Three Rivers Museum Trust chairman Fabian Hiscock reflects on the historical significance of the canal to the Three Rivers area.

The canal has been an important part of everyday life since the mid-1790s in Three Rivers.

The Grand Junction Canal connected London to the industrial Midlands. Work started in 1793 and came north through Rickmansworth, Watford and Abbots Langley during 1797. By 1800 the canal was bringing coal and all sorts of manufactured goods towards London - and away from it.

The canal made a big difference to south west Hertfordshire. It made coal available cheaply, and it allowed all sorts of things to be bought in shops more easily. Wharfs, where business was done and cranes and buildings provided, allowed unloading or loading into the boats at Kings Langley, Hunton Bridge, two on the north side of Watford near The Grove, two more at Cassio Bridge and four at Rickmansworth. They were used by boats and barges (not the same thing) which came up from London and the Thames as well as from the Midlands, and many readers will remember the boats working before 1970 when it all stopped.

Watford Observer: Cassio Bridge in 1920. Image: Rickmansworth Historical Society/Geoff Saul collectionCassio Bridge in 1920. Image: Rickmansworth Historical Society/Geoff Saul collection

Most of those wharfs have now gone, along with their trade, although Grove wharf and Lady Capels are marked by signs off Hempstead Road. At Rickmansworth one was at Frogmoor, where Tesco supermarket is now. Another was on Wharf Lane opposite the Coach and Horses pub (it was still there in 1970, by the gas works), and one was on Batchworth Island, where the Trinity Court office building now is behind the White Bear. Another allowed materials made of asbestos at Harefield to be put onto the railway at Batchworth. So there was a fair bit going on, well into the 20th century, with some boats still then hauled by horses.

The papermaker John Dickinson used the canal a lot. He took over Batchworth Mill, on what’s now the Affinity water works, in 1819, and made pulp there from rags which was then taken to his other mills at Apsley, Kings Langley and Croxley Green, and the paper was taken into London by fast boat. Meanwhile, the very large amount of coal needed by the mills was brought down from Warwickshire. Batchworth Mill wasn’t needed after 1887, but the other mills kept going, still using the canal, until the 1960s, when coal was replaced by oil. Croxley Mill closed in 1980.

Watford Observer: In the old style: a boat horse fully dressed. Image: David BarzilayIn the old style: a boat horse fully dressed. Image: David Barzilay

Ovaltine was made by A. Wander at Kings Langley using coal brought in a small fleet of boats built for them by the Rickmansworth boat builder Harry Walker in the 1920s. Ovaltine boats were especially smart, and were part of the advertising of the product.

Harry Walker had taken over Frogmoor Wharf in 1905 and quickly became a very well known builder of wooden canal boats until after World War Two. The firm was also a builders’ merchant and coal dealer, and the full story of ‘Walkers of Ricky’ is told in the book by his nephew Tony.

Watford Observer: In the old style: a boat cabin. Image: Fabian HiscockIn the old style: a boat cabin. Image: Fabian Hiscock

Our canal wharfs were also used to carry beer. From Town Wharf, Salters Brewery took beer towards Uxbridge and London, and received new as well as empty barrels in return: and the Watford brewer Sedgwicks used Cassio Bridge wharf in the same way. And there was other cargo as well: the Rickmansworth farmer John White often received barge loads of London manure through one or other of the wharfs, well into the 1870s.

Watford Observer: The boatman's shop: Kings Stores in 1913. Image: Three Rivers MuseumThe boatman's shop: Kings Stores in 1913. Image: Three Rivers Museum

Even when motor boats began to tow butties the family living space remained very small, less than three metres by two but set up in a distinctive and very ornate way. Boating people didn’t own much, but there was still a great skill in living in such a small space pretty well all your life. Always moving, the children had no time to go to school, and the boaters met few people other than their friends also working the boats. Local people in the towns and villages were suspicious: boats stopped at recognised places overnight, and pubs and beer houses, with stables for the horses, were their usual meeting places. Some shops provided a service which others were often unwilling to do: in Rickmansworth King’s Stores was next to the bridge at Batchworth; the pub was The Boat, and stables were next door and just on the other side of the London Road bridge.

Many things contributed to the decline of our canals over the years, and what we now use them for is quite different. But as we walk or boat along our canal now, let’s remember the history, and the thousands of people whose feet while working the locks made the hollows we still see.

  • The new display of ‘Life on the Canals’ is now in Three Rivers Museum, and will run until the summer. For more details, visit the museum website at