Today (March 5) in London History – the Grosvenor Canal

London’s shortest canal – the Grosvenor Canal – opened on this day, March 5th, in 1825. This Today in London History episode tells the story.


The Today in London hors d’oeuvre is: why not try a canal walk one of these days? Click on the Unusual Walks thumbnail on the homepage – or on the Canal Walks thumbnail.

Ok, here we go. Today in London History. 

The geological record can be read in the rock. Same goes for London’s streets. They can be read in very much the same way. Just like the geological record is discernible in the strata of rocks London’s past leaves its trace in and under its streets and buildings. 

Traces that tell us about what went on in any given London locale – the ebbs and flows of our town’s social and economic history and technological developments and environmental history and so on.

A fine example, an old canal lock. And a swing bridge and a boom and lock gear and a canal arch and the Western Pumping station and, today, what they call a water feature.

Down Victoria and Pimlico and Chelsea Way.

I’m talking about the remnants of the Grosvenor Canal, the last commercial canal to operate in London. And for the record, the shortest canal ever scored through London ground. In the end, it was only 550 yards long – less than the distance from Trafalgar Square to Parliament. Only yesterday – well, 25 years ago – garbage barges – highly visible they were – they had bright yellow superstructures – those ugly yellow ducklings would be towed from the Grosvenor down the Thames and out to sea, where the garbage would be dumped. 

I for one would like to know what happens to it now. Mental note: ask Roger and his team of canal walks guides. 

The Grosvenor Canal is with us today, here in the Today in London History London Walks podcast because today’s its birthday. It was opened on March 5th, 1825.

Complicated history, though. Its history actually goes back exactly a century earlier. Back to the Chelsea Waterworks Company, which was incorporated “for the better supplying the City and Liberties of Westminster and parts adjacent with water.” The waterworks it created supplied reservoirs in Hyde Park and Green Park. Indeed, the Chelsea Waterworks Company supplied water to Kensington Palace. But in due course it was a case of bottles of water to barges on the water. You can probably guess the reason why. But I’ll save you the trouble of guessing. Let’s hear it from Sir Francis Burdett. Here, word for word, is the petition he submitted to the House of Commons in 1827. “The water taken from the River Thames at Chelsea for the use of the inhabitants of the western part of the metropolis, being charged with the contents sof the great common sewers, the drainings from dunghills, and laystalls, the refuse of hospitals, slaughterhouses, colour, lead and soap works drug mills and manufactories, and with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substances rendering the said water offensive and destructive to health, ought no longer to be taken up by any of the water companies from so foul a source.”

Hear hear. And so, sure, the waters were repurposed. Became a canal. Its banks played host to various and sundry commercial concerns. Notably Cubbitt’s Building Yard. That’d be Thomas Cubitt who built  Belgravia. Eminently practical – a two birds with one stone man – Cubbit was building docks down the Thames at the same time. He dredged the ground down there. Shipped the contents of the dredging operations up the Thames to the Grosvenor Canal and then up the Grosvenor Canal and used it as fill for the so-called Five Fields so he had a decent base for the foundations of those handsome Belgravia mansions. Before that, the five fields were a swamp, more suitable for marsh birds than human beings. So the next time you’re walking through Belgravia and feasting your eyes on those magnificent stuccoed houses you can do with the satisfaction that your mental map of that part of London is now a little bit more complete than it was before – you now know that a London canal you’d never heard of – the Grosvenor Canal – was a linchpin in the operation that built Belgravia.

It’s always very satisfying that, going to a well-known place in London and knowing something about that most people don’t know. 

You can do that with the Eastern End of the Grosvenor Canal. Victoria Station now covers what was much of the eastern terminus of the canal.

But with the exception of  Sir Francis Burdette and Thomas Cubitt, we haven’t peopled this podcast. I propose to do that here.

It’s someone no one has heard of in over a hundred years. Someone known but to his family and friends and his unit. It’s just so moving, this story. I stumbled on it when I cast my net over the ocean of British newsprint looking for articles about the Grosvenor Canal. That ocean runs to literally millions of pages.

Here’s what I found. It’s just two sentences in the News in Brief column in the Times for September 4, 1917.

“A Westminster coroner’s jury returned an open verdict at an inquest on the body of Lance-Corporal John Divers, 29, of the Machine Gun Corps, which was found in the Grosvenor Canal on Sunday. It was stated that his leave from the front expired on August 26.”

It’s desperately sad. If you’re reading it the way I’m reading it you’re thinking, John Divers’ reserves of courage, whatever he had left, had run dry. He had nothing left. He couldn’t go back. Hard to imagine the mounting dread he must have felt as the last days of his leave came and went – as August 26th closed in on him. And he didn’t go back. Didn’t go to Waterloo, didn’t get on that troop train. Doesn’t bear thinking about, his feelings those last few days. What would his mates think about him? No way out, no where to go. Would he be shot – for cowardice – when the Great War machine ran him to ground. 

And finally the thought that he chose to drown in that filthy canal rather than the Thames, which was just a few yards further on, that’s as sure a measure of his despair, as sure a measure of the horrors that had closed in upon him, that closed over him. Poor man. Poor John Divers. A century and change later a few hundred of us feel for you, John Divers. And remember you. You matter.  Your life matters.

One response to “Today (March 5) in London History – the Grosvenor Canal”

  1. Charles Piper says:

    Very nice ending. I like the transcript.

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