The London Canal Museum is in New Wharf Road, N1, a 10 minute walk from King’s Cross Station. The Victorian building was for many years the premises of immigrant entrepreneur Carlo Gatti, who ran the largest ice supply company in London. Many tons of ice blocks were stored in subterranean “ice wells” and distributed all around the capital by Gatti’s fleet of carts, and later, trucks. Much of the ground floor of the museum is devoted to the history of the London ice business and Gatti’s operation in particular.
The remainder of the two storey building is given over to the history of England’s canals, with particular attention to the systems around London. There is a fabulous large scale map as you enter the first floor space that details all of the capital’s waterways. Various displays tell you about every aspect of the history and workings of the canal systems with very close attention to those who worked on it – bargees and their wives and children; lock-keepers; the horses. In particular the horses. There is a fine display devoted to these beasts and all the attendant paraphernalia and support systems – stables, farriers, vet services and so on.
Of particular interest – to me at any rate – is the story of the Macclesfield Bridge explosion of 2 October 1874, when the barge Tilbury, carrying a mixed load of gunpowder and petrol, ignited just as it passed under a rather fetching bridge on the Regent’s Canal near London Zoo. The bridge was utterly destroyed and needless to report, the crew perished.
A most enjoyable diversion is the audio visual display which features a number of newsreel and features about the Regent’s Canal from 1924 to the late 1940s. Wonderful to see the canal-side sights of north London during these decades. The commentary on the most recent of these clips has that wonderful mildly patronising Harry Enfield-Paul Whitehouse quality about it, where the bargee’s horse is naturally called Dobbin.
The museum backs on to the Battlebridge Basin, in former times surrounded by industrial warehouses and wharfs, but now – as with most of London’s waterways – populated by modern flats and offices. But the basin itself is populated by many barges and of special interest the museum’s own “bantam” tug from 1949-50.
I have mentioned elsewhere how one gets a satisfying sense of history and nostalgia from museums which celebrate industrial heritage and transportation, Kew Bridge Steam Museum and the London Transport Museum’s Acton depot being good examples. The London Canal Museum is very much one of these. It is very family-friendly with plenty to amuse the young, and I warmly recommend it. Entry is £4 adult and £2 children.