The Interchange Building at Camden Lock
Left - the building with its two side screening walls and the off-set canal wharf
This huge building in red brick framed with blue engineering brick, dominates the north side of the Lock. It is a Victorian/Edwardian building, designed as a fortress, immensely strong and secure. Now listed grade II, it was designed to bring together canal, rail and road transport in one covered building, with three floors of storage above. Some people have called it the Brunel Building although this cannot be correct since the younger Brunel died in 1859. When Isambard Kingdom Brunel was dying, they laid him on a flat railway wagon and pulled it across the new Saltash Bridge so that he could see his noble trusses soaring high above. This was perhaps fifty years before the modern Interchange was erected. The present building does not appear on the 1894 Ordnance Survey map, but is on the 1912 one. In 1905 the Wharves and Warehouse Committee of the Institute of Surveyors reported that the building had been surveyed. This settles the date and proves that Brunel cannot have had nothing to do with it. 1 2 3
Much earlier, on the site of the present Interchange warehouse, there was a single-storey exchange building. This had been created above the old wharf sown in the 1834 Parish Map. The Goad Fire Insurance plans (which record the materials used in each individual building) show that it was mainly in wood and was clearly the main place for transferring general goods between canal, road and rail. It is shown in the engraving of the Camden Town Goods Yard. The present brick Interchange Building was a later reincarnation of this single-storey building.
For years Thames lighters had brought their cargoes to Camden Town where they were transferred to rail, road, or to the narrow boats which took them up the canal towards Oxford, Birmingham and beyond. Narrow boats are not suitable for sailing on the tidal waters of the Thames, as was shown when some of them did it during the Second World War. In ‘Ramblin’ Rose: the Boatwoman’s Story’,4 Sheila Stewart describes hazardous journeys to London by narrow boat during the height of the Blitz. Thames lighters, on the other hand, were strong, sea-going craft, so they were used to bring cargoes as far as Camden Town, where they were transferred to narrow boats.
It was normal for lighters and narrow boats to work in pairs. For example, six pairs of boats took cocoa beans from Camden Town to the Cadbury factory at Bourneville. Similar regular traffic used rail, road and canal, with Camden Town as the exchange post. Daily traffic was immense. Look at the deep grooves in the iron handrail of the Roving (Diagonal) Bridge across the canal, cut by the chafing of innumerable tow ropes. Consider how many barges must have been warped across each day, against the pressure of the water flowing into the lock, to do that damage. Look at the polish on the granite cobbles, made by the iron shoes of huge shire horses. In Camden Town industrial archaeology is all around us.
The checking of each consignment and onward distribution to its correct destination must have been a major task, but it probably helped to check ‘losses’. For canal boatmen had a reputation for pilfering. A cabbage, some potatoes from a farmer’s field or a partridge brought down by a catapult, were the usual wayside takings. It was not unknown for a man going through game preserves to take orders for birds before he started, while his lurchers were skilled at running down rabbits. Cargoes too could be targeted. Lime, clay, steel ingots and horse manure, were safe enough, but coal could be sold by the bucketful at canal-side cottages and lock pubs. Consignments of bottles of wine or spirits were particularly at risk. If by accident a case happened to drop and a bottle broke, there was often a bowl below to catch the contents. Some boatmen carrying barrels, went armed with fine drills in case the bungs were sealed. Loosening a bung was easier, but if this was not possible, they drilled the barrel and then resealed it. Wines and spirits were so vulnerable that eventually Gilbey’s ceased to import barrels by water and transferred them instead to rail.
Silk, a particularly valuable cargo, was transported inside protective canvas covers, carefully sewn, so the expert boatmen extracted the silk with fine wire hooks, a small bunch at a time. Some gravel slipped in to make up the weight, the hole pushed together and covered with bird droppings, made the theft difficult to detect. Barges were sometimes used to secrete stolen goods and spirit them out of the area. In ‘Bricks and Brickies’ the writer describes how the police descended on a barge carrying household rubbish on its way to fuel the brick kilns in the Thames Estuary. There had been a robbery in the West End and this was the suspected get-away vehicle.5
The Structure of the Interchange
The Interchange Building was designed to mechanise the whole process of goods transfer between canal, rail and road. The Pickford building on the other bank, which later became Gilbey’s ‘A’ Shed, had been designed for the same purpose. The Interchange building also included three storeys of ware-housing above the railway level. Inside the building were hydraulic lifts which carried the goods to the correct level for road or rail transport, or for storage. The opening in the floor through which the goods used to be lifted from the barges in the wharf below, up to the railway level, can still be seen. Beside it is the original crane, but now bolted still and freshly painted. The hole in the floor has been filled in with glass tiles. so that today it is an elegant glass floor, clean and cleared as if for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to dance a spectacular number. Then, it was a grimy pit, open to the water below and swept by winds above.
Walls have now been built round what was the open station level, to enclose it and keep it warm, but the walls are inside the old stanchions pillars. Thus the architect has preserved them and we can still imagine what it used to be like when everything was open. The old platform buildings, in red brick, where the clerical work was done and the railway men made their tea, have been preserved too and can be seen in the main entrance hall.
The whole railway level was an open station, with platforms, railway lines and piled goods. It was a place of heavy work, day and night, without walls and standing on massive octagonal pillars. The pillars were built of four ‘I shaped’ girders, wrapped round with octagonal plates and riveted in place. These sets of stanchions, consisting of one large I girder (A) or four small ones (B) are quite common in Victorian work. Most are riveted together with narrow wrought iron bands (C) but the Interchange ones are encased completely with bent iron plates (D). Riveting must have presented problems as one cannot get inside to hammer over the rivets. Presumably the rivets were hit from the outside against some sort of long-arm anvil.
The I girder stanchions wrapped with iron plates
The massive octagonal pillars were necessary to support the three floors of heavy storage above. At the top is a roof built of very heavy joists indeed. These are no ordinary roof joists, but huge baulks designed to support heavy lifting gear. The warehouse floors too are most unusual, with 12 inch by 3 inch timbers laid touching each other. Thus the floors consist of solid wood and a square foot of floor space is made of a cubic foot of timber. Clearly, floors like this were constructed to bear enormous weights. These solid wooden floors are extremely fireproof. The outsides become charred but then the fire slows down.
At intervals throughout the building were hydraulic hoists which lifted goods to the correct level for road or rail transport, or for storage. At each floor were trap doors, now closed and braced against accidental opening. Each trap measures about 9 feet by 6 feet, and had steel rollers on all four sides which turned with the hoisting ropes, to reduce friction and wear. The hoists hung from the heavy roof beams high above.
By 1948, the Goad Fire Insurance map shows an electric travelling crane beside the railway, but this is long gone.
Besides the internal hoists, there are four columns of external warehouse hoists, now painted a wine colour. From the inside the top halves open as double doors, while the bottom halves drop down on chains to form loading platforms. Above each column of doors was a heavy pulley on a projecting arm for raising and lowering goods.
Railway access to the Interchange Basin
Below the railway level was the Interchange Basin, with vaults on either side. All the vaults were used by Gilbey’s to store wine and spirits and, wrapped round one side of the building, was the horse tunnel linking Oval Road with Stables Market.
The vaults of the bonded warehouse are immensely strong, as they had to support the weight of the trains and storage above. From below, one sees low vaults on either side where the trains ran, and higher vaults in between them where the platforms stood. Originally all this was supported on two rows of octagonal iron pillars, similar to the octagonal pillars surrounding the railway level and now built into the outside wall of Worldwide Television. At some time the rows of octagonal pillars were strengthened by extra pillars which were added between the octagonal ones, more than doubling the strength.
The Interchange Basin is 210 feet long and 44 feet wide, with a row of pillars down the centre. This gave room for three barges in length and room for one 14 foot wide barge and one 7 foot wide narrow boat, or three narrow boats, on each side of the pillars. Thus the dock could hold up to six barges and six narrow boats, or eighteen narrow boats, at any one time. In the roof of the vaults were trap doors and long, hinged wooden ramps. The trap doors were in the railway platform above, so that when the traps were opened and the ramps lowered to a barge below, the goods could be hauled direct from the barge to the station platform, ready for loading on the train.
Water Flow in the Canal
There are no locks between Uxbridge and Camden Town, a stretch of 26 miles. The water moves only when the lock gates at Camden Town are opened, so that it flows immensely slowly, but finally, after many years, all the silt and debris finishes up at Camden Town. As a result, the Interchange dock is the final resting place and has gained the name of Dead Dog Hole. On one occasion a dead body was found, old, bloated and repulsive. When a policeman from Kentish Town Police Station was called, he recoiled.
“I don’t want to handle that,” he said, and towed the body over to the opposite bank. Then he rang the Albany Street Police, who are responsible for the south bank, to reported the find.
Gilbey’s Bonded Warehouse below the Interchange Building
To the east of the Basin was Gilbey’s warehouse, now empty. Four narrow doors, each only about a metre wide, led from the Basin. These were protected with heavy iron doors which were self-closing in case of fire. The doors hung on pulleys which rolled on sloping iron runners. Each door was held open by a cable and weight, with a fusible metal link in the cable. In the event of a fire, the metal in this link would melt, allowing the door to slide down and clang shut.
The Basement of the Interchange Building and West Yard
The structure is massive, providing formidable security for the valuable wines and spirit in store and considerable security against fire. The only other access to the bonded warehouse was down a short staircase in the north-west corner and through a small door leading to the horse tunnel. This tunnel linked the different factory buildings on both sides of the canal to the bonded warehouse.
The vaulting and doors of the west side of the basin are more conventional, as they were used solely for storage.
Over the external station platform, on the east side of the building, was a handsome ridge-and-furrow iron roof which has now been removed.
The Interchange reveals Camden’s past better than any other local building. It shows that Camden Town was once a major manufacturing and transit centre, full of industry, with goods from both here and abroad on the move day and night. The railway level was lifted above the local street level on a vast subterranean world of brick arches and horse tunnels, which stretched under the Main Line, under the Canal, up to the Roundhouse and as far as Primrose Hill Goods Yard. Only Dingwall’s Yard and the present Stables Market area were at street level. The arches were used as stables, workshops, and above all for the storage of goods; fodder, potatoes and wines in bond.
All this involved tight security. Today we wander at will through the ‘catacombs’ - the mass of brick tunnels and arches containing stalls and cafes, bands and exciting gloom - but when this was a working goods yard, the public was kept out. High walls extended unbroken from the Railway Bridge over Chalk Farm Road and right up to the Roundhouse. One solitary gate was used for the multitude of carts and vans which served the yard. The Interchange Building was part of this security system. It was a fortress with strong walls, where the small-paned windows acted as safety grilles.
World Wide Television and the Nineteen Nineties.
A satellite dish and modern vans block the old warehouse doors.
The Interchange building is now, in the 1990s, occupied by World Wide Television. Walls have been built around what was the station level, to enclose it and keep it warm, but these walls have been built carefully inside the pillars, preserving them.. Thus we can imagine what the open station used to be like. The old platform buildings, in red brick, where the clerical work was done and the railwaymen brewed their tea, have been preserved. The sunken tracks on either side where the trains used to run, have been filled in level with the platforms to form the flat floor.of the reception area. The water in the wharf below can be glimpsed through the thick glass floor. The canal crane is still there, the roof still barrel-vaulted, with one of the hoist openings and its rope rollers still in place and the octagonal pillars are painted blood red. Only one pillar has been removed, that in the centre of the reception desk. The fact that it could safely be removed, apparently with no extra strengthening, suggests that the whole building is even stronger than was required. The Victorians always over-engineered, making their buildings heavier than was necessary. This is an example.