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London Canal Museum

Discover London's canals and their historical importance in the development and functioning of the city at this unusual museum, housed in a remarkable Victorian ice warehouse.


The London Canal Museum is tucked away in a street behind King's Cross Station.The London Canal Museum is tucked away in a street behind King's Cross Station.
Hidden away in a cluster of residential streets behind King's Cross Station, the London Canal Museum is not somewhere you are likely to find by chance. However, it is well worth seeking out for an insight not only into London's canal system, but also into the city's 19th century ice trade and the consequent popularising of ice cream.

The museum building backs onto a basin of the Regent's Canal and was built around 1863 as a warehouse to store ice shipped over from Norway. Two huge ice wells, each originally with a capacity of 750 tons of ice, lie directly under the building, and you can peer down into one of them at the rear of the museum. Displays on the ground floor explain and illustrate the history of London's ice trade, and tell the story of Carlo Gatti - ice entrepreneur and the builder of the warehouse - in popularising ice cream with his 'penny ices'.


First floor: London's canals

This steep ramp led to the stables on the upper floor of the warehouse that is the home of the London Canal Museum.This steep ramp led to the stables on the upper floor of the warehouse.
The upper floor of the warehouse was added to create a stable for horses that pulled the ice delivery carts. A steep ramp (sadly no longer accessible as 'health and safety' judges the angle to be too great) provided access for the horses. Well into the 20th century, horses were the backbone of London life. There are estimated to have been 300,000 horses stabled and working in the city in 1893. And of course, canal transportation depended almost entirely on horse power.

The stable area is now a gallery with displays on London's canals and waterways, including models of the various vessels and barges that were used on the canals, information on the types and quantities of cargo carried, and an explanation of how locks work, with a model that nicely demonstrates the principles. Displays chart the building, in the early 19th century, of Regent's Canal, which runs from the docks in Limehouse, East London, through Islington and Camden, cuts through the middle of what is now London Zoo, and continues to Little Venice, where it joins the Grand Union Canal that leads all the way to Birmingham.

Now a quiet backwater, Battlebridge Basin behind the London Canal Museum was once a busy environment of factories and warehouses.Now a quiet backwater, Battlebridge Basin behind the London Canal Museum was once a busy environment of factories and warehouses.
For those of us who have never thought much about the historical importance of canals, it's a real eye-opener to discover what crucial arteries they were from around 1820 until well into the 20th century. These days the Regent's Canal, in common with most of Britain's canals, is a backwater. It hosts a community of house boats and a number of pleasant diversions such as boat trips and the Puppet Barge. Cyclists use the tow paths as a convenient route between Edgware Road, Camden and Hackney. Visitors may come across the canal on a visit to Camden Market, but many will spend time in London without knowing it is there.

Less than a century ago, however, the scene would have been very different. Vast quantities of goods were transported both to and from the capital by barge, and imported goods where brought along the canal from the Limehouse docks. About half of all cargo carried by barge was coal, for which London had an almost insatiable demand. Building materials, in particular bricks, were another major cargo. It was a two-way process - the emptied brick barges would leave London loaded with the capital's refuse to be used as fuel in the brickfields. Similarly, horse feed, hay and straw was brought in to London, and manure was taken out to the countryside to be used as fertilizer.

Gunpowder and explosives were commonly transported by canal until 1874 when a barge exploded on the Regent's Canal, killing three people and destroying Macclesfield Bridge (near London Zoo) - known ever since as 'Blow Up Bridge'. An interesting display of original newspaper reports and documents explains how the accident led, the following year, to regulations finally being drawn up on the manufacture and carriage of dangerous substances.

A screen shows some wonderful vintage film footage of life on London's canals in the 1920s. As the narrator of one of the films says, "to barge along London's waters is to see the city from an entirely different angle". It is particularly interesting to see how tunnels - which generally do not have tow paths for horses - were managed. Longer ones such as the Islington Tunnel were served by steam chain tugs. But the only way to get the barges through the shorter tunnels was by 'legging' - that is, the barge crew lay on the barge and moved it through the tunnel by pushing their feet on the tunnel walls. It must have been utterly exhausting!


Life on board a canal barge

The Coronis canal barge in the London Canal Museum incorporates a reconstructed cabin, giving an idea of a canal family's living conditions.The Coronis incorporates a reconstructed cabin, giving an idea of a canal family's living conditions.
Back on the ground floor of the museum, the front section of the barge Coronis provides a fascinating look at living conditions on board a working canal barge (living on board the cargo barges continued to some extent until the 'big freeze' of winter 1962/3 when the whole canal system froze for months, putting an end to the commercial use of canals). At first glance the cabin looks charmingly cosy - there's a stove, a couple of benches that can be used as beds, a clever fold-down table and lots of little cupboards and cubby holes - until you realise that many canal families had 6 or more children. How on earth did they manage?

Don't miss the audio presentation (there's a switch to start it near the doors at the front of the barge) which dramatises a lot of interesting information into a relatively short conversation between members of a barge family.

Canal Barge at the London Canal Musuem: The living accommodation on canal boats was extremely cramped, especially considering the large size of many canal families.The living accommodation on canal boats was extremely cramped, especially considering the large size of many canal families.
A plan of the cleverly fitted-out cabin of a barge in the London Canal Museum, showing the two beds (one of which folds out across the aisle), folding table and kitchen range.A plan of the cleverly fitted-out cabin, showing the two beds (one of which folds out across the aisle), folding table and kitchen range.


Nearby you can see a variety of everyday 'canalware' items decorated with the typical brightly coloured castle and rose designs, and displays of lace and ribbon plates and Measham Ware pottery which were popular with canal boat families.

Colourful roses and castles are the typical motifs on traditional painted canalware like these in the London Canal Museum.Colourful roses and castles are the typical motifs on traditional painted canalware.
At the back of the museum, doors lead out to a wharf on the canal basin where the London Canal Museum's renovated 'pusher tug' is usually moored. Now largely surrounded by smart housing, this was once a busy, noisy place with warehouses, a timber yard, a beer bottling plant and a jam factory.



Ground floor: The ice trade

London's ice trade was something that I knew nothing about, and I found the displays and the ice wells themselves particularly interesting. Country estates had harvested ice from ponds and rivers and stored it underground in purpose built ice houses since at least the 17th century, but the enterprising Victorians took this to a new level by importing ice blocks from Norway in winter and storing it in preparation for the summer months.

Ice was loaded and unloaded using a crane with a pincer-like attachment called an 'ice dog'. Ice picks were used for breaking the ice up into smaller pieces. At the London Canal Museum.Ice was loaded and unloaded using a crane with a pincer-like attachment called an 'ice dog'. Ice picks were used for breaking the ice up into smaller pieces.
The ice was cut with handsaws, then slid down giant wooden 'slides' from the mountains to the port. It was then transported by ship to Limehouse, where it was transferred to barges for the journey to the central London ice wells. A crane fitted with a fearsome pair of 'pincers' was used to place the ice into the wells. Apparently the large volume of ice in the wells meant that it pretty much kept itself cold. Indeed, from cutting the blocks in Norway to summer time delivery to customers in London, there was only 30-40% wastage.

Each block of ice weighed around 150kg, so was moved using giant metal tongs. Heavy work! I wondered about hygiene, what with the blocks being moved around on the floor and transported to the customer covered in 'old damp sacks', but apparently as the ice was primarily used for keeping foods cool, rather than as an ingredient, this wasn't a big issue.

Which brings us to ice cream. The London Canal Museum has several examples of early ice cream makers with a double wall construction to allow ice (with salt added to decrease the temperature further) to be inserted to freeze the ice cream mixture. Until the 1850s ice cream was a delicacy for the rich, but an immigrant to London, later to become the original owner of the Canal Museum warehouse, is credited with having changed that completely.


Carlo Gatti

Carlo Gatti, restaurant owner, ice cream seller and ice merchant, built the ice wells and warehouse that now houses the London Canal Museum.Carlo Gatti, restaurant owner, ice cream seller and ice merchant, built the ice wells and warehouse that now houses the London Canal Museum.
Carlo Gatti was a Swiss-Italian immigrant who arrived in London in 1847 keen to succeed and make something of himself. A clever audio-visual display in the museum brings Mr Gatti back to life, enabling visitors to 'ask' questions and see and hear Mr Gatti's responses. He was obviously a man with energy and a flair for publicity. A first success came when he placed a machine for making drinking chocolate in the window of his café. Passers-by loved to stop and watch it working, making the café famous across London. Looking for another gimmick he decided to serve ice cream, but it was not an immediate success. Gatti then hit on the idea of selling 'penny ices' (served on small glass 'licking plates', examples of which are in the museum). This caused a sensation - it was the first time that ice cream had been sold at a price affordable for ordinary people. Of course, penny ices were quickly copied by others, but Gatti capitalised on his success, importing ice from Norway and becoming an ice merchant.

Displays at the London Canal Museum on the ice trade and the popularising of ice cream in the mid 19th century, including an early 'auto vacuum' ice cream maker.Displays on the ice trade and the popularising of ice cream in the mid 19th century, including an early 'auto vacuum' ice cream maker.
Ice was in particular demand by fishmongers and restaurants to keep food fresh, and was also used for medical purposes. The London Canal Museum website has a fascinating account of delivering ice in 1952, which gives an idea of the toughness of the work and the kinds of establishments that had need of ice.

Gatti's ice wells were excavated in the 1850s and 60s and were in use until 1902. By the late 19th century it had become possible to produce ice mechanically (several of the huge ice moulds are on display). Ice imports from Norway gradually declined and finally stopped, and London's ice wells were no longer needed. In these days of refrigeration and home freezers, ice is something we take for granted, but it was a luxury well into the second half of the 20th century, and London's last mechanical ice plant closed only in the early 1980s.


Visiting the ice wells

The partially excavated ice wells at the London Canal Museum are open to the public just once a year on 'Ice Sunday'.The partially excavated ice wells are open to the public just once a year on 'Ice Sunday'.
Due to 'health and safety' and the logistics of having just a single access ladder, the ice wells are open to the public just once a year on 'Ice Sunday' (usually held in July). If you are lucky enough to visit on this day, then it's worth braving the climb down into these strange structures, which are impressive even at their current depth (when in use they were 13 metres deep, but are now considerably shallower due to 1940s backfilling with rubble from bomb sites). Visitors to the ice wells must be at least 10 years old, wear a hard hat and sign a disclaimer.


Museum facilities and visiting with children

The museum has a good clean, easily accessible toilet. The small shop has a large and varied selection of books about canals and canal boats, boating magazines, canal arts and crafts, model barges and postcards.

While the London Canal Museum wouldn't be my first choice for a museum to visit with young children, there is a reasonable amount to keep them happy, including a small but attractive 'children's corner' with books and puzzles, and trails and quizzes available from the reception desk. Our boys both very much enjoyed exploring the canal boat cabin and marvelling at how our family of 4 (never mind a canal family of 8 or 9!) could possibly manage to live in it. The vintage films in the upstairs gallery were also a hit, and both boys spent a long time carefully working the boat back and forth through the model canal lock. Tom - who loves horses - was interested in the reconstructed horse stall, complete with a large model of a horse, various tack and grooming implements, and even model horse manure!

NB: if you have small children be wary about going out of the back of the museum to the wharf of the canal basin, as there is no fence between the wharf and the water.


Essentials: London Canal Museum

Address: 12-13 New Wharf Road, London, postcode: N1 9RT

Nearest Tube: Kings Cross St. Pancras

Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 10:00 to 16:30 (also Bank Holiday Mondays)

Website: www.canalmuseum.org.uk

Additional information:
The museum runs tunnel boat trips, towpath walks and occasional 'roses and castles' art classes. There are also summer activity days for children and a programme of monthly lectures on a wide range of canal and waterway-related themes. The London Canal Museum's website carries a full list of forthcoming events.