Saturday, 12 July 2014

The London Canal Museum

12/13 New Wharf Road
King’s Cross
London N.1 9RT  

Wednesday July 9th 2014

Accessing the London Canal Museum could not have been easier – for Linda from South-East London it was an end to end ride on the Route 63 – one of our favourites – and for Jo a short walk,

The Museum lies on the now very attractive and highly desirable (estate agent speak) Battlebridge  Basin, once the hub of several industries,  warehouses and a place for canal boats to stop or rest. Nowadays to access the waterside you need either to visit King’s Place or pay to get into the museum – otherwise the canal basin side spaces are private. But like the horses we entered from the street.

The ground floor has a variety of exhibits and herein lies one of the problems about this museum – what story is it trying to tell? At least half the ground floor is given over to the tale of poor immigrant makes good – namely Mr Carlo Gatti , originally from a poor rural Ticino (then Italian now Swiss) family. His father had already moved to Paris and young Carlo came to London, specifically to the already established Italian community in Holborn, to seek and make his fortune --- he started as a hot chestnut man and then moved through a variety of jobs, including catering restaurants, and his main link to this building – the storage of ice imported from Norway to be distributed amongst the London gentry. Along the way he invented a hot chocolate making machine and probably the ‘penny lick’ – ice-cream in a cone shaped glass (we presume the glasses were washed between customers), small receptacles that must have pre-dated the good old cornet. He finished his life pretty rich, with a descendant becoming the even more respectable Mayor of Westminster. Mr Gatti used this warehouse to store his ice and you can still peer into a deep well , which would have been 13 metres at its deepest.  This roaring business continued to the eve of the first World war and I guess by the time peace was restored refrigeration was arriving… Now we all love the story of the Italian who brought ice-cream to London, and though it is told in fairly old-fashioned ‘story boards’ there are enough artefacts and advertising material to make a good enough display.
 The ice was of course brought to this depot by canal boat, and the rest of the ground floor and first floor is given over to a history of canals in general – and in London in particular. The emphasis here is rather on the use of canals rather than rivers for transport though the London canals in their time have connected the Rivers Lee and Thames and through England they link the four key waterways of Trent/Mersey/Severn and Thames.  The  Duke of Bridgwater is given his due for innovation though there is comparatively little space given to the overall context of the Industrial Revolution and the need to transport fuel and raw materials to some places and finished good for export to others. Travelling the canals of the UK gives you a much clearer idea of the industrial heritage. 

Here  in the museum the emphasis  is more on the era of horse drawn barges and narrow boats (London saw both as the smaller boats came down from the Midlands and further), their motorised  successors  and the eventual decline probably dating from the big freeze of 1963 when the canals were barely usable.  The decline through the Sixties and Seventies eventually gave way to a revival for leisure purposes and the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association guaranteed a steady maintaining of the waterways for holiday cruising --- as veterans of several canal holidays through the Eighties we must be very grateful to the founders of the IWA Tom (LTC) Rolt and Robert Aikman for their vision and perseverance.  Our trips were all out of London where we have only followed the canals via the foot/tow paths.

The museum has a ‘mock-up’ of the stables which most interestingly are on the 1st floor – access via a ramp – to keep ice and horse separate. The animals were most adept at dragging heavy loads and knew to stop at locks and tunnels and doubtless for ‘time-out’ ( ie a trip to the pub).

Talking of towing out on the basin itself you can see the little ‘pusher’ tug boat (a bit tautological that) as apparently it was 40% more efficient to push than to pull.

There are ample examples  of ‘canal art’, that is colourful tinware with a range of stock designs – flowers of all kinds and fanciful buildings – the myth has always been that canal folk made the most of their boat homes but missed having gardens and permanency which they always portrayed decoratively on their home wares.  You are able to go inside a butty boat and admire the lace curtains and restricted but cosy living space.
If this review seems a little random this is merely a reflection of the museum’s lay-out ; there is a leaflet which advises on the best circuit but this is not very obvious when you are somewhat in the gloom negotiating round the exhibits.  The information boards also seem to hover between telling a national and a more local story…we did think the shop offered a good range of books maps and canal related materials.

(Also – having just returned from the relevant part of France – we cannot help observing that the LCM, like most canal museums in England, declines to note the impressive achievements of the Canal du Midi, which pre-dates Bridgewater’s efforts by the best part of a century…)
 Horses go over the tunnel, while boatmen 'leg it' through...


  1. The pedant in me must point out that "the little ‘pusher’ tug boat" is an oxymoron, not a tautology.