Limehouse Cut

Above: Looking NE at the Limehouse Cut from the towpath.

A quick look at any street map of East London shows that the Regent’s Canal was cut only a short distance from the River Lea. The Regent’s Canal was cut in the early 1800s as a sort of ‘bypass’ around Central London, with its southern end connecting with the Thames at Regent’s Canal Dock – now known as the Limehouse Basin. Vast quantities of goods were moved using the Regent’s Canal. It had a direct connection with the Grand Union Canal which runs N-S through England, on the west of London.

Goods were also carried by vessels using the River Lea. When that became too silted up, the Lee Navigation was cut alongside and, although little used today, it is still in existence. Notice that the river is usually spelt ‘Lea’ and the Navigation is usually spelt ‘Lee’. Don’t ask why. There is no good reason – that’s how it is.

Above: Outline map of the canals in East London.

With the Regent’s Canal and the River Lea being so close together, it was realised that several miles of travel could be saved if short-cuts could be dug between the two. Two short-cuts were dug – the very short Hertford Union Canal (completed 1830) and the longer Limehouse Cut (completed 1769). The waterways are shown on the small-scaled Google map.

The Regent’s Canal was not completed until 1820 and had its own connection with the Thames via the Regent’s Canal Dock (now called Limehouse Basin) and a lock to the Thames. The Limehouse Cut was authorised by the River Lee Act, an Act of Parliament obtained on 29 June 1767, after the engineer, John Smeaton identified the need for a short-cut around the southern end of the River Lea – known as Bow Creek.

The Cut opened in 1869 with its own lock to connect it with the Thames. That lock was a short distance east of the Regent’s Canal. The Cut used that lock until 1968 when it was filled in and the Cut was rerouted to connect with the Limehouse Basin. The old lock is easily recognised, although it no longer connects with the Thames. The old lockmaster’s houses, built in 1883 by the Lee Conservators, were renovated in the 1990s after, standing derelict for many years. The short terrace stands beside what was once the original lock.

There is now no lock along the length of the Limehouse Cut. During the 1970s and 1980s, the sides of the canal were in a very poor state and parts of the side collapsed, making the towpath unusable. The walls were renovated in the 1990s to reinstate the old towpath on the southern side. The towpath at the eastern end became no longer accessible near the Bow Locks. An ingenious floating footpath, 786 feet (240 m) long, was added in 2003 to make pedestrian access as easy as possible for those wishing to walk beside the Cut and connect with the other waterways.

Above: Bow Locks.

The Cut is connected at the eastern end to the River Lea via the Bow Locks. The River Lea is tidal until a point much further upriver than Bow Locks which regulate the water levels between the Lea and the Cut. Bow Locks have been rebuilt over the years, with the last reconstruction being in 2000. The problem at this point was that because the River Lea is tidal, there were times in the year when its level exceeded that of Limehouse Cut. Various solutions were devised, including a drop gate to prevent water from the Lea raising the level of the Cut by up to three feet. Due to the latest modifications, the new lock gates can now accommodate even the highest tides on the River Lea without the water level of the Cut being affected.


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2 Responses to Limehouse Cut

  1. Benfalat says:

    Hi Adrian,

    Check explicit spelling in 2nd paragraph ? I’m sure you meant to say, “… river Lea …”, where you have Lee; not ‘Lee’ and ‘Lee’, but ‘Lea’ and ‘Lee’.

    I really am enjoying your series of writings. b.t.w. At school (St.Olaves; 1960s), for Geography O-level we had one paper, exceptionally on The London Basin; I recall being told that this special arrangement was for our school only (?). … Had to learn about the geology & rivers; it was a physical geog. really, not social/historical. So when you say, sort of non-committal, that you yourself went to school in Southwark … I’d guess it wasn’t at St.OGS, or was it ?

    Best regards, Ben

    … says Ben’s electro-ma-gadget !



    • Yes, you are quite correct – I have now fixed the error. Yes once again, I was at St Olave’s – in Tooley Street. If you care to use the search box, you will find the blog ‘St Olave’s is now a hotel’ which shows how the old school looks now. I took the interior picture after being offered a tour of the building. Glad you are enjoying the blogs.


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