The Grand Junction Canal

London's Long-distance Link


The Grand Junction was the London's principal link with the rest of the UK's canal system. Although the somewhat circuitous route to Birmingham via the river Thames and the Oxford Canal came first, it was the Grand Junction Canal which really provided the transport infrastructure to bring goods from the industrial conurbations of the north and midlands to the capital. The Act of Parliament to authorise its construction was passed in 1793 and work started in the same year. The famous canal engineer William Jessop played a superintendent role as Chief Engineer, with James Barnes as the engineer responsible for most of the construction work. The Company's chairman was William Praed whose name is commemorated by the street named after him outside Paddington Station.

Hanwell locks seen from above, a lock with others in the distance

The canal opened from Braunston to Weedon on 21st June 1796, and a few weeks later it was extended as far south as Blisworth, where a long tunnel was under construction. Blisworth Tunnel and an embankment at Wolverton were not finished until March and August 1805 when the Grand Junction was opened as a through route for the first time. In the meantime goods had to bypass Blisworth Tunnel on a temporary railway, and at Wolverton a diversion via the river Ouse was required.

The initial plan was to link Braunston in Northamptonshire (where there were other canal connections to Birmingham and the north) with the river Thames at Brentford. This would have served central London only via the river - a long way around. In 1794, long before the main line was complete, the company had the idea of a branch or "arm" from Bull's Bridge in west London to Paddington. Paddington was much closer to the heart of the capital and was served by the "New Road" connecting it with the City. Parliamentary powers were quickly sought for this extension and the process of buying land and negotiating with difficult landowners began. The Bishop of London proved especially difficult to deal with. The Paddington Arm opened on 10th July 1801, terminating in a 400 yard long basin, 30 yards wide, around which were wharves, a hay and straw market, sheds for warehousing, and pens for livestock. The Paddington Arm was a success and Paddington was soon a busy inland transhipment point, with goods being carried on to other parts of London on carts.

There was also a passenger boat service between Paddington and Uxbridge, the Paddington Packet Boat. Initially run by the company itself, with some success, the passenger boat service was let out, initially to a Henry Weeks, using wide beamed boats. After six months trial it was decided to switch to narrow beamed boats to solve problems of scouring, i.e. damage to the canal. The contract was let to Thomas Homer - who was later to instigate the Regent's Canal - for two years in 1802 at a charge of £750 per year for what we would today call a franchise. The packet boat crews were noted for their smart crews wearing blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons. The Paddington packet seems to have been a well used passenger service which continued for a number of years.

print of the Paddington Arm, 1820 showing a toll office

The Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal, 1820, by unknown artist.

Throughout its commercial life the Grand Junction was a busy route, although the struggle of competition with the railways was a constant problem from the mid 19th Century onwards. In the 1920s discussions took place between the Grand Junction, Regent's and Warwick Canal companies with a view to a merger. An Act of Parliament was required to authorise this, passed in 1928, with the merger taking place on 1st January 1929. The Regent's Canal Company bought the other two companies, paying £801,442 2s 7d (£801,442.13) for the Grand Junction Canal Company.

In the 1930s the new company, now called the Grand Union Canal Company, worked hard to modernise both the canal and the boats operating on it. Locks were extensively rebuilt to take wide beamed barges, particularly on the Warwick Canal which had previously been for narrowboats only. There was financial support from the government for this work, which helped to relieve unemployment in the great depression of the 1930s. The company had a wide beamed motor barge built, the Progress, as an experiment with the intention of achieving greater efficiency to compete with railways and the growing alternative of road transport. They also tried out new designs of motor narrowboats which could pull an unpowered "butty". The Progress was not a success but the new designs of narrowboat were, and a large fleet was built for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, a subsidiary of the Grand Union Canal Company. One of these was Coronis, now in the London Canal Museum

Paddington Basin, 27-2-2000, drained with people walking in it.
Paddington Basin, London terminus of the Paddington Arm, dewatered for a major redevelopment in 1999

Nationalised along with other canals in 1948, the Grand Junction route was one of the last in Britain to keep commercial traffic alive, albeit in steep decline through the 1950s when road transport developed considerably. It has always remained open to traffic and is now well used by leisure craft.