Friday 18 July 2008

Early Steam Ships and the City Canal

Our talk in July was from Roger Owen - on the subject of the City Canal on the Isle of Dogs. Here's what he had to say:

A canal across the Isle of Dogs from Blackwall to Limehouse was built by the Corporation of London as an intended bypass of the peninsula for ships proceeding to the upper reaches of the Thames, which became known as the City Canal. It was a development sanctioned by the West India Docks Act of 1799 and funded by a loan from the Consolidated Fund. Canals were not a new idea, a network around London having been proposed in 1799 and one from Blackwall to Wapping was part of the original proposal for the rival London Docks. Construction, under the supervision of the canal-builder, William Jessop, started in January 1800, and it was completed and opened to ships, barges and lighters in December 1805. Whilst it was toll-free for the first three years of its operation, the City Canal was not a commercial success, as with the concurrent building of the London, West India, East India and later the Commercial Docks it was not to be used to a significant extent for transit purposes. Along with the privately owned docks the canal was used for laying up ships that were in seasonable employment, such as South Sea whalers, ships up for sale and those under repair or fitting-out. Enclosed waters such as the docks and canals had advantages for laying up ships, as there was virtually no tidal movement so that moorings did not need to be continuously tended and consequently the manning on board could be reduced to a minimum.

Steamships first started to use the City Canal for laying-up, repairs and fitting-out from the end of 1814 with the arrival of “Margery”, a ship built on the Clyde that was to operate the first passenger service on the Thames from Wapping to Gravesend for a few months before she was sold and crossed the Channel to undertake similar duties on the Seine. The firm of Boulton, Watt & Co., having their factory at Soho in the Smethwick area of Birmingham, had a sheer hulk, “Pallas”, which was a former American merchant ship that had been seized and condemned as a prize during the War of 1812. This was converted and moored at the Blackwall end of the canal in 1826 for use as a heavy-lift facility for removing and installing boilers and as a workshop. Ships built at shipyards on the Thames and elsewhere, such as Harwich in the east and Holyhead in the west, came to the City Canal to have their machinery installed. BWC had even considered having a factory at Pitcher’s Canal Dockyard for manufacturing boilers, but decided against it with the intention of the Admiralty to develop what became the Woolwich Steam Factory for the maintenance of the expanding Steam Navy.

After several attempts the canal was finally sold to the West India Dock Company in August 1829, when it was renamed the West India South Dock and transit passages came to an end. An adjoining Timber Pond was built in the 1840s and this and the former canal were reconstructed in the 1860s – 70s into the South Dock as it is in its present form, except that the former Limehouse end entrance was subsequently closed. With the ending of their monopolies the dock companies sought other areas of business, the East India Dock Company building the Brunswick Steam Wharf in 1834. The latter company also opened up their docks to steamships and allowed the use of the landmark Masting House for removing and installing boilers. This activity at the East India Docks came to an end in the 1860s with the demolishing of the Masting House and with the depression in Thames shipbuilding following the collapse of the Overend Gurney bank in 1866. By then most steamships were using the Victoria Docks, which were to be used by the last of the Thameside shipbuilders, Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, for fitting-out ships, until they ceased business in 1912.

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