History & heritage

Paddington’s quirky canal history

09.02.2017
The waterways of Paddington have some interesting stories to tell. We sailed back in time to uncover them

Flowing through Paddington and connecting west London to the Midlands and beyond, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal has played a vital role in London’s rich history. Completed in 1801, the 13.5-mile long waterway, which terminates in a four-acre stretch of water called the Paddington Basin, became a busy inland transportation route during the Industrial Revolution. Let’s go back in time…

Illustration of Browning's Pool at Little Venice from 1828

From clay to coffins

Canal & River Trust Senior Heritage Adviser Phil Emery knows a thing or two about the canal’s past and how it has changed over time. “When the idea of the Paddington Arm was first conceived, one of its main purposes was to be the transportation route of bricks and clay,” he says. Goods storage was built around the Basin including pens for livestock, warehouses and a hay and straw market. From here, goods would eventually be carried across the city by carts, when London was developing rapidly.

Workmen on a barge at Paddington Basin in 1909

Although transportation of goods was the canal’s primary use, you would’ve found some unusual things happening on the water too. At Kensal Rise Cemetery you can still spot the landing platforms where coffins were once delivered by narrowboat. Back in the 1800s, there was also a modest passenger boat service called the Paddington Packet Boat, a business contract eventually let to and franchised by Thomas Homer (who later proposed Regent’s Canal) at a cost of £750 per year.

A horse pulls a wide barge along the Regent's Canal

Horsing around

When the Paddington Arm was constructed, at a time before motorised vehicles, horses would pull boats along the canal. Nowadays, the horses are long retired, but you can still spot cobbled ramps adjacent to the towpath, which horses would trot down to meet their boats. Next time you’re taking a trip along the towpath, look out for the visible wear marks of towropes along the lip of the canal.

Narrow boats and rowing boats on the canal beneath the Westway

Keeping up appearances

Canal & River Trust Waterway Manager Jon Guest, who manages more than 100 miles of London's waterways, explains that the upkeep of the canal today is a full-time responsibility. “The maintenance of the canal is full on, 24/7, 365 days of the year,” says Jon. “We have teams out every day making sure the navigation is clear and people can enjoy the water and the towpath.” From engineers who look after the industrial infrastructure to ecologists looking after the wildlife, there’s a huge variation in the work involved. Jon adds that groups of volunteers also provide great support to the team and help across various maintenance projects.

Browning's Pool at Little Venice, taken by Syd Mitchell in 1977

New and improved

Since the 1800s, the Paddington Arm and Basin have undergone extensive development. It is now a hub of activity. Where old factories and warehouses once stood, you’ll now find a whole host of bars, restaurants and cafés. There are even a couple of floating restaurants – the Waterside Café and London Shell Co. In January 2017, plans for a new floating park in the Basin were also announced, cementing the area’s reputation as a place of leisure. “The canal today is more popular than at any time since the Industrial Revolution,” says Jon. “Increasing numbers of people are boating, cycling, running or just using the canal to escape the busy streets.”

The Queen Mother at an event in Little Venice during the 1970s

From providing London with the materials to develop and adapt, to becoming a relaxing leisure attraction, the canal has been pivotal to Paddington’s evolution. “It’s easy for people to become focused purely on the waterway itself,” adds Heritage Adviser Phil, “but in many ways, it’s important to look at how it has connected Paddington with the wider world.”

> All images courtesy of Canal & River Trust. Find out more at canalrivertrust.org.uk