James Morgan

Engineer of the Regent's Canal


James Morgan was not the most famous of canal engineers. Little is known about his long life in the shadow of more famous men. No painting or drawing of Morgan is thought to have survived. The major work of his life was the Regent's Canal, and the greatest engineering feature of the Canal is Islington Tunnel, designed and built by Morgan, and completed in 1818. The Tunnel is still in use and has had few maintenance problems over the years- a testament to Morgan's work.

Early Life

Morgan was baptised on 9 March 1774 at St Martin in the Fields, London. His parents were Richard and Elizabeth Morgan. This couple was probably the Richard Morgan and Elizabeth Goodall who were married by Banns on 6 May 1773. All that is known about them is that they could both sign their names. Living in London with literate parents was not the worst start in life for an 18th century boy, but of James Morgan's childhood and education we know nothing.

His great opportunity came when, in his early twenties, Morgan was employed in Carmarthen, Wales, as an assistant to the architect John Nash who was at that time in practice in the town. How Morgan came to be there is a matter for conjecture. His Welsh surname suggests that he may well have had relatives in the area. Indeed, John Nash himself had a sister, Ann, who lived in Wales and had married a John Morgan, but the name is too common to assume that employer and employee were related. Morgan and Nash remained close associates for over forty years.


On 22 August 1806 John Nash and James Morgan were appointed Architects to the Department of Woods and Forests, a Government Ministry. Nash was undoubtedly the senior of the two and his annual salary of 200 was also to cover Morgan's salary. A boring job it may have been, but Nash almost certainly foresaw the greater things to which it might lead. By 1811 at the latest, the two men had returned to London.

In 1822 a lease on part of the Crown Estate, Marylebone Farm, was due to expire. The land would become available for the Crown to develop. The Commissioner of Woods and Forests had their architects draw up a plan for the future which Nash produced in 1811. It was a bold plan for a new park for gracious living for London's elite, and a major redesign of part of central London to accommodate a route from the park to Westminster. The story of Regent's Park, as this project became, belongs elsewhere, but it is worth noting that whilst the credit for it rightly belongs to Nash, it was Morgan who supervised the work of planting, road making, and laying out the park, including the lake, under Nash's direction.

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The Regent's Canal

An arched bridge in a cutting with trees surrounding
Macclesfield Bridge, designed by Morgan

In 1811 Thomas Homer, who was promoting the idea of a "London Canal ", made contact with John Nash. Nash and Morgan reviewed the route proposed by Homer and Nash soon became a driving force for the canal. Nash had by this time become an associate of the Prince Regent who, from 1811 to 1830, exercised the Monarch's functions during the insanity of King George III. Morgan was responsible for drafting the plans for the canal, which, by consent of the Prince, became known as the Regent's Canal. Morgan's plan of September 1812 was the basis of the Regent's Canal Bill which was, after a stormy passage through Parliament, passed in July 1812. Nash was a large shareholder in the canal company and his influence undoubtedly led to the appointment of Morgan as the company's Engineer, even though the latter had no experience of canal building. Morgan's salary was now 1000 per year.

The building of the canal was not without its share of troubles. Morgan wisely built Maida Hill Tunnel before tackling the much longer Islington Tunnel. He only had the latter task because a competition for the tunnel's design resulted in no useful entries being received. To his credit, Morgan rose to the challenge of a work far greater than he was qualified to carry out. Maida Hill Tunnel had been beset with delay and an unexpected problem with a spring of water. Several workmen had lost their lives in its construction.

Another crisis was caused by the hydro-pneumatic lock installed at Hampstead Road. The inventor was William Congreve, famous as the father of rocketry and an equerry to the Prince Regent. Morgan recommended the lock and is blamed for a costly failure. However we must remember that the Board of Directors endorsed the view and it seems certain that Nash knew Congreve personally. They worked together on the celebrations of George I's Centenary and of the Treaty of Paris which ended years of war with the French. Congreve was a highly respected figure and it may not be fair, therefore, to blame Morgan for the decision to build the lock.

In 1815 a landowner and KC, William Agar, issued a writ against Morgan and others as part of a long-running legal battle which Agar had waged against the canal. In June a jury found against him and awarded damages to Agar of 500. This could not have come at a worse time for the Regent's Canal Company, as the previous month its respected secretary Thomas Homer (see separate article )had been sent to debtor's prison for embezzling an unknown- and hence irretrievable - amount of the Company's funds.

Drawing of men in tunnel moving spoil in small trucks
Building Islington Tunnel

The building of Islington Tunnel dominated Morgan's life from around that time until it was completed in 1818. Three quarters of a mile long, it was built with explosives and wheelbarrows and horses and manual labour. In 1818 the eminent engineer Thomas Telford was asked to report on the tunnel. He reported: "materials and workmanship excellent, and its direction perfectly straight". The opening of the canal on 1 August 1820 was perhaps Morgan's finest hour as he travelled on the leading barge of a grand procession from St Pancras to the Thames. Morgan remained Engineer to the Regent's Canal until 1835. In that year a proposal was floated to increase the reservoir of water available to the canal by widening and deepening the highest part of the canal through Regent's Park. The Committee failed to consult their Engineer who unsurprisingly was greatly offended. He retired. Little is heard of Morgan after this, but he lived on for another twenty years.

Other Work

Engineers in the early 19th Century were not employed exclusively by a single company as might be expected today, but were more like permanent consultants, working from home at least some of the time and having the freedom to undertake other work if they do wished.

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Navigation in Kent

The River Stour in Kent had long been a navigation in need of improvements when a committee was formed in 1824 to bring together various interests to bring about improvements. They appointed James Morgan to carry out a survey and write a report. Morgan proposed an ambitious scheme involving sections of new canal and improvements so that 100 ton barges could reach Canterbury. The Committee must have been impressed for they appointed Morgan as Chief Engineer. The Commissioners of Sewers raised concerns about the drainage aspects of the plan and once again we find Thomas Telford being called in to give a second opinion on Morgan's work. Once again Telford supported Morgan and endorsed the plan. In 1825 Canterbury saw celebrations, as an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the work to go ahead. Unfortunately however the tenders for the work were more than had been expected- a familiar story. A number of London based shareholders refused to support the scheme. They doubtless had in mind proposals for a new railway to Canterbury which would have competed with the navigation. In 1827 a general meeting of the company which had been formed to build the navigation decided to postpone the work, which was never resurrected.

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The Diorama

The diorama was opened in 1823 next to Regent's Park in a building designed by A. C. Pugin (1762-1832) under the direction of John Nash as regards the facade. The diorama design was by John Arrowsmith and the diorama itself, the paintings etc., were by Daguerre and Bouton who had set up a successful diorama in Paris. An audience of up to 360 people sat in an auditorium which could be rotated about 73 degrees to turn the whole audience towards different openings in a screen in turn. This mechanism was Morgan's work and was most probably designed by him with reference to the previous French example. Through the openings they had a view of transparent painted panels illuminated with natural light deflected to create entertaining illusions. Arrowsmith's copyright sums it up:

An improved mode of exhibiting pictures on painted scenery of every description, and of distributing or directing the daylight upon or through them so as to produce many effects of light and shade, which I denominate a "Diorama'". John Arrowsmith, Patent No. 4899, 10 February 1824.

A contemporary description makes favourable reference to Morgan's mechanism:

These pictures, or scenes, are viewed from a very elegant circular theatre, with pit, boxes and passages, through an opening, decorated by a proscenium. While the opening in the theatre is before one picture, the whole body of the audience part is slowly moved round by some admirable machinery below, and the spectators, seats, attendants and all, are moved imperceptibly round, from the Mary Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral to the lake of Lausanne, or from the city of Rouen in France, to the interior of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The elevation next Park Square is from the designs of Mr Nash, and the interior of the theatre from those of Mr Morgan and M. Pugin. James Elmes, 1829.

The diorama lasted until 1848 when it was sold and became a Baptist chapel. Though artistically successful, it had not been a great success commercially.

Link to large plan of diorama in pop-up window
Large pop-up plan of the diorama

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Churches and more

Blue plaque reading: Wolverhampton Civic Society - Sainsburys. ST. GEORGE A Commissioners' Church Built 1828-1830 ARCHITECT JAMES MORGAN

St. George's Church, Wolverhapton

The Church Building Act 1818 provided a substantial amount of public money for the building of new Church of England churches. The Industrial Revolution was well under way and the changing distribution of population in the UK meant that there was a need for new churches in the growth areas. In addition, the country was anxious about revolutionary ideas from across the channel in France. The church-building programme was about saving souls, thanking God for the country's deliverance from the war with Napoleon Bonaparte, and fostering religion rather than revolution. The new churches were known as "Commissioners' Churches".

We do not know how many churches Morgan was involved in building. John Nash certainly built a few and it would seem likely that Morgan might have seized the opportunity to earn some fees from the extra building work on offer from the Commissioners. He is believed to have been responsible for St. George's Church, Wolverhampton (pictured), completed in 1830. In 1827 we find him in Leamington helping Nash with a terrace of houses. In 1830 he undertook alterations for Bushbury Church, Wolverhampton.

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Final Years

After his resignation from the Regent's Canal Company in 1835 we hear nothing more of Morgan as a public figure. However, a picture of Morgan the private man is emerging, and it seems a rather attractive one. According to the 1851 census, he and his wife Margaret were living at an address in Fulham Road. The household seems to have a modest one, with just one servant. They were not, however, badly off, as Morgan owned other properties, including some In Suffolk which his marriage to Margaret, who was from Newmarket, has brought him.

James Morgan died on 18 February 1856, at the age of 82: a fine age, but not an extraordinary one. In general, the majority of early deaths were still those of infants: if one made it through childhood, there was a fair chance of seeing one's children become adults. James and Margaret, who had predeceased him by a year, had no children: instead, they were a generous uncle and aunt, and many of their collateral descendants bore the middle name of Morgan.

Morgan's will leaves everything to his nephew William James Browne, who was a surveyor for the Commission for Woods and Forests (Nash's and Morgan's old employers!) in Paddington, and to his niece Jane Matilda Scott, as well as to Margaret's niece Isabella. The first two were the children of Morgan's sister Hannah, and William (1802-1869) is buried in the same grave as his uncle and aunt. Each produced many descendants, and the Museum would very much like to hear from them.

The grave is a simple one, in Brompton Cemetery, not far from where the Morgans lived. James's death certificate gives his occupation as "retired architect". The gravestone is only partly legible today. It is to be hoped that it can be rescued from total obliteration. His short obituary in the Evening Standard mentions his personal qualities, including his "almost universal beneficence" but not his professional achievements.

Morgan's Place in History

James Morgan's Grave. Headstone and overgrown plot.
Morgan's Grave, in
London's Brompton Cemetery.

John Summerson, biographer of Nash, says, introducing Morgan:

"Never for an instant does Morgan emerge as a personality, but he is always there. He is the backroom partner, the alter ego, the deputy, the agent, the man of straw, whichever character the master needs at the moment. His usefulness is inexhaustible and we shall meet him constantly though never face to face"

Morgan does not seem to have made much of a name for himself in his day but his works have stood the test of time. Whilst Nash, great man as he was, probably made The Regent's Canal happen, Morgan actually built it and his engineering works remain his monument.

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Further Reading

Wolverhampton History & Heritage website - St. George's Church (Thanks to them for use of images)

Midley History of Photography - Dereck Wood's excellent collection of material including Diorama history