The use of waterways for transport, whether artificial or natural, has been in existence for many years – indeed centuries, The Romans were adept at creating aqueducts to enable precious water to be moved across valleys and low-lying ground, and the remains of them built to supply drinking water still exist in Italy. Rivers have of course long been seen as an extension of the sea for ships and small boats, and extending their navigable length was popular over a long period, mainly by dredging and maintaining a suitable depth. There was, however, a major obstacle in that until steam power was harnessed mills had to rely on a constant supply of water to maintain their millponds and turn their waterwheels. This involved the construction of weirs or dams which prevented the use of some rivers (certainly the upper reaches) for transport. The invention of the pound lock made it possible to combine both uses, and also enabled navigable use of rivers, some of them quite small, to be extended. The limitations imposed on the transport of goods by packhorse and wagon on bad roads, however, continued to impede the growth of industry and the situation was dramatically changed by two men – one the Duke of Bridgewater who owned coal mines at Worsley and had to transport his coal expensively to Manchester, and the other a millwright called Joseph Brindley.
It so happened that the stretch of country between Worsley and Manchester was fairly level, so the idea developed of an artificial waterway between the two locations for coal to be transported by boat. The Duke’s enthusiasm coupled with Brindley’s knowledge of the techniques of water use and its behaviour resulted in the still-existing Bridgewater Canal built in 1761. It was such a success commercially that it led to the canal mania, and the country was (and still is) criss-crossed with canals with extensive use of pound locks to raise and lower boat traffic to follow the contours of the land. The canal mania of course fuelled the Industrial Revolution, at least until the advent of steam locomotion and the growth of railways.
Fortunately, because canals and land acquisition had to be authorised by Acts of Parliament, and railways had to follow the same procedure, the two modes of tranport clashed legally, and canals had to be maintained alongside the railways on many routes! Many were abandoned and fell into dereliction but some survived for many years. Unfortunately the Croydon Canal had only a relatively short life, and was replaced along almost all its route by a railway. It was proposed originally that a canal should be built from the Thames at Surrey Docks to Portsmouth, passing through Croydon en route, but this proved to be too ambitious and the Croydon part of the route had to finish in a basin where West Croydon Station now exists. From the basin a horse-drawn iron railway took goods further into Surrey.
The Croydon Canal (or more accurately, the South Norwood Canal!) entered South Norwood across Penge Road and King’s Road, but had to take a wide sweep to the South to avoid the rising ground at the present Goat House Bridge (the Goat House is of course, now sadly replaced by unattractive flats). The land within this loop of the route of the canal became known as Frog Island, but the Victorians living there did not like it and chose instead to call it Sunnybank.
The canal then followed the fairly straight route also followed by its replacement railway and crossed Portland Road by a swing-bridge, later a level-crossing for the railway, and finally a bridge over a lowered road. There were wharves at the back of the High Street, and the public house called The Ship reminds us of its earlier history. It is said that there is a ring-bolt at the end of the site used for mooring, but until someone sees it we have to treat it as a romantic notion! The Jolly Sailor is another reminder of South Norwood’s contribution to the canal mania of the time.
The straight route to West Croydon under Spurgeon’s Bridge had however to overcome a serious problem. As mentioned earlier, mill-owners had a lot to say about their need for an uninterrupted water supply, and the canal had to cross the River Graveney (also known as Norbury Brook) at Selhurst. Although the Canal Company had built a reservoir for the canal at what is now known as South Norwood Lake the canal could not avoid taking water from the Graveney, which in turn fed the Wandle and its mills. The solution – an expensive one – was to raise the canal by means of a lock on one side of the Graveney and lower it on the other with another lock, the whole arrangement being made possible by a steam pumping engine located nearby. Needless to say, the engine had to be manned and steam kept up at all times, It is ironic that since then, and in recent times, a flood meadow has had to be provided to take the excess water from the now-culverted Graveney. It is however also a public open space and a pleasant walk through to Tennison Road for those who do not mind the noise of train diesel engines and shunting noises. From then on of course the South Norwood Recreation Ground continues the walk into Cargreen Road or Selhurst Road.
Nationally canals are being restored, and even extended, for leisure use, but they have no commercial future against competition from road and rail transport. There is unfortunately no scope for the Croydon Canal to be restored, and the only traces of it are comprehensively listed and illustrated in the Living History publication by Environment Bromley, who have kindly allowed this article to reproduce maps from it relating to the South Norwood section. Bromley Council has however preserved s small section of the canal in Betts Park. There are many voluntary bodies involved in getting-disused canals restored, and those nearest to Croydon are the Kennet and Avon Canal from Reading to Bristol (now in use,), the Basingstoke Canal (now open but not at present extended to Basingstoke), and probably the most ambitious project of all, the Wey and Arun Canal from Guildford to the River Arun. The last was sold off many years ago to private owners, but many of them are co-operating with restoration by a very active Canal Trust. A trip to the Onslow Arms at Loxwood is recommended for those with interest – it is also a pleasant place to park, walk and picnic!
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