Browning never dreamt up ‘Little Venice’

The Robert Browning/Little Venice thingy is a myth that’s been too long perpetuated. Any poet needing credit it should be Lord Byron but that was only the word ‘Venice’ for the canals in London’s W2 and W9. Anyone (inc Canal & River Trust) who claim Browning coined the name Little Venice are just so wrong. Its what these days one would term ‘fake news’ 🙂

Essentially Lord Byron said the canals could well have been a Venice in London had it not been for their dirty state that became apparent so soon after they opened. He gave Londoners the first notion there was a Venice within London, but clearly made out it was wishful thinking because of the canals’ poor state.

We have a strong romanticism for steam on the railways but I’m sure many people who actually lived along the railways up until the sixties – right next to locomotive depots and freight sidings – were just sick of the smoke, coal pollution, constant noise, wheels clanking and locomotives’ whistles 24/7.

The canals themselves were just as bad, let’s dispel the romanticsm here as well. Canals were smoky, polluted, there was the clanging of metals and horses’ hooves clip clopping all the time. Somehow there’s this romantic notion Browning dreamily sat back in his chair at number 17 (or was it 19?) Warwick Crescent, Paddington, in the mid 1800s, saying to himself, “How lovely are these canals of Paddington, I do wish it was a Little Venice.”

Well if anything, besides the noise and the pollution the boatmen themselves were always shouting, swearing and full of beer. I’m quite certain Browning found it at times quite difficult to resist the temptation to throw these boatmen in the canal! Fortunately there was a wall that kept them apart 🙂

Just because Browning wrote a poem about Venice doesnt mean he dreamt up Little Venice. In fact when he visited Venice in 1851 he wanted nothing less than to just leave the damn place! Conversely when he died in Venice in 1889 I assume he would have much preferred that particular fate compared to dying in Paddington!

Actually Lord Byron’s the person to whom we should give thanks for the beginnings of London’s very own Venice. Let’s remember at the beginning of this article it was clear the area didn’t deserve anything like being a Venice of sorts. In fact he also pointed out that Venice’s canals were dirty too, just like Paddington’s – he was merely comparing noted foreign destinations with those quite similar places to be found in England…

This is what Lord Byron said in the 1800s: “There would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts.” 

Hugh Vickers in the Evening Standard – almost – but not quite right!

Clearly Lord Byron knew the canals, whether they were artificial or natural, could be a right dump – even those in Venice – and he was challenging the romantic view of Venice by using Paddington’s as an example. He knew if these waterways could be improved and cleaned up that romantic notion so falsely chased by many could be easily achieved. Sadly it took almost a hundred and fifty years for Byron’s notion to become realised.

Nowhere in the history of the canals at Paddington BEFORE the 1950’s does anyone, or any article (news, letter, book or otherwise) or any photograph or painting say ‘The canal at Little Venice.’ Everyone says ‘The canals at Paddington’ – or – ‘Paddington’s canals.’

For example, Through London By Canal in 1885 is a book that does not mention Little Venice anywhere. It’s all Paddington. The canals are full of steam and dust – just filthy – and the author, Benjamin Martin, acknowledges Byron as the originator of London’s ‘Venice’ because Byron had pointed out the filth which precluded any possibility of a romantic ideal of Venice. The person who reviewed Martin’s book does agree Lord Byron has a strong claim to being the originator behind ‘Venice.’

Early 20th Century view of the pool at Paddington (Kellys.)

As the 20th Century came in, the officials at the opening ceremony of the Blue Lamp or Westbourne Terrace bridge in 1900 made it clear the canals were in Paddington and nowhere else, not even Maida Vale. On top of that photographs of the time always allude the area as Paddington too.

Even in the 1930’s painters like Algernon Newton still called the area Paddington. Obviously the notion of ‘Venice’ had not yet had time to fully sink into the human consciousness.

By the time commercial boating is in decline after the second world war, the canals become much quieter and cleaner, it is then people begin to properly imagine the area being called Venice. It can only be Little because its not even a big Venice for a start. It’s small and only has a few miles of canal 🙂

Some people tried to suggest it was like Bruges. There’s a reason. The Belgian city doesn’t have miles and miles of canal. Oh yes it has canals but its not a huge network like Amsterdam or Venice. Its mainly one main canal with some branches – it’s very pretty though – I’ve been there and its far more like Venice than our own home grown example!

Sunday Times August 1945 describes the canals as if in Bruges.

So the same for our own London Venice. Its somewhat like Bruges, not exactly like to be honest, but its small and so Bruges seems a more apt fitting especially when one admired the stretch of canal running along Blomfield Road.

The problem is so few knew of Bruges at the time so that didnt stick. Venice still sounded better anyway and so in the 1950s The Metropolitan Borough of Westminster produced a series of publicity material for Beauchamp Lodge events where the term Little Venice originated.

The council hit the nail right on the head. It wasnt Amsterdam nor Bruges. Tis was Venice on a very small scale – a little sort of Venice. The council originally said Beauchamp Lodge was a ‘Little Venetian community centre’ – from there it became Little Venice.

(Nowdays Beauchamp Lodge itself isnt really representative of the area anymore for it’s a community asset sadly lost to developers.)

Little Venice greatly popularised the area and tourists came in their droves. Soon the first trip boats ventured through the tunnels to the Zoo and Camden, and the waterbuses began. The towpaths were improved and walking was promoted. There too were the famous boat shows during the fifties, sixties and seventies.

We can see the birth of Little Venice in the 1950s instigated a major spurt in tourism and related activities. Lord Viscount St Davids was one of the early pioneers (aka ‘the canal peer’) who took advantage of this new breath of life into London’s canals.

The area that was once Paddington had now developed it’s own identity. Some claim its part of Maida Vale. As Maida Vale in fact was a secession of the area known as Kilburn Fields, so Little Venice’s a secession from Paddington and Maida Vale. Essentially Little Venice is it’s own area and so should not be attributed to neither Maida Vale or Paddington.

Bob’s your bungle! A last word on this subject. The area’s wide expanse of water being called Browning’s Pool is quite a strange choice. The poet contributed absolutely nothing to the area’s canals so it seems quite odd to name the old Rat’s Island pool area after him. Especially as the pool already had acquired a proper name – The Broad Water.

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