Ted Harrison (above) observed: ‘the bargeman was like the bus conductor who’s responsible for the bus. The tiller man was responsible for the barge. The driver was responsible for the engine, the horse. He used to have a whip, but I never saw him hit the horse. It was for signalling at bridges and locks. There might be three cracks for upstream and two cracks for down. Then the lock keeper would have that lock ready for him. They was rough, used to swear at us kids a lot, but we deserved it. We used to lead them a dog’s life.’
Jim Marshall recalls: ‘big Shire horses were a sight to behold.’ Fran remembers: ‘bigguns, with big fluffy white feet.’ Fred Rooke watched: ‘them horses just used to plod along pulling that massive barge. The men walked 10 to 20 yards in front of the horses, not holding them, and the horses just used to follow.’ Albert Churchwood rode the horse: ‘if the gang keepers let me. All the horses had long hair, grab it and pull yourself up.’
Celeste Chapman (right) lived in Noel Road: ‘the man used to drag the barges to Danbury Street, then come up. Some of these gypsy people pulled things as well. We called them gypsies because they lived on the boats, rode side saddle with horse food on the back.’ By Islington Tunnel in 1953, an irate woman complained to canal policeman Waters about cruelty to a horse pulling a barge containing 75 tons of goods. To placate her, the good sergeant took off his tunic and pulled the barge himself for several yards. Carol Noble remembered: ‘in Copenhagen Street, people used to go down the canal to collect the horse droppings for their gardens.’
Hazel White remembered by the end of the 1950s: ‘the men had small tractors with a rope attached. They were quite nippy.’ Tony Byfield drove canal tractors: ‘I used to get Simoniz polish, Brasso, to keep that tractor absolutely pristine. We all had our own and we loved them to bits. You kept your rope clean, it was a matter of pride, it was your livelihood.’ John Rowlinson, attending Hanover School heard: ‘the distinct sound of the tractors – tick, tick, tick - coming up to Andersons.’
Hazel White was married to the Regent’s Canal foreman, John White: ‘the men worked hard. You’d get stuff coming into the docks, loaded onto big barges, towed up there, left at the wharf. It was busy with commercial trade. You’ve got Heinz’s stuff coming up and down. You’ve got timber. You’ve got copper.’
John White (below) at City Road lock on his British Waterways motorbike, which enabled him to cover the canal. Notice the blue colour of British Transport Waterways — the same as the museum's tractor. This is the only known photo of a BTW motor-cycle!
Below: Pitch and toss. Illegal gambling on the secluded canal towpath.
Albert Churchwood’s gang swam through the tunnel: ‘No lights in there. We’d be naked, there was no one about. If a boat come through, we’d cling to the side, so got a free ride.’ Ernie Philips: ‘used to watch them jump off the big pipe. I walked across. Dangerous, all them bikes and prams underneath.’
Albert Churchwood caught carp, tench, roach, bream, chub, pike, stickleback, gudgeon and eels during a lifetime of fishing on the Cut. Whenever he went to his favourite spot by the gasworks: ‘a swan used to zoom straight over, jet propelled and pull me jumper for the sweetcorn.’ Anna Perkins remembered: ‘Carnegie Street’s where dad would bring us with bamboo rods with a little net he'd buy from the oil shop on Pentonville Road. It was a big palaver with sandwiches. Would you believe it, it's five minutes from your house, it was like a day out.’ Fred Rooke went ‘dragging’: ‘we got an old bicycle wheel, knock out all the spokes, cover the wheel with canvas and then cut three strings up and a long string, drop it into the water, then pull it up and we would get fish.’ In his lunch breaks at Negretti and Zambra, Bill Morand grabbed the company fire bucket to fill with fish he caught ‘roach bashing on the Cut’. John Rowlinson said: ‘wherever you go on the canal – there’s stories about pike.’
In the 1940s, the Medical Officer of Health called the Regent's Canal: ‘the local children's lido’ and the British Transport Commission Police reported: ‘the most common crimes the Cut Runner has to deal with are thieving and smuggling, but among special problems is that of canal bathers.’
Carol Noble said: ‘it was like a little adventure playground. We used to knock out the bricks to get a foothold down the wall. We swam from this side to that of Battlebridge Basin. We all done it, some kids learnt to swim down there. Someone would shout, get me a plank of wood, oh yeah all right. We used to nick the rope off the barges for skipping and when we finished, we took ‘em back - where would you keep it?’ Anna Perkins remembered: ‘things were left in the factories - parts or tools. My brother found a long heavy chain and they thought they'd found treasure, they were over the moon. The boys would choose a place for a den and get old chairs from the factories and sit there.’
Fred Rooke (above) recalled: ‘I keep saying canal, but it’s not a word we used when we was kids, we only knew it as the Cut.
Jim Marshall found: ‘Going on the canal is the fastest way to slow down.’ Anna Perkins recalled: ‘Dad used to feel if the sun was shining, you should be out. My dad had a bit of a nervous disposition. When things got too much, he’d just go and sit on the capstan there. We weren't that well-off, there was four children, Mum and Dad and Mum’s grandmother, all in a two bedroom flat. So on a lovely sunny day, it was a nice escape. You can lose yourself, come round a bend and there’s nothing but trees.’
Celeste Chapman saw: ‘barges go by, most of it coal, didn’t go much further, turned in the Basin.’ Timber and building materials were other common loads in Islington, but little was not carried by canal. Albert Churchwood remembered: ‘clothes, sheep, seen tanks going down the canal on a flat boat.’ Anna Perkins remembered: ‘some barges had stuff with the tarpaulin over them, they were just fit for carrying and nothing else, a working barge.’
Kathy Hawkins (right) noticed: ‘one boat had a load of fruit and veg. I waved and said ‘looks fresh’ and the man said ‘they are fresh, my love, here y’are, catch’ and gave me four juicy apples.’
Fred Heil recalled: ‘we couldn’t go fishing because this bloke kept walking up and down. We used to just play, having a look inside the barges to see if there was anything to nick. They couldn’t catch us, we just jumped into the water and that was it.’ Fred Rooke remembered the policeman on a bike patrolling the towpath: ‘we knew him as Long Tom. When he came onto the canal from Caledonian Road Bridge, we could see him and had time to go over the wall and get away. But even if he caught us, I’m sure he wouldn’t have done anything, because there’s no point in prosecuting or fining us because nobody had no money anyway. I was sitting on the wall watching the men play pitch and toss to win money, and the police came down. One of the men grabbed hold of a little boy, clumped him round the head and the policeman said ‘you’d better take him up quick mate or you’ll get arrested like these.’ He took the little boy away and gave him sixpence.’
There were other hazards. A 1920s inspection found: ‘red dye discharged into City Road Basin leaving the water in the vicinity markedly discoloured.’ In a neighbouring Dust Wharf, ‘the road slop is brought here and deposited till the greater portion has drained away into the canal, the solid residue is then removed by barge.’ Fred Hill said: ‘We never had a bath in our house, we had a tin bath once every week. We didn’t care about the state of the water, it was just water.’
Carol Noble said: ‘it sounds crude, but we used to go down to Crinan Street on our skates where the prostitutes used to take their clients. It was pitch black, We’d shout ‘tell your wife what you're up to’, didn’t know them from Adam.’ Steve Havens remembered: ‘as a kid, I spent a lot of time around the canal, you name it, we probably got up to it. I got chased down there and thought, this canal goes all round the country, how far do I have to run? Talking to a woman about the canal, she said ‘it’s full of bullets and babies’. During the war, women were having abortions, they weren’t allowed to, so it was all dumped in the canal. I’ve had a great time down the canal but there were a lot of sad things.’
The Regent’s Canal had its own police, the “cut runners”. This rare photo probably shows the whole force in the 1920s. Notice the medals. Most would have been recruited from the army. The Inspector’s cap badge is the Prince of Wales Feathers, the emblem of the canal since 1820.