Above: Part of Cary’s map of 1837 showing the route of the canal along with part of the Croydon Canal. [CLICK ON THE MAP TO ENLARGE]
London still has few canals in existence – like the Regent’s Canal in north London – but there have been others which were dug and became fully operational, only to fall into disuse and then be filled in. One example is the Grand Surrey Canal, whose proposers wanted it to convey goods by water from the Thames into the middle of Surrey, with the distant hope that the canal might bypass the whole of the SE of England and eventually lead to Portsmouth. It was intended to build a canal following a route via Deptford, Peckham and Camberwell. From there, the route was to link Clapham, Croydon and Kingston to Ewell and Epsom. It was intended to aid the transport of market produce.
There is no harm in dreaming. In fact, the canal never went further west than Camberwell Road – a distance of about four miles from its start beside the Thames. A look at the map makes you wonder why the canal was cut across the land starting where it did. A shorter canal would have resulted if the entrance had been from the banks of the Thames nearer Deptford. The history books do not explain why the start was chosen further north.
Before describing the route of the canal, it should be explained that the Surrey Commercial Docks have played their part in the canal’s history. The first dock built on the large expanse of land that became known as the Surrey Commercial Docks was what is now known as Greenland Dock (labelled No 1 on the map). As time went by, most of the land between the banks of the Thames and Deptford Lower Road (now called Lower Road) and Plough Lane (now called Plough Way) was occupied by docks. The docks were gradually filled in from the 1970s onwards and only a few of them remain to be seen today.
Each of the labelled points on the map is described. They are followed by a paragraph explaining what evidence for the canal remains today –
Start – The entrance to the Grand Surrey Canal from the Thames is shown on the above map and marked ‘Start’. The first part of the canal was relatively wide and was at a later date enlarged to become Stave Dock and Russia Dock.
Today, the land that became Stave Dock and Russia Dock was filled in during the 1980s and is now parkland. It is almost impossible to work out where the canal originally ran.
Greenland Dock – After continuing further south, the canal passed the western side of Greenland Dock (labelled on the map as ‘No 1’). About 1900 Greenland Dock was rebuilt and its length was nearly doubled. From that time onwards the Grand Surrey Canal started from the south side of the newly built Greenland Dock.
Today, Greenland Dock is used as a marina and a sailing amenity. A ‘notch’ in the southern side of Greenland Dock, now used as a beach, indicates where the canal once led south from the dock.
Evelyn Street – The canal on the map is shown continuing south and turning through 90 degrees to run under what is now called Evelyn Street. It ran almost due west, passing a large canal reservoir called Black Horse Pond, taking its name from a nearby pub called the Black Horse.
Today, the route of the canal can easily be traced because some of it is a linear park and the path west of Evelyn Street follows the line of the original towpath. Further west, the line of the canal became a new thoroughfare called Surrey Canal Road.
Old Kent Road – The canal is shown running in a curve – which was beside a large gas works – before passing under Old Kent Road. Canal Bridge on the Old Kent Road was a well-known bottle-neck right up to the 1980s, even though the canal had ceased to be used. The road today is a six-lane highway, three lanes in each direction.
Today, the route on the western side of Old Kent Road is still in existence. There is talk [as of 2019] by Southwark Council to establish a footpath on the line of the old canal. If the new footpath came into existence it could link up with the eastern end of Burgess Park which is known as Surrey Linear Canal Path.
End – For all the brave talk of crossing southern England, the canal continued west but led no further than wharves on the east side of Camberwell Road.
Today, the westernmost route of the canal is well signposted, crossing land that is now part of the extensive Burgess Park.
Peckham Arm – From Old Kent Road, a short arm was constructed, travelling south for about half a mile, ending at Peckham High Street.
Today, the entire length of the old Peckham Arm is now a narrow park called Surrey Linear Canal Path.
Brief History of the Canal
The Grand Surrey Canal Act was passed 21 May 1801. Construction was started by the Grand Surrey Canal Company. Timber (supplying many timber yards along the canal’s route), coal (supplying a gas-works beside Old Kent Road), stone (for road-making), bricks and tiles were some of the main commodities carried. The canal opened as far as the Old Kent Road in 1807, to Camberwell in 1810, and to Peckham in 1826. Once the Grand Surrey Canal was completed as far as New Cross, it was joined by the Croydon Canal in 1809.
In 1864 the early docks near the start of the Grand Surrey Canal were combined and called the ‘Surrey Commercial Docks’. The Surrey Commercial Dock Company was formed which took over docks on the Surrey side of the Thames. The canal, of course, crossed that land.
The Grand Surrey Canal was never a financial success because it was too short to be effective. Looking back, it was probably the transport of timber from the docks to timber yards beside the canal that was the most enduring commodity transported. Coal for the gas-works at the Old Kent Road probably came second in importance. The demise of the canal came with the gradual closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks from the 1970s onwards. Gas-works were changed over from using coal to storing North Sea gas supplies.
Most of the canal was drained and large sections were filled in. The resulting land was used for container storage and by companies who ran businesses like lorry transport. Some of the land was used for housing and one section became a new thoroughfare called Surrey Canal Road. By the 1980s large parts of Camberwell which had traditionally been occupied by small factory units started to close down and much of the land around the western end of the canal was developed into a large park. The idea for Burgess Park was conceived after the Second World War when the need for more green space in Camberwell was recognised. The park was formed over several decades by buying up land left vacant by the factory units and gradually connecting up the pieces of land with landscaping and other features including a large lake.
Several small roads crossed the canal, some with humpback bridges. Wells Road had such a bridge – near the old St George’s church. Trafalgar Avenue had a similar bridge which has also been removed. Further south is a rather more ornate and graceful iron bridge that once carried Willowbrook Road over the Peckham Arm of the canal.
When Burgess Park was being laid out, the planners were mindful of the canal’s route. A footbridge remains standing in its original position, now in the park, along with several other reminders of the old canal.