The National Canal System and the Great Freeze

About 1945, immediately after the Second World War, St Pancras Borough Council claimed that a million tons of merchandise was passing along the Regent's Canal each year. They planned to expand this. A new line of ships called the Regent Line had been established to ply from the Regent's Canal Dock, in Commercial Road, to the Continent, via Antwerp. The firm already had its own fleet of canal lighters in Europe, so goods could be carried from the Midlands to cities all over Europe. This would have affected the whole canal system dramatically.

Unfortunately this environment friendly scheme was killed off by the growth of the container ships. Goods began to be carried in large, sealed containers, lifted by huge cranes. These were too large to be lifted in the old Port of London. Thousands of dockers were made redundant and The Port of London moved down to Tilbury, where the deep-water ships could take over. Lorries could deliver direct to the ships or travel themselves to the Continent, so bypassing the canals. The Port of London began to wither.

The Great Freeze

Then, in the winter of 1962-3, came the Great Freeze. Canal boats were trapped in ice all over the country for six long weeks. Materials needed for industry - coal, steel, bricks and a thousand other things - goods which had been delivered week after week for generations - failed to arrive. Coal for the power stations, chemicals for export, boats needed to carry away the daily household and factory rubbish, all were locked in remote canals.

By the nineteen sixties canal transport was already finding it difficult to compete with road and rail, but at the end of this six weeks the canal trade was dead. Firms that had waited in vain for vital supplies, immediately transferred their custom elsewhere. It is seldom that one can pinpoint the exact time when an industry collapsed. The sacking of a medieval town could destroy its clock-making trade, but there were other clockmakers elsewhere. Most industries peter out and disappear over time. There had been canal freezes before and the canal had resumed trade when the ice melted, but this time there was a predatory road haulage industry ready to pounce. The six weeks of ice killed off canal transport all over the country.

Many boats were scuttled in a large lake in the Midlands.2   Some were adapted as trip boats, while others were bought cheaply and converted into houseboats, permanently moored along the towpath and creating new, amphibian communities, tied to the land only by their towropes and electricity cables. Canals became cleaner, emptier, more silent: places of leisure and relaxation instead of industry. Slowly lengths of towpath which had always been closed to the public for security reasons, were opened up as pedestrian walkways, free from traffic. The only interruption was from cable companies, networking the country with their cables instead of destroying the streets. As someone said, “For centuries the canals had been one horse power. When the cable firms left, they were a million horse power.”

As the canals became backwaters, developers appeared, anxious to build on these attractive sites. Soon each stretch was alive with plans.

Paddington Basin developments were planned, failed, planned anew, hesitated and finally was developed, but the process was long, and arduous. A long history of booms and busts.



  1. ‘Water Transport Facilities in St Pancras', c. 1945. Camden History Archive.
  2. Information from Eric Reynolds. See The Growth of Camden Town, by Jack Whitehead.


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Updated January 23, 2011