Surrey Canal – south-east London’s great lost chance?
Reading about plans for redeveloping the area around Millwall’s New Den got me pondering about what might have been. The proposals for Surrey Canal – apparently in somewhere called “North Lewisham” – promise a “a regional and local centre for sporting excellence”, with 2,700 new homes and a “sports village” together with a revamp of the Lions’ tatty ground.
In part, it’s a second attempt to make a decent job of something that didn’t work in the 1990s. When Millwall moved from their infamous old Den in 1993, the then-New London Stadium was due to be a multi-purpose arena. But its isolated location stunted its growth, and it’s rarely staged much else beyond Millwall home games – which in themselves haven’t been much of a draw in recent years. But with the club promoted to the second division at the end of last season and it finally enjoying stable ownership, it can look to the future with a bit of confidence. Which is more than can be said for south-east London’s other club, sadly.
So with Millwall doing well, plans to invest in the local area and the possibility of a new rail station on the final phase of the east London line, things are looking up in the badlands. But it could have been all so, so different around here.
Around the back of the New Den is Surrey Canal Road. The clue’s in the name. There used to be a canal here. The Grand Surrey Canal ran from Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe and passed through Deptford and the rear of New Cross before winding its way towards Peckham, Walworth and Camberwell. It seems amazing now to think that the last ships passed along the Surrey Canal as recently as 1970, but plenty remains. At the northern end, the biggest clues are the swooping bridge taking Oxestalls Road into Deptford’s Pepys Estate, which was built around the canal during the 1960s. The canal’s route is obvious, and you can see how the Pepys would have been seen as somewhere decent to live on a 60s planner’s drawing board.
The “Victoria Wharf” bridge at the Evelyn Street/ Blackhorse Road junction is another remnant – the black and white photo at the top of this page is of an old gasworks which used to be there. Surrey Canal Road itself was built by Lewisham Council on the canal bed in the 1980s, and you can still see mooring rings along the footpath – the old towpath.
Another old canal bridge was a major feature on the Old Kent Road (right) until the early 1990s – the junction with Peckham Park Road, by the North Peckham Civic Centre, is still called Canal Bridge. Canal-side cottages remain in a private close just off the Old Kent Road – now hidden from view (almost literally) by the big retail barns which appeared there after the canal bridge was destroyed.
Further south, into Peckham, bridges remain as decorative features. A branch ended just before where the award-winning Peckham Library is now. The edges of the canal are still there, and, amazingly, a canal-era timber wharf remains behind the library, complete with loading bays and wood stacked up outside.
I walked along this stretch last week, and it’s difficult to think of Peckham as a waterside town. But with the work that’s gone into rengerating this corner of Peckham (and the North Peckham estate, with a tragic history of its own) it’s tempting to wonder what might have been. There’s a shop unit opposite the library square which looks like it could just be a boatyard…
The canal’s fortunes declined after the Second World War, and parts of it were drained during the 1960s because of concerns about children falling into its by now little-used waters. The wharves around Evelyn Street were the last to see boats, but by the mid-1970s the canal had been filled in. A 1971 newspaper story reprinted by the excellent London Canals website portrays the difference between the dying Grand Surrey Canal and its north London counterpart, the Grand Union Canal – which had already become the leafy attraction which it still is today. Sadly, which newspaper the story comes from is not recorded.
[Southwark Council planning chair] Councillor Charles Halford argues that “it would have been expensive to provide access to the canal and clean the water. And with such a long stretch, there would have been obvious dangers for children.
The Port of London Authority is equally bland. “We have all along been interested in getting the best possible value for the sites,” said a spokesman. “We did point out to the council the difficulties involved in retaining the water.”
Just let them try that sort of statement on the residents of Maida Vale or Primrose Hill. Lay a finger on the Grand Union Canal, and letters signed by lords sprout from the columns of The Times.
Down south of the river, however, they apparently order matters differently.
So the canal died, and was gradually filled in with industrial land. Following the Surrey Canal isn’t a particularly pleasant stroll. Some of London’s hidden industries are housed in this stretch – sweltering hot industrial dry-cleaning plants and recycling yards dominate the line of the canal from Ilderton Road, for instance. But once you join the dots of what was there – Greenwich line rail commuters can see the line of the canal in the strip of yards immediately before the train passes Deptford Park – a picture of an alternative south east London emerges, promoting the question – what would have happened if the canal stayed?
It’s almost certain that what we now call “Docklands” would stretch deeper into south London – it may well have been that the London Docklands Development Corporation‘s remit could have stretched down to the Old Kent Road and beyond. The LDDC took on planning powers from the boroughs and forced through developments which have changed the face of the riverside.
Maybe Peckham would have been reoriented around the canal, while the stretch from the Old Kent Road handed to small businesses, perhaps more office-based industries than the “dirty” work which takes place down there now. It’s worth remembering the first Isle of Dogs developments were small units near Crossharbour station, or businesses using old warehouses at cheap rates – Spitting Image was made on Canary Wharf before the piledrivers arrived, for example.
With those workers would have come housing and transport demands – maybe the pressures seen in BBC1’s documentary The Tower, when part of the Pepys estate was sold to the private sector to fund its redevelopment, may have come around 20 years earlier. Perhaps it would have kick-started the revamp of the old East London Tube line a couple of decades earlier. Senegal Fields would probably still be housing a small park instead of Millwall’s ground. An incinerator wouldn’t have been so welcome there, either.
All this is wild speculation, of course. The area could have been left rotting around an increasingly smelly canal which only ever saw industrial traffic anyway. But even without the great push of being the Docklands, the Grand Union Canal around Brentford is now thriving, and the Regent’s Canal through Hoxton, Islington and King’s Cross is home to homes, businesses, bars and cafes.
The scene above is the rail bridge into Haggerston station from the Kingsland Road, but who knows, it could just as easily been Deptford or New Cross if things had turned out differently.
If you want to find more about how it was, the brilliant London Canals site has more, including details of the short-lived Croydon Canal, which explains why some of Brockley’s streets are a little oddly-laid out.
(Thanks to Mary Mills for supplying the archive photos of the Grand Surrey Canal.)