Subscribe      List an Event or Business      Invite a Writer      Write for WN      Writers      Other Locations

London Canal Museum

Home > London > Exhibitions | Family | Free | Fun Things To Do | Museums
by Bastion Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
Published September 4th 2013
Chugging Along on the Old Ragdoll
london canal museum, coronis
The Coronis

We're having our boiler replaced at the moment, so because the house was in disarray, and workmen were coming and going all the time, I decided to get out of the house to keep out of their way (who am I kidding, I got out the house so that they would stay out of my way).

london canal museum
London Canal Museum

For my day out I went to the London Canal Museum, which is just a few minutes walk from King's Cross tube station. When I got inside I went up to the reception desk to pay; it is 4 for adults, 3 concessions, 2 for 5-15 year olds, and free for 4s and under. The museum is made up of three levels, two of which can be accessed at any time, while the third is available by booking a tour.

Gift Shop

london canal museum, gift shop
Gift Shop

Immediately to your left when you enter there is a small gift shop. From the shop you can buy a variety of books about London canals, the history of canals, and self-guided river walks.

london canal museum, gift shop, crockery

There is also stationery, toys, children's activity sheets, and hand painted crockery typical of the designs used on canal boats.

london canal museum, gift shop
Children's Activity Sheets

History of Canals

london canal museum, lock paddles
Lock Paddles

In Roman times channels were dug to connect rivers so that grain and other materials could be transported. These channels were improved upon during the Middle Ages; they were turned into canals for transporting stone, which was used to build cathedrals and abbeys. There were obstacles to overcome, however. For example, when a boat reached shallow water, it would get beached. Mill Weirs were built to deepen the water, but this obstructed the passage. The problem was solved in 1564 when the first lock was installed on the Exeter Canal. Lock paddles were used to allow or prevent water coming through, which either raised or lowered the level of the canal.

Every time the lock was used water was lost through leakage and evaporation. Techniques were devised to save water by diverting it into reservoirs.

london canal museum, map
How canal networks grew over time.

By 1760 many of England's rivers were navigable but they were not connected; this meant that long journeys around the coast had to be made. They therefore began work on 'The Grand Cross', which connected England's four major rivers (the Trent, Mersey, Severn, and Thames). This was completed in 1790.

london canal museum, coronis
The Coronis

The main feature of the museum is The Coronis; it was an unpowered narrowboat built in 1935 used for transporting timber, metal, fruit, and grain from London to Birmingham.

london canal museum, coronis

The inside of the boat was reconstructed to show what living conditions were like. It was very cramped because most of the space was used for cargo. Ingenious ways to save space were devised, such as making the door hinged at the bottom so that it could be brought down as a table.

london canal museum, coronis

There was a bench that you could sit down on and listen to a 'radio drama' that showed what life was like for families who lived aboard. It was a bit like an episode of The Archers.

london canal museum, knotting
Can you tie a strong knot?

There are other interactive features as well. For example, you can listen to interviews, archived broadcasts, and watch a silent black and white film documentary on a television upstairs. You can even have a go at tying your own knots. Ropes were used to tie and secure boats to the bank, and attach to horses for towing.

london canal museum, horse

Horses pulled canal boats for about a hundred and fifty years. Hard surface towpaths were kept well maintained and sloped to allow for drainage. As a boat had no brakes there was a risk that the horse could fall into the canal. This happened frequently in London and ramps were provided so that horses could climb out again.

london canal museum, horse, horseshoes, anvil
Equipment for forging horseshoes.

In the eighteenth century, horses were poorly cared for, but things started to improve during the Victorian period. They were given horseshoes to protect their hooves, and three stable meals a day. If a horse got sick they would be put in what was called a 'loose box' to separate it from the other animals.

london canal museum, horse medicine
Horse Medicine and veterinary tools.

Vets would use various tools to aid in treating horses. a drenching horn allowed medicine to be slipped down a horse's throat, while twitchers would hold down its lower lip to stop it from moving while being treated.

london canal museum, engine
9HP Bolinder Engine

As horses were phased out, they initially tried steam power instead. This was not very successful because the boiler and coal took up so much room there was no space for cargo. Eventually they developed a combustion engine. Combustion engines were introduced to English canals boats in 1911 when the Cadbury company installed a Bolinder engine on two of their boats. A Bolinder was a semi-diesel engine, in which the fuel was ignited inside a hot bulb.

london canal museum, regent's canal, canal boat, narrowboat
Regent's Canal

Directly opposite the museum is Regent's Canal, which used to be an industrial hub for all the surrounding businesses. By 1921 however, there was a noticeable decline as several wharves were no longer handling goods for transportation. The canals became nationalised in 1947 but remained busy until the 1950s. In 1963 the Great Freeze froze all the rivers, making the canals impossible to use. That and the growing railway network paved a way to the end of the industry.

When Ice Came to London

london canal museum, ice wells
Ice Well

The London Canal Museum is built over an ice well. Before freezers were invented ice had to be imported into the country; ice wells were underground chambers used to store it. This ice well can be visited on certain days; there is no additional charge, but you need to book.

london canal museum, when ice came to london, exhibition

One of the men responsible for bringing ice to London was a man called Carlo Gatti (1817-1878), and until the 21st December, there is a special exhibition about him at the museum.

london canal museum, when ice came to london, exhibition carlo gatti
Gatti tells his story.

Children can have fun learning about Gatti using an interactive touch screen. 'Gatti' talks to you with lots of enthusiastic hand gestures, and replies to any of the questions pressed on the screen.

london canal museum, when ice came to london, exhibition, carlo gatti, ice dog
This ice dog used for dragging ice was found in the canal basin behind the museum.

If you prefer to read then there is a large booklet that tells you what you need to know as well. Carlo Gatti was born in Marogno, an Italian-speaking village in Switzerland. At thirteen he moved to Paris to help his father and brothers run a chestnut business, but moved to England in 1847. He started out running a coffee and waffle stall on the streets of London, and two years down the line opened up a cafe in Holborn. The business quickly grew into a chain of cafes and in 1856 started importing ice from Norway. London's first ice well was built on the site which is now the London Canal Museum.

london canal museum, when ice came to london, exhibition, carlo gatti, ice cart
Ice Cart

Gatti distributed ice all over London using yellow horse-drawn carts; they remained a familiar sight until 1940s. He also used the ice for making his own ice cream, which became very popular.

london canal museum, when ice came to london, exhibition, carlo gatti, ice cream

The earliest known form of ice cream is from China, which was a kind of iced milk. The first record of ice cream in England is from a feast at Windsor Castle in 1671, but it was so rare that only the King was allowed any. At this time, ice cream was very coarse and contained large ice crystals.

A popular way of eating ice cream was in 'penny licks'. These were reusable one-scoop glasses sold. So reusable in fact that no one bothered to wash them, and in 1920s they were banned for spreading disease.
Help us improve  Click here if you liked this article  58
Share: email  facebook  twitter
Why? Learn about canals
When: Tues-Sun: 10am-4.30pm
Phone: 020 7713 0836
Where: King's Cross
Cost: 4 adult, 3 concessions, 2 children
Your Comment
Wow! London has a museum for everything!
by Dave Walsh (score: 4|11309) 3164 days ago
Articles from other cities
Top Events
Popular Articles