By Steve Grindlay
The Croydon Canal was formally opened on 23rd October 1809, fifty years after the opening of the pioneering Bridgewater Canal. It connected Croydon with London, by way of the Grand Surrey Canal at Rotherhithe and the Thames, and passed through Sydenham and Forest Hill.
The canal was intended to make the transportation of fuel (timber, coal, charcoal), building materials, foodstuffs and other goods more convenient than was possible on the roads. These goods were delivered to our area, and local produce sent to Croydon and London from a wharf near Sydenham Bridge and another near the Dartmouth Arms.
The canal was 9.5 miles long and rose, by a series of some 28 locks between New Cross and Honor Oak, to 150 feet above sea level. From the final lock, near Honor Oak Park station, the canal wound round the hills of Forest Hill and Sydenham towards Norwood and Croydon keeping about 160 feet above sea level. The canal was 5 feet deep, 34 feet wide and had a towpath on the eastern bank. It was crossed by a swing-bridge at Forest Hill and a road bridge at Sydenham.
In 1878, an elderly Sydenham resident described his memories of the canal: “My brothers, myself and others often used to hire a boat at Doo’s Wharf, situated near the [Sydenham] bridge, and row either to Croydon, or the other way to the first lock [near Honor Oak Park station]… occasionally we had a picnic in Penge wood… listening to the nightingales… There was a large reservoir occupying the site of Sydenham Park… much used by the young men of the neighbourhood for bathing in summer and skating in winter”.
It was not all peace and tranquillity. Several murders, suicides and drownings are recorded along our stretch of the canal. Perhaps the most touching was the murder of Mary Clarke in June 1831. Mary bought tea and hot water from Mrs Stacey, who sold groceries from her cottage near the Dartmouth Arms. Mary told Mrs Stacey that she was planning to meet the father of her unborn child. Mary was last seen that evening in a boat on the canal, with a “young gentleman”. The next day the empty boat was floating on the canal, but there was no sign of Mary. Her body was discovered several days later, her face bruised and her forehead fractured. Although the Coroner’s verdict was that Mary was “found drowned” he gave strict instructions that the young man be tracked down and certainly local people were “firmly persuaded the hapless young woman was foully murdered”.
The canal was beset with problems. The 28 locks were costly to maintain and caused “traffic jams” for the barges waiting to negotiate them. It was also difficult to maintain the water level of the canal. The canal was also a financial failure. The proprietors raised money to build it by selling shares at £100 each (more than £3000 in today’s money). By 1830 theses shares were worth just 2/- each.
The final blow was the arrival of the more profitable and efficient railways. In 1834 the London & Croydon Railway Company began showing an interest in the land and assets of the canal. On 22 August 1836, the Croydon Canal closed and the railway line from London to Croydon was built, generally following the route of the canal. However, the greater speed of trains meant that, unlike the leisurely meanderings of the canal, the railway line used cuttings and embankments to avoid such twists and turns. The railway opened in June 1839, and is the second oldest passenger line in London.
Although most evidence of the canal has long disappeared, it is still possible to find traces, if one knows where to look…