200 years ago: when our canal changed direction.

The Act of Parliament: 58th GEORGE III Cap xviii


March 2018 is the 200th anniversary since the publication of an Act relating to the Grand Junction Canal (GJC), now known as the Grand Union Canal (GUC).  Acts of Parliament are identified by the Kings Regnal Year, in this case the 58th year of the reign of George III.  George reigned from 1760 to 1820 and is well known for having lost our American colonies and for his mental illness in later life, portrayed in the film The Madness of King George.

The Act is dated 17th March 1818; its fourteen pages describe the realignment of the canal through Apsley and Nash Mills.  Additionally, it makes minor amendments in relation to twelve earlier Acts.  Before we examine this Act it may be useful to look at the background to the canal’s existence.

During the eighteenth century the area around Birmingham had become a major manufacturing centre with most of its customers based in London.  The need for bulk haulage was best satisfied by water transport with the first canal route opening in 1790.  The circuitous, 230-mile route passed through Oxford, although London and Birmingham were only 105 miles apart.  Despite the distance it proved immensely popular, so an improved route was suggested in 1792.  This was to be a wider canal to allow Thames boats to navigate its length.  Within months detailed surveys and plans for a route from Braunston to Brentford were completed and finances put in hand.  By the end of April 1793 an Act was in place creating the GJC and fixing its route.

Work began immediately, starting at both ends, with major intermediate sections, like the Tring cutting, being put in hand early.  The first section to be completed was between Brentford and Uxbridge which was formally opened in November 1794.  All the construction work was manual as no machinery was then available.  The workforce ‘navigated’ their way across country so that their pseudonym of ‘navvies’ soon became a by-word for any kind of labourer. 

The company’s engineer, William Jessop, brought the canal to Kings Langley in September 1797, then to Two Waters by the end of the year.  This is the section which is of interest to us in this article since it would only last for about twenty years.  Northward the canal had many major engineering works including tunnels, viaducts and embankments and it was some years before barges could travel the full length without the need for transhipment around uncompleted or collapsed sections.

To return to our local portion from Two Waters towards Kings Langley the route followed the contour of the hillside for 1½ miles before descending 28ft to the river level by a ‘ladder’ of four locks.  This section, known as ‘The Long Pound’ was a source of irritation to the owners of the mills who claimed that they lost water power due to leakage of the pound, also water was diverted away from their wheels reducing the ability to trade as before.  There is now no trace of the four locks which were close to where the railway bridge crosses the canal.

The plan reproduced above shows the original line of the canal, a steam engine erected by the GJC to pump water back into the pound and the revised route diverting from near to the Durrants Hill bridge near where Ebberns Road is today.  It can be see that the route lies to the north of Belswains Lane and behind the Three Tuns public house.  The revised route, surveyed by Thomas Telford, brought the canal very close to both Apsley and Nash Mills, both owned by John Dickinson.

John Dickinson had bought Apsley Mill in 1809 and Nash Mill about a year later.  As an ambitious and influential young man, he was quick to take issue with the GJC on several occasions, culminating in the creation of the Act we are concerned with today. 

Hindsight shows that the re-alignment was a shrewd move by Dickinson as he now had a major transport artery on his doorstep.  Although a paper maker and stationer by trade he tendered for the building works associated with the new canal route, thereby ensuring that the canal banks, which were to become his wharves, were built to his own requirements.  The Act we are concerned with also provided him with toll-free travel for his boats between his mills and prohibited mooring at night alongside the garden of Nash Mill house, where he lived.  There was a risk that the mill owners would use more water than the canal could support so there were markers from which depth measurements would be taken, in one case the mark was the top of the arch of a window arch at Nash Mill which the water should not be less than 7 ½ feet below.

A consequence of canal building, where the water was at least 4½ feet deep was the need for bridges since the river could no longer be forded.  Realising the need for a bridge to be built for Red Lion Lane, which at that time passed close to Nash Mills House, Dickinson successfully applied to the Hertfordshire magistrates to divert the lane further from his house to provide him with an improved view.

The details of the Act provided the essential foundation for the expansion of John Dickinson’s business.  The transport link provided his business with the means to expand.  Within ten years he had built two new factories alongside the canal downstream at Home Park, Kings Langley, and at Croxley near Rickmansworth.  London branches at Paddington and Kings Cross followed, both linked to the GJC allowing overnight delivery of product made the previous day.  Additionally, when water power proved to be inadequate to support his business expansion he was able to obtain coal from the midlands coal fields delivered by canal.

So, to conclude, although the above is a very sketchy review of events the big question in my mind is why John Dickinson took such a strong stand.  He already knew about water shortage problems when he bought the mills, also he had already introduced a steam engine in 1815, two years before his campaign for the Act.  Did he anticipate an increased use of steam, and therefore the need for coal?  It is unlikely that we will ever know.  I suspect that he may have been holding his cards very close to his chest 200 years ago.     -Mike Stanyon