The History of the City Road Basin Site

Islington built the Wharf Road Estate on the old City Canal Basin in the 1980s, but this site has a long history which has been largely forgotten, although there are signs of it all around.

Ogilby's Map of Middlesex, 1672

In 1672, immediately after the Armada, London hugged the north bank of the Thames.
There was hardly any building on the south bank, a marshy place with theatres,
bear baiting, and mosquitoes.


Building the "New Road" in 1757

We now call it Marylebone Road, Euston Road, and City Road.

Oxford Street and Piccadilly had to take all the traffic to the City from the west, including all the cattle and sheep being driven to Smithfield for slaughter. The congestion became un­bearable and real bulls lin Piccadilly china shops were unwelcome. What was needed was a completely new road through the fields north of London. Incidentally it would open up the whole of Marylebone for estates of good houses, but this was not its purpose.

The Bill giving permission for the New Road was strongly opposed by the Duke of Bedford, who owned the large estate which included Bedford Square. This was the most northerly London estate at the time and he would lose his view of the countryside.

Horace Walpole wrote:-

A new road has been proposed through Paddington to avoid the stones (the paved streets of London which were so congested). The Duke of Bedford, who is never in town in summer, objects to the dust it will make in front of Bedford House and some of the houses proposed, though, if he were in town, he is too short sighted to see the prospect.'

The Duke's amendment opposing the Bill was rejected. The Bill was passed, but a clause prohibited the erection of buildings within 50 feet of the road. As a result, the houses were built with 50ft front gardens, making the road `One of the finest avenues in the metropolis'.

The New Road cut from Edgware Road, through King's Cross and The Angel, Islington, to the City. It is now called Marylebone Road, Euston Road, and City Road. The long front gardens made possible the unusual widths of these roads and, over a century later, when the time came to build the Metropoli­tan Underground Railway by `cut and cover', there was plenty of room between the houses. Gradual road widening has taken away the front gardens until today none remain.

We think of road widening as a complicated civil engineering enter­prise, but the New Road was a simple affair. The ground was gravel, so it drained well and offered good going for traffic. A few ditches were filled in and streams culvetted, fences built on either side, toll houses built at frequent intervals, and the road was in use within a few months. It opened in 1757.

Rocque's 1760 map (not illustrated) shows the New Road. This avoided the old village of Lissing by using the curved road, Watery Lane, to the south. This part is now called Old Marylebone Road, and must be very old indeed.


Milne Land Usage map, 1800

(Trigoometrical Survey 1795-1799)

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The Key
a arable yellow     g market gardens blue
m meadow green   p paddock or small park pink

The Milne map shows many other kinds of land use besides this few, but these are the only ones which appear on this part of the map. At that time the fields were still used to provide meat, milk and hay for London and would continue to do so until London expanded explosively between 1860 and 1880. Then field after field became covered with houses and factories.

Building the Regent's Canal

Canals had been developed in the big industrial areas in the North. The coal and iron districts had used the canals to move their bulky goods from mine to factory by canal barge for years A huge network of canals spread al over the Midlands and North. Now the industrialists wanted a canal to carry their finished goods to ships in the London Docks and so all over the World.

The Canal System had reached London at Paddington in 1801, but the area between Paddington and Whitechapel was blocked by houses as this map shows. The Regent's Canal Company wanted to cut a canal parallel to Marylebone Road, Euston Road and City Road, but was forced to cut the Regent's Canal far out, north of Camden Town, through Islington and East of London, to Whitechapel. Canal Basins were built all the way along City Basin was one of them. This was a long drawn out process.

Starting planning in 1811 The Company faced great difficulty in raising money. Time and again it faced bankruptcy. There was a huge economic slump in 1815, after Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic War with France. Immediately the government demand for war equipment stopped and factories closed. In 1917 the volcano erupted, spreading a cloud of dust all round the World, disrupting agriculture and giving a year without a summer'. People starved. There was never a worse year for raising money. In the end an Exchequer Bill gave the financial help which was so urgently needed, but the government saw this as a way of providing work for the unemployed and a way of avoiding food riots than anything else. By 1820 the Regent's Canal had limped to the London Docks and was ready for the huge expansion of international trade which took place over the next fifty years.

Gas works, factories, wharves, opened all the way along the Canal. Wherever it crossed a main road there was a builder's yard and soon building stones, bricks and cast iron from the Midlands filled the area. New London gutters were lined for the first time with red granite setts from the Midlands. Hampstead and Islington are full of them, all dated from after 1820. At the same time, but travelling in the opposite direction, timber from Scandinavia filled the wharfs. Industry of all kinds lined the canal.

This is discussed in detail in The Growth of St Marylebone and Paddington, pp 16,34-8,103, and The Growth of Camden Town, pp 7-13,28,121,130, both by Jack Whitehead.

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City Road Basin in 1871

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City Basin and Wharf Road OS 1894


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City Basin and Wharf Road OS 1915

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Islington built the Wharf Road Estate on the old City Canal Basin after the canal trade had collapsed in the 1960s.


The site has a long history which has been largely forgotten although there are signs of it all around.

++EXTEND THESE MAPS SOUTHWARDS TO SHOW THE FULL BASIN. The City Road end has now been filled in with factories and offices, so we need the latest which is out of copyright. 1960 is latest possible.



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The 1939-45 Bombing Map of the area

Colour Key References
Black -Total destruction
Purple - Damaged beyond repair
Dark Red - Doubtful if repairable
Light Red - Seriously damaged, but repairable at cost
Orange - General blast damage, not structural
Yellow - Blast damage, minor in nature
O V1 flying bomb large circle
o V2 long range rocket. small circle

There will be slight variations in the colours because the original maps
are old and the colour balance on computer monitors will vary

The area suffered from bombing during the Second World War, including a Flying bomb, but affected the post war rebuilding less than elsewhere. The City and Wenlock Basins were cleared for a very different reason.

Uses of the Bombing Map on this website

City Road Basin on the website.
It will open in a new window.


Whole Map Full Size Map Full Size Map in New Window

City Basin and Wharf Road OS 1954

To Help show the changes the previous 5 maps can be viewed as overlays.

Whole 1874 Map Full Size 1874 Map Full Size 1874 Map in New Window
Whole 1894 Map Full Size 1894 Map Full Size 1894 Map in New Window
Whole 1915 Map Full Size 1915 Map Full Size 1915 Map in New Window
Whole Bomb Damage MapMap Full Size Bomb Damage Map Full Size Bomb Damage Map in New Window
Whole 1954 Map Full Size 1954 Map Full Size 1954 Map in New Window

Google Map of City Basin and Wharf Road


The Great Freeze of 1962-63

In the winter of 1962-63 there was a great freeze, with canal boats fixed stationary in the ice for six long weeks. Materials for industry, which had been delivered regularly week after week for decades, failed to arrive. Coal for power stations, goods for export, boats needed to carry away the daily household and factory rubbish, all were immovable. By the 1960s canal transport was already finding it more and more difficult to compete with road and rail, but at the end of this six weeks the canal trade was dead. Firms which had had to wait for vital supplies stuck somewhere in some unknown canal, immediately transferred their custom elsewhere. It is very seldom that one can pinpoint the exact time when an industry collapsed. The sacking of a medieval town could destroy its clock-making trade, but there were other clockmakers in other towns. Most industries peter out and disappear over time. There had been canal freezes before and the canals had survived, but this time there was a predatory road haulage industry ready to pounce. This six weeks of ice killed off canal transport all over the country.

A few individuals working with one or two boats, continued for a few years, but Limehouse Dock was full of empty boats, silent and left to rot. Some barges were adapted as trip boats. Some narrow boats and barges were bought cheaply and converted into house-boats, permanently moored to the banks and now part of local communities. This typifies what happened to the canals as a result of the freeze.

Canals became cleaner, emptier, silent: places of relaxation and leisure, instead of industry.

Gradually the towpaths, which had been closed to the public like all other industrial sites, were opened up as pedestrian walkways. Now they provide miles of tranquil cross-country walking, away from the traffic. The only interruption may be from cable companies, networking the country with their cables without destroying the streets.

The canals, which had been full of activity, became bare and blank spaces set with enormous empty buildings, stark and gaunt, ready for a transformation scene which nobody could have imagined before 1962.

Slowly the old wharf buildings were converted for other uses or demolished. In City Basin some have been demolished and rebuilt as new blocks of flats.


The Wharf Road Flats

Wharf Road Estate

++ADD Wharf rd Islington site plan A4 for teachers to print out

Someone had a lot of fun drawing this elaborate site plan. It is more like a tessellated Roman pavement than most site plans. Most architects in London have to use the oddly shaped sites which happen to be available when some houses are demolished. Here the old industrial landscape was being flattened and the architects had a large clear site, so they could build as if in an open prairie.

An axonometric drawing of the proposed buildings.


The advantage of these axonometric drawings is that they can be measured in three directions and yet are pictures which are easily understood by people who are not trained architects.



Find the latest maps and show how the southern end of the basin has been filled in and is now and industrial park. Photograph the notice board if possible.



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