London's canal network started to be developed in the mid-18th century. It was used to transport bulk goods cheaply, safely and reliably.
The Grand Junction Canal stretches from Northamptonshire to the River Thames at Brentford. Its Paddington arm connects the main canal to Paddington. The Regent's Canal links the Paddington Arm to the Limehouse Basin and the River Thames in East London. The Hertford Union Canal provides a shortcut between Regent's Canal and the Lee Navigation and runs along the southern side of Victoria Park.
The Lee Navigation is a canalised river that incorporates the River Lee (or Lea) in northeast London. London's oldest canal, the Limehouse Cut opened in 1770 and joins the Lee at Bromley-by-Bow. The Cut provides a shortcut between the River Lee and the Thames, enabling users to avoid the lower Lee at Bow Creek and the Isle of Dogs.
Railways had begun to challenge the long-term commercial viability of canals by the mid-19th century. By the 1920s, motor vehicles and road improvements posed further serious threats.
Canal companies tried to remain competitive through modernisation and amalgamation. In 1929, the Regent's Canal acquired the assets of the Grand Junction Canal and, as a result, the Grand Union Canal Company was formed.
During the Second World War, the use of London's canals increased dramatically, as supplies and goods were transported across the capital. Unfortunately, this level of activity was not maintained after the war. Finally, in 1948, the UK's canal system was nationalised.
The Grand Junction Canal, battling against growing competition from road transport, was one of the last routes to keep commercial traffic alive. The Regent's Canal carried its last horse-drawn boat in 1956. Tractors had been introduced three years earlier. By the 1960s, London's commercial canal traffic had all but vanished.
The leisure industry saved many of London's canals. During the 1960s, pleasure and holiday boating became increasingly popular. In 1968, the City of Westminster opened up canal towpaths within its boundaries for recreational uses such as walking and biking. Camden Council followed Westminster's lead in 1974.
However, some of London's canals did not survive the 20th century. The Grand Surrey Canal extended three miles southward from the Thames at Rotherhithe to a basin at Camberwell with a further branch to Peckham. During the Second World War, many of the industrial sites that backed onto this canal were destroyed in the Blitz. After the war, the canal declined further until it finally closed in March 1971. It was drained and filled in. The Camberwell Basin became part of the new Burgess Park.
London's existing canals remain popular today. Regent's Canal is frequented by recreational users, especially the stretch by Camden Lock, London Zoo and Little Venice.
In recent years, concerns about road congestion and pollution have rekindled commercial interest in the use of canals. Small-scale transport has been revived in some areas.
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