The Grand Surrey Canal
...is the canal that aimed for Portsmouth but only got as far as Camberwell!
An introduction to the Surrey Canal
The Grand Surrey's story really begins back in 1696. This was the year that the Howland Great Wet Dock, was dug. This was the largest ship dock ever built at the time. By 1763 it had been renamed Greenland Dock, which is synoymous with the Grand Surrey Canal. The Canal's Act of 1801 initially authorised a route from Rotherhithe to Epsom with a possible extension to Portsmouth.
The development of a larger dock system than orignally envisaged saw all ambitious plans curtailed and a more mediocre route built as far as Camberwell. The waterway opened in stages - the dockland end by 1807 and the Camberwell end in 1809. A 1,100yd extension to Peckham opened in 1826. The company's renaming as the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company is how the area around Rotherhithe came to be known as Surrey Docks. Today its Surrey Quays.
Both the Croydon and Grand Surrey canals were officially opened in 1809. Unlike the Croydon which closed in 1836, the Surrey canal lasted until the start of the 1970's, and there are a few remains of the old canal route. The canal's decline began in the 1940's, when part was abandoned. Dewatering of the westermost sections occurred in the 1960's after concerns of children falling in. By the 1970's it had all gone save for a short section from Greenland Dock giving access to timber wharves in Evelyn Road, Deptford. This remaining stretch was closed and infilled during 1971.
Grand Surrey sign warning of trespassing - exhibit at the London Canal Museum, Kings Cross
Despite the regeneration of the Surrey Docks (now known as Surrey Quays) area, the Grand Surrey Canal missed out on a potential future as a linear waterway through South London, and most of it is now industrial estate, especially between Evelyn Road and the junction with the Peckham Branch. This stretch is unwalkable, except via side roads with glimpses of the former route from bridges. In the middle of this section is the Surrey Canal Road stretch, which passed under four different railway bridges in a straight line, and a section which can be walked if one doesnt mind the heavy traffic that thunders along this road.
For an erstwhile waterway, especially in London, the piece de resistance is the landscaped former branch to Peckham, complete with road overbridges. The remainder of the canal, virtually straight as a ruler, stretches from the junction with the Peckham route to Camberwell New Road, and this section forms a substantial part of what is known as Burgess Park.
A distinctive feature of the Grand Surrey Canal was its overbridges, one of which now stands. They had elaborate cast iron lamp stands, the best being those on the Old Kent Road, one of the earliest to use gas lighting. People familar with the Old Kent Road bridge will remember how after the canal's closure it became an underpass for pedestrians. Steps were built down from the road on either side, and a walkway laid on the old canal underneath the bridge.
A walk along the route of the GSC will reveal a lot of commercial premises who still have names that remind one of the canal. There's Victoria Wharf - its name set out in bricks - and theres Canada Wharf, British Wharf etc, plus the Pepys Estate on the east side of Evelyn Road had old maps until recently showing the estate layout, complete with the canal route marked on it from the days when it was in use, whilst a couple of timber merchants still exist along the route of the canal, reminding us of their canal origins.
The above map is from 1971, when the Surrey Docks were in the process of being rationalised. As seen, the entrance lock to the Grand Surrey Canal has already gone, however a short length of the canal itself, dewatered obviously, still remains for a short distance towards Trundleys Road. This stretch had by then been the last working remnant of the canal. Plough Way's former alignment is clearly shown.
Bibliography & References: Lost Navigations - The Croydon and Grand Surrey - Bernard Brown, Canal and Riverboat, 1986; Retracing Canals to Croydon and Camberwell - Living History Publications, Bromley, 1986.
Many thanks to: Croydon Local Studies Library for their help and use of images from the library collection.
Click to read an article from May 1971 on the Grand Surrey Canal - Southwark Council wanted to retain the canal and make it into an amenity. But the canal's owners, the Port of London Authority, were against the idea...
The former alignment of the Grand Surrey Canal at St George's/Wells Way Burgess Park, looking towards Camberwell