie said...

Hi Daria. Good to hear from you. Most of the docks and many roads were named for countries and towns with which the docks traded from the late 1800s. Wood and grain were important imports, mainly from Canada and the Baltic, including Russia. Russia Dock was given its name in 1864, at a time when Russia was becoming an increasingly important exporter of cereals.

In the early Nineteenth Century Odessa was an important Russian port on the Black Sea, exporting grain and flour. Some of that grain was brought into Rotherhithe docks, including South Dock, and wharves, including Odessa Wharf. The Odessa Wharf building, near the Ship and Whale public house, is one of the oldest surviving in Rotherhithe, dating to 1810, and was used for the storage of grain imports. The original brick-built warehouse has now been converted to apartments, and runs along the side of Randall Rents, a right of way that predates it.