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  • Writer's pictureCarol Harris

Seemed like a good idea at the time...

The local canal that came and went in a generation -- and what followed.

The first big change which affected the rural settlement then called ‘Brockley’ was the building of the London and Croydon Canal, in the early years of the nineteenth century.

At that time, roads were little more than dirt tracks, made uncomfortable by potholes and dust in the summer, and impassable by mud in the winter. The transport of freight over long distances was usually done by boat, around the coast, or up and down rivers such as the Thames.

Canals — man-made rivers — were introduced by the Romans. But it was the Industrial Revolution that led to the great age of canal-building in Britain in the second half of the 18th century. Raw materials, manufactured goods, the factories that made them and the towns and cities where they were sold all needed to be linked directly.

Soon thousands of miles of canals, hand-dug by navigators — ‘navvies’ — criss-crossed the country.

These canals made their owners immensely rich and in the late 1700s, a group of businessmen got together to plan a new canal which would go through Brockley.

In 1801 an Act of Parliament authorized the building of the canal, to run from the Grand Surrey Canal to Croydon, a distance of 9.25 miles (15 km). It was to be 34 ft (10m) wide, with a maximum depth of 5ft (1.5m).

In October 1809, eight years later, the London to Croydon Canal opened, its barges carrying timber and stone into London.

This map from c.1805 shows the land acquired by the canal company for its construction. The rural nature of Brockley at that time is evident in the dearth of houses other than the farm buildings clustered around the old "Brockley House'.

But the canal was never successful. This was mainly due to the hilly country it passed through, which called for many locks. There were 15 between what are now Brockley and Honor Oak Park train stations. Each lock had to be manually operated, which was slow and back-breaking work. It took a day to go from New Cross to Forest Hill.

Each time a lock was used, water was lost from the upper reaches. The canal’s reservoirs at Norwood (today known as South Norwood Lake) and Sydenham often ran dry, especially in the summer months. As a result, the canal regularly had to be closed due to insufficient supplies.

There were other problems: the bank at Forest Hill often collapsed, prompting further closures and the canal’s dimensions meant smaller boats than was standard had to be used.

The canal was closed for good by another Act of Parliament in 1836, after just 27 years.

The canal was bought by the London & Croydon Railway Company. The company laid the railway which now passes through Brockley and Honor Oak Park stations. The line follows the original path of the canal from Brockley station to just before the footbridge in Eddystone Road, at which point it veers to the west.

The one surviving remnant of the canal is now in Betts Park, Penge. The fountains in this old postcard are gone, and the trees have grown; it is a strange, rectangular water feature which gives little hint of its 200-year plus history.

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