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The impact of Grand Union Canal on Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 13:36 14 October 2019

Smoke from narrowboats mixes with mist on a crisp autumn morning at a lock bythe Rising Sun pub on the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted (photo: David Levenson/Alamy Stock Photo)

Smoke from narrowboats mixes with mist on a crisp autumn morning at a lock bythe Rising Sun pub on the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted (photo: David Levenson/Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: David Levenson / Alamy Stock Photo

Bringing ideas, transport and new goods, author Fabian Hiscock looks at the impact the Grand Junction Canal had on Hertfordshire

Now used almost exclusively by pleasure craft, walkers and cyclists, the Grand Junction Canal (later the Grand Union Canal) was planned and built in a remarkable eight years between 1792 and 1800 to provide a long-distance transport link between London and the industrial Midlands.

It would be a foundation stone for the industrialisation of Britain, but at first sight it promised only limited benefit to Hertfordshire. And, initially, that's just what happened. Some farmers used it, although many, being close to London, preferred to continue to use road transport to move their produce to the city's markets. Few of the silk and cotton spinning mills, the smaller paper mills or the breweries - even those near the canal - took the opportunities presented.

Route of the canal and its principal industries and wharfs (photo: UH Press)Route of the canal and its principal industries and wharfs (photo: UH Press)

Changing (water) ways

New wharfs in towns and large villages did provide a range of raw materials and goods, and gave some businesses a new way of moving their product to market, but in the first years of the canal's operation it was paper makers who made the only major - and revolutionary - industrial development in the area, at Hemel Hempstead.

The world's first automated paper machine was installed by brothers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier in a converted corn mill in the village of Apsley, now a neighbourhood of Hemel, on an island in the river Gade which formed part of the new canal. After financial problems, the site was taken on by John Dickinson, who patented a cyclinder mould making paper machine in 1809.

The canal provided the first high-capacity long-distance trade route in the area and the mechanisation of paper making required a new level of equipment. Considerable amounts of steam-raising plant and its associated pipework, as well as the machines themselves, were very likely brought by canal to Hemel from the Midlands and London, and the manufactured paper taken to its market by horse drawn narrow boat.

Hunton Bridge on the Grand Union Canal at Watford (photo: Travelpix/Alamy Stock Photo)Hunton Bridge on the Grand Union Canal at Watford (photo: Travelpix/Alamy Stock Photo)

The waterway also enabled iron to become much more readily available to the founders who were to become the manufacturing engineers, and to the ironmongers and smiths who served the farms, and road vehicle and carrying businesses.

The equipment for the new steam powered silk mills at Tring, Rickmansworth and Chesham was most easily brought by canal in the early 1830s. And coal in large quantities was arriving just when firewood and charcoal were becoming scarce and could not in any case have fuelled the new steam plants. Coal's reduced price in Hertfordshire (sea-coal was previously carried from London by cart and was generally beyond the means of the poor), was important, especially in towns.

Later in the period the new gas works required not only hardware for making and storing the fuel but also yet more piping to deliver it. All this was much more easily delivered by water than by road, while both fuel and waste products needed the carrying capacity offered by the canal but not by roads.

Nonetheless, most industrial operations remained relatively small. The Rickmansworth cotton spinners continued in business only until late 1810, and whereas the steam powered silk mills probably used the canal for coal, the Watford Rookery water-powered mill seems to have been wholly independent of it, while other smaller throwsters in Watford used mill-horses for power and didn't continue in business long into the 19th century. We don't know how raw silk was brought in and the thrown thread taken away - a road service would have sufficed, although its destinations were usually on connecting canals.

On the Grand Junction Canal at Berkhamsted around 1890 (photo: Hilary Morgan/Alamy Stock Photo)On the Grand Junction Canal at Berkhamsted around 1890 (photo: Hilary Morgan/Alamy Stock Photo)

It's tempting to think that Samuel Salter canalised the river Chess to serve his Rickmansworth brewery but this is more likely to have been a general business investment. Local corn millers did not become major industrial producers, at least not until some years later.

Public wharfs at or close to Tring, Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead, Kings Langley, Abbots Langley, Watford and Rickmansworth supported coal, building material and timber merchants, and Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead, Watford and Rickmansworth changed appreciably as a result. Places which already had a nucleus of industry or commerce around which canal-related activity could form developed, but others - Puttenham, Aldbury, Wigginton, Northchurch - gained very little except perhaps more variety in the village shop.

The company

The Company of the Grand Junction Canal's initial land purchases seem to have been relatively (but not always) uncontentious. The canal needed water, and the effect on mills along the rivers Gade and Colne caused serious disputes, with several mills bought by the company in order to acquire their water rights. The canal at Apsley was moved to accommodate a complaint by paper maker John Dickinson. There was an effect, too, on the Sparrows Herne Turnpike, which the canal paralleled for over 20 miles. This was a relatively minor local road, and the decline in toll revenue was mainly on the southern section around Watford. The new long-distance freight on the canal was not removed from the turnpike, though - it had never been on it. The heavy industrial traffic on the major route through St Albans seems to have been relatively little affected by the canal. It would be the railway that would have far more impact on the city, initially on passenger traffic for which the canal was not a serious competitor.

Passing Through (photo: UH Press)Passing Through (photo: UH Press)

The canal, while not bringing major development along its route in Hertfordshire, did change the county. It helped John Dickinson become a paper maker of true industrial scale; it broadened the range of goods available to people with purchasing power; it improved the availability of raw materials for manufacturing; and it provided a reasonably assured supply of fuel. By providing inexpensive, reliable long-distance transport of goods and materials it prepared the way for the much greater impact of the railway. The Grand Junction Canal did not bring the Industrial Revolution to Hertfordshire, but it was by no means simply passing through.

Passing Through: The Grand Junction Canal in West Hertfordshire, 1791-1841 by Fabian Hiscock (UH Press, £16.99)

About the author

After careers in the Royal Navy and in industry, Fabian Hiscock added local history to his long-standing interest in the history of the waterways, completing a History MA at the University of Hertfordshire in 2016. He is also involved with heritage education charity Rickmansworth Waterways Trust.

Rail bridge over the canal at Kings Langley. The railway's speed would overshadow the earlier canal (photo: UH Press)Rail bridge over the canal at Kings Langley. The railway's speed would overshadow the earlier canal (photo: UH Press)

He said, 'My interest in the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire started when I moved here 20 years ago. How, I wondered, could the Grand Junction Canal, as it was until 1929, have had a quarter of its length in the county and yet have had so little apparent effect?

'In doing research for a book on the topic as a post-graduate student at the University of Hertfordshire, I covered the 10 historic parishes through which the canal passes and, for comparison, St Albans.

'Starting at the inception of the canal in 1792, I stop in 1841, with the maturing of the London and Birmingham Railway, the tithe maps and the 1841 Census. So my book, Passing Through isn't a history of Hertfordshire, nor of any of its towns, nor of the Grand Junction Canal. Rather, I've tried to describe what sort of place west Hertfordshire was in the 1790s and again in the 1830s, and to present what happened in between.'

Apsley Paper Trail Charitable TrustApsley Paper Trail Charitable Trust

Frogmore Paper Mill

Standing on an island in the river Gade which forms part of the Grand Union Canal near Hemel Hempstead, Frogmore Paper Mill is the oldest surviving mechanical paper mill in the world. The original Fourdrinier machine (devised by British paper making entrepreneur Henry Fourdrinier) was installed in 1803. The machine took linen pulp and water poured on to a revolving wire mesh which was then pressed between rollers to create a continuous sheet of paper. It was cut and hung to dry. The process made paper making four times cheaper. The process was refined when steam heated drying cylinders were added to speed up the process. Mechanised paper making, begun in Hertfordshire, revolutionised the cost and therefore availability of books, newspapers and any manner of paper-based products, opening up a new world of knowledge and learning to millions.

The site is still making paper today. Run by a charitable trust, it makes for a fascinating visit. Visit thepapertrail.org.uk website for full details.

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