The Grand Surrey Canal

…is the canal that aimed for Portsmouth but only got as far as Camberwell!

An introduction to the Surrey Canal

The Grand Surrey’s story really begins back in 1696. This was the year that the Howland Great Wet Dock, was dug. This was the largest ship dock ever built at the time. By 1763 it had been renamed Greenland Dock, which is synoymous with the Grand Surrey Canal. The Canal’s Act of 1801 initially authorised a route from Rotherhithe to Epsom with a possible extension to Portsmouth.

The development of a larger dock system than orignally envisaged saw all ambitious plans curtailed and a more mediocre route built as far as Camberwell. The waterway opened in stages – the dockland end by 1807 and the Camberwell end in 1809. A 1,100yd extension to Peckham opened in 1826. The company’s renaming as the Grand Surrey Docks and Canal Company is how the area around Rotherhithe came to be known as Surrey Docks. Today its Surrey Quays.

Both the Croydon and Grand Surrey canals were officially opened in 1809. Unlike the Croydon which closed in 1836, the Surrey canal lasted until the start of the 1970’s, and there are a few remains of the old canal route. The canal’s decline began in the 1940’s, when part was abandoned. Dewatering of the westermost sections occurred in the 1960’s after concerns of children falling in. By the 1970’s it had all gone save for a short section from Greenland Dock giving access to timber wharves in Evelyn Road, Deptford. This remaining stretch was closed and infilled during 1971.

Grand Surrey sign warning of trespassing – exhibit at the London Canal Museum, Kings Cross.

Despite the regeneration of the Surrey Docks (now known as Surrey Quays) area, the Grand Surrey Canal missed out on a potential future as a linear waterway through South London, and most of it is now industrial estate, especially between Evelyn Road and the junction with the Peckham Branch. This stretch is unwalkable, except via side roads with glimpses of the former route from bridges. In the middle of this section is the Surrey Canal Road stretch, which passed under four different railway bridges in a straight line, and a section which can be walked if one doesn’t mind the heavy traffic that thunders along this road.

A distinctive feature of the Grand Surrey Canal was its overbridges, just one now stands. They had elaborate cast iron lamp stands, the best being those on the Old Kent Road, which was one of the earliest to use gas lighting. People familiar with the Old Kent Road bridge will remember how after the canal’s closure it became an underpass for pedestrians. Steps were built down from the road on either side, and a walkway laid on the old canal underneath the bridge.

Up until recently many places had names linked to the canal. Victoria Wharf – its name set out in bricks – Canada Wharf, British Wharf etc.

The Pepys Estate on the east side of Evelyn Road had maps showing the estate layout, complete with the canal route marked on it from the days when it was in use! A couple of timber merchants still exist along the route of the canal – a reminder of their canal origins.

The above map is from 1971, when the Surrey Docks were in the process of being rationalised. As seen, the entrance lock to the Grand Surrey Canal has already gone, however a short length of the canal itself, dewatered obviously, still remains for a short distance towards Trundleys Road. This stretch had by then been the last working remnant of the canal. Plough Way’s former alignment is clearly shown.

Bibliography & References: Lost Navigations – The Croydon and Grand Surrey – Bernard Brown, Canal and Riverboat, 1986; Retracing Canals to Croydon and Camberwell – Living History Publications, Bromley, 1986.

Many thanks to: Croydon Local Studies Library for their help and use of images from the library collection.
Click to read an article from May 1971 on the Grand Surrey Canal – Southwark Council wanted to retain the canal and make it into an amenity. But the canal’s owners, the Port of London Authority, were against the idea…

The former alignment of the Grand Surrey Canal at St George’s/Wells Way Burgess Park, looking towards Camberwell

The original route through the Surrey Docks

These pictures are of a low-relief model that can be found on the summit of the artifically built Stave Hill. It offers good view of the surrounding area and of Canary Wharf to the east. Stave Hill is represented by the bump in the middle of Russia Dock. The low-relief model shows the orginal Grand Surrey canal route which began at the south end of Russia Dock.

With the Thames at the top, the canal ran from the entrance lock at the top left corner, through the smaller Russia Dock, before entering its own lock. A traditional canal bridge can be seen.

A view looking southwards along the canal from the lock. The model had a lot of debris in it – someone was obviously trying to make a fire (probably an unauthorised beacon) on the model, hence the explanation for the bits of coal spread around!

Map showing the arrangement of the docks in the 1930’s. By that time the original lock (into Stave dock) had fallen out of use.

Next: Old Surrey Docks route

Grand Surrey Canal pages:

Intro – A canal route from London to Portsmouth!
Old Surrey Docks route – The old canal route through the Surrey Docks
Greenland Dock – Plough Lane – The canal’s route to Plough Lane
Plough Lane – Surrey Canal Road – The canal’s route to Surrey Canal Road
Ilderton Road – Camberwell – The canal’s route to Camberwell
Canal junctions & place names – Junctions and places named after the canal
Bridges & buildings – The canal’s structures
Peckham branch & canal wharves – The delightful branch and wharves of the canal