...is the canal that aimed for Portsmouth but only got as far as Camberwell!
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. Plans for a Portsmouth extension were often mooted and one proposal in particular has now been included in Google's extensive archive of books. The Grand Ship Canal from London to Arundel bay and Portsmouth can be viewed on Google Books' site, and can also be downloaded as a PDF by clicking on the link within the page. As revealed in the 1825 report, vessels were expected to take twelve to fourteen hours for the passage from London to Spithead (Portsmouth) Just four locks were envisaged to lift boats up to the long summit level. The Portsmouth Plans, although shelved, intended upon the use the route of the Grand Surrey from Rotherhithe to Camberwell, and the Portsmouth and Arundel canal for the section from the Arun to Portsmouth. Other than that it was all entirely new route involving some stupendously deep cuttings and embankments.
A report of 1832 claimed the Grand Surrey Canal had been built as far as Mitcham, a length of twelve miles. It was implied that a substantial number of locks had been used to raise the canal to its westernmost extremity. It was such fanciful thinking for in fact the canal hadnt even got past Walworth!!
The development of a larger dock system than orignally envisaged saw all ambitious plans curtailed. Ultimately a far more mediocre canal was built as far as Camberwell. The waterway opened in stages - the dockland end by 1807 and the Camberwell end in 1809. The poor roads in the area saw a 1,100yd extension constructed to serve Peckham, opening 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. Despite much infilling and building over of the docks, the area still retains some of the old days and its now known as Surrey Quays
As mentioned earlier the GSC ended up as an unfinished business just four and half miles in length, terminating at Camberwell with a branch to Peckham. It was the lifeline for the Croydon Canal, giving that canal access via the GSC to the Thames. The last boat travelled up the canal in the early 70's. By then much of the canal had fallen out of use and had been dewatered
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 this section can be walked if one doesnt mind the heavy traffic that thunders along this road
For an erstwhile waterway, and 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, being more at home perhaps on river overbridges. The best of these were those on the Old Kent Road bridge, which had been one of the earliest roads to use gas lighting. It is possible the lights on this bridge dated from that time, and had never been converted to electrcity. The bridge is sadly gone to make way for a widened Old Kent Road. People familar with the Old Kent Road bridge will remember fondly the use to which it was put after the canal's closure. It became an underpass for pedestrians, complete with steps down from the road on either side, and utitlised the old towpath under the brigde. Where the nearby Mac Donalds has been built, there was once a wharf complete with mooring rings. Shorn of water it was however basically intact right up till the nineties
A couple of timber merchants still exist along the route of the canal, reminding us of their canal origins
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
Royal Humane Society awards from the Times newspaper in the 19th century include Capt Stanley RN who had saved the life of a boy from a frozen-up Canal in 1841, and Richard Moore, Lock Keeper, for saving lives on 8 occasions in 1851
The Grand Surrey opened in 1809, in the same year as the Croydon canal. Unlike the Croydon which closed in 1836, the Surrey canal lasted until the start of the 1970's, and there are a good few remains of the old canal route today. The canal's decline began in the 1940's, when part of it was abandoned, followed by much dewatering in the 1960's, mostly beyond the Old Kent Road after concerns about the number of children falling in. A short stretch southwards from Greenland Dock remained open till 1970 to serve timber wharves in Evelyn Road, Deptford. This was infilled in 1971. The section in what is now Surrey Canal Road, where the Coldblow branch was sited, held water until the mid 1970's which could be seen by train passengers between London Bridge and New Cross Gate
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...
Around Little Venice & Paddington: History and transport systems / Canute's 'Canal': The mythological waterway that wasnt / Croydon Canal: London's shortest-lived waterway, closing completely by 1837 / Cumberland Arm: A branch off the Regents Canal to Euston / Fleet River & Canal: The former Thames - Kings Cross waterway / Grand Surrey: The canal with an ambition to reach Portsmouth! / Grosvenor Canal: The Grosvenor linked Victoria to the Thames / Hertford Union Canal: A short cut with a nice flight of locks between the Regents Canal and the Lee Navigation alongside Victoria Park / Isle of Dogs (City) Canal: The Isle of dogs canal, where Canary Wharf now stands / Kensington Canal: The canal that became a railway and an underground route / Limehouse Cut & the Lee Navigation: The 28 mile route from London to Hertford / London's Canal Tunnels: There are three canal tunnels in London / McMurray's Canal: Wandsworths long forgotten waterway / Paddington Arm: The Grand Junction/Grand Union from Bulls Bridge to London / Pudding Mill River: Requiem for London's lost waterway / Regents Canal: This runs between Little Venice, Camden Town & Limehouse / Romford Canal: The penultimate, yet unfinished, canal to be built in London / Ruislip Feeder: The former waterway that fed the canal / Surrey Iron Railway: The route of the world's first public railway / Woolwich's secret waterway: The Royal Arsenal Canal
London Canals Outside: 1) Wendover Arm 2) Slough Arm 3) River Chess/Salter's Cut
Attractions near the London canals: Abbey Road / Bayswater / Crockers Folly / Derry and Toms / Edgware Road / Marylebone Goods / Metesco / Nash Villas / Spitfire Works / St Pancras