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Museum explores the stories behind canals lost in time

PUBLISHED: 12:00 30 September 2017

A painting by W.Daniell, dating from 1802 of West India Docks. The City Canal is to the left of the painting. The view is looking west towards the City of London. This idealised version of heavy traffic did not come to fruition. Picture: Wikipedia

A painting by W.Daniell, dating from 1802 of West India Docks. The City Canal is to the left of the painting. The view is looking west towards the City of London. This idealised version of heavy traffic did not come to fruition. Picture: Wikipedia

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Canals feature in some of the most beautiful landscapes the capital has to offer, but among their number were some which didn’t survive to be admired in the present day.

The London Canal Museum's exhibition team: John Stredwick (team leader), Brian Johnson, John Robinson and Anthea McTurk. Picture: Martin Sach The London Canal Museum's exhibition team: John Stredwick (team leader), Brian Johnson, John Robinson and Anthea McTurk. Picture: Martin Sach

The London Canal Museum has traced the history of nine canals and navigations created between the 1680s and the 1840s, which are now lost to us, or have only partially survived.

Tales from Barking and the Isle of Dogs are included in a new exhibition exploring these forgotten histories for the first time, through artefacts including paintings, sketches and old photographs.

Exhibition curator John Stredwick said: “We have been revamping our exhibitions over the last four or five years, and have covered the existing canals in London in some detail, so we thought, what about the ones that don’t exist?

“There’s been no book on it, most people you talk to have very little idea that these different canals existed, and it was a question of collating material from different collections and presenting it.”

Fleeting in the 1860s. Picture: Robert Hewett Fleeting in the 1860s. Picture: Robert Hewett

Barking Creek – which joins the River Roding to the Thames – had a fruitful connection with the fishing trade, and was known for innovation.

By the 1850s, it was a base for the Short Blue Fleet, said to be the world’s largest fishing fleet. Containing 220 boats, manned by more than 1,370 men and boys, it was built up in 1795 by Scottish orphan Scrymgeour Hewett, who amassed his fortune by using pioneering salt water tanks – known as ‘well smacks’ – to hold live fish, thus increasing the time which could be spent on the fishing.

His son Samuel went further by using ice to keep the fish fresh.

Strolling around Barking in winter, you would have been met with the curious sight of townfolk gathering in their furs to collect ice from the marshes, which were purposefully flooded using the sluice gates. Kept in the ice house at the Town Quay, and a hulk beyond Tilbury on the Thames, the ice would then be collected by small boats and transported to the fleet, where it would be packed with the fish and then taken to market.

Image of Barking fleet being serviced by cutters (trunking). Picture: Robert Hewett Image of Barking fleet being serviced by cutters (trunking). Picture: Robert Hewett

This technique – known as ‘fleeting’ – meant the fishing boats could remain at sea for up to half a year, and so was a big success.

But when the railway revolution came calling, the creek’s fate was sealed, and the final fishing smack left Barking in 1899.

“The Hewett family had this huge operation going on for a long time, right until the railways came along and collected the fish from the east coast,” said John.

Previously, the produce from the north sea was brought to Barking, transferred to boats and sent on quickly to London. “But gradually they stopped coming back to Barking.”

The new lost canals exhibition at London Canal Museum. Picture: Martin Sach The new lost canals exhibition at London Canal Museum. Picture: Martin Sach

The City Canal in east London was intended as a shortcut for sailing boats on the Thames. It was built in 1805 between Limehouse and Blackwall Reaches, cutting off “a great big lump” of the Isle of Dogs, and offered access to the wharves which became the West India Dock complex.

But its viability was in question from the word go, with issues around the tide, slow trade, and the fact no tolls were being charged.

A financial burden, the canal was sold in 1829 (for £120,000) to the West India Dock Company. Today, it is known as South Dock and is used by some leisure craft, and military vessels requiring somewhere to turn around.

The museum’s staff – all volunteers (of whom there are about 50) – spent six months organising the exhibition, which features items from the British Museum, British Library and Guildhall Library.

John is a historian, while many volunteers at the King’s Cross site are “dedicated canal people”, including some who own their own boats.

The exhibition runs from September 26 to April next year, with entry included in the museum’s admission price (£5 for adults).

Visit canalmuseum.org.uk or call 020 7713 0836 to find out more.

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