Surrey Canal – south-east London’s great lost chance?

Reading about plans for redeveloping the area around Millwall’s New Den got me pondering about what might have been. The proposals for Surrey Canal – apparently in somewhere called “North Lewisham” – promise a “a regional and local centre for sporting excellence”, with 2,700 new homes and a “sports village” together with a revamp of the Lions’ tatty ground.

In part, it’s a second attempt to make a decent job of something that didn’t work in the 1990s. When Millwall moved from their infamous old Den in 1993, the then-New London Stadium was due to be a multi-purpose arena. But its isolated location stunted its growth, and it’s rarely staged much else beyond Millwall home games – which in themselves haven’t been much of a draw in recent years. But with the club promoted to the second division at the end of last season and it finally enjoying stable ownership, it can look to the future with a bit of confidence. Which is more than can be said for south-east London’s other club, sadly.

So with Millwall doing well, plans to invest in the local area and the possibility of a new rail station on the final phase of the east London line, things are looking up in the badlands. But it could have been all so, so different around here.

Around the back of the New Den is Surrey Canal Road. The clue’s in the name. There used to be a canal here. The Grand Surrey Canal ran from Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe and passed through Deptford and the rear of New Cross before winding its way towards Peckham, Walworth and Camberwell. It seems amazing now to think that the last ships passed along the Surrey Canal as recently as 1970, but plenty remains. At the northern end, the biggest clues are the swooping bridge taking Oxestalls Road into Deptford’s Pepys Estate, which was built around the canal during the 1960s. The canal’s route is obvious, and you can see how the Pepys would have been seen as somewhere decent to live on a 60s planner’s drawing board.

Victoria Wharf, Deptford
Blackhorse Bridge, Deptford
Surrey Canal, Pepys Estate
Surrey Canal, Pepys Estate

The “Victoria Wharf” bridge at the Evelyn Street/ Blackhorse Road junction is another remnant – the black and white photo at the top of this page is of an old gasworks which used to be there. Surrey Canal Road itself was built by Lewisham Council on the canal bed in the 1980s, and you can still see mooring rings along the footpath – the old towpath.

Surrey Canal Road
Surrey Canal Road
Surrey Canal Road

Another old canal bridge was a major feature on the Old Kent Road (right) until the early 1990s – the junction with Peckham Park Road, by the North Peckham Civic Centre, is still called Canal Bridge. Canal-side cottages remain in a private close just off the Old Kent Road – now hidden from view (almost literally) by the big retail barns which appeared there after the canal bridge was destroyed.

Further south, into Peckham, bridges remain as decorative features. A branch ended just before where the award-winning Peckham Library is now. The edges of the canal are still there, and, amazingly, a canal-era timber wharf remains behind the library, complete with loading bays and wood stacked up outside.

Canal Grove, Peckham
Canal Grove, Peckham
Burgess Park
Hill Street Bridge, Peckham
Surrey Canal, Peckham
Peckham canal head

I walked along this stretch last week, and it’s difficult to think of Peckham as a waterside town. But with the work that’s gone into rengerating this corner of Peckham (and the North Peckham estate, with a tragic history of its own) it’s tempting to wonder what might have been. There’s a shop unit opposite the library square which looks like it could just be a boatyard…

The canal’s fortunes declined after the Second World War, and parts of it were drained during the 1960s because of concerns about children falling into its by now little-used waters. The wharves around Evelyn Street were the last to see boats, but by the mid-1970s the canal had been filled in. A 1971 newspaper story reprinted by the excellent London Canals website portrays the difference between the dying Grand Surrey Canal and its north London counterpart, the Grand Union Canal – which had already become the leafy attraction which it still is today. Sadly, which newspaper the story comes from is not recorded.

[Southwark Council planning chair] Councillor Charles Halford argues that “it would have been expensive to provide access to the canal and clean the water. And with such a long stretch, there would have been obvious dangers for children.

The Port of London Authority is equally bland. “We have all along been interested in getting the best possible value for the sites,” said a spokesman. “We did point out to the council the difficulties involved in retaining the water.”

Just let them try that sort of statement on the residents of Maida Vale or Primrose Hill. Lay a finger on the Grand Union Canal, and letters signed by lords sprout from the columns of The Times.

Down south of the river, however, they apparently order matters differently.

So the canal died, and was gradually filled in with industrial land. Following the Surrey Canal isn’t a particularly pleasant stroll. Some of London’s hidden industries are housed in this stretch – sweltering hot industrial dry-cleaning plants and recycling yards dominate the line of the canal from Ilderton Road, for instance. But once you join the dots of what was there – Greenwich line rail commuters can see the line of the canal in the strip of yards immediately before the train passes Deptford Park – a picture of an alternative south east London emerges, promoting the question – what would have happened if the canal stayed?

It’s almost certain that what we now call “Docklands” would stretch deeper into south London – it may well have been that the London Docklands Development Corporation‘s remit could have stretched down to the Old Kent Road and beyond. The LDDC took on planning powers from the boroughs and forced through developments which have changed the face of the riverside.

Maybe Peckham would have been reoriented around the canal, while the stretch from the Old Kent Road handed to small businesses, perhaps more office-based industries than the “dirty” work which takes place down there now. It’s worth remembering the first Isle of Dogs developments were small units near Crossharbour station, or businesses using old warehouses at cheap rates – Spitting Image was made on Canary Wharf before the piledrivers arrived, for example.

With those workers would have come housing and transport demands – maybe the pressures seen in BBC1’s documentary The Tower, when part of the Pepys estate was sold to the private sector to fund its redevelopment, may have come around 20 years earlier. Perhaps it would have kick-started the revamp of the old East London Tube line a couple of decades earlier. Senegal Fields would probably still be housing a small park instead of Millwall’s ground. An incinerator wouldn’t have been so welcome there, either.

All this is wild speculation, of course. The area could have been left rotting around an increasingly smelly canal which only ever saw industrial traffic anyway. But even without the great push of being the Docklands, the Grand Union Canal around Brentford is now thriving, and the Regent’s Canal through Hoxton, Islington and King’s Cross is home to homes, businesses, bars and cafes.

Haggerston rail bridge

The scene above is the rail bridge into Haggerston station from the Kingsland Road, but who knows, it could just as easily been Deptford or New Cross if things had turned out differently.

If you want to find out more about the plans for the Surrey Canal site as it is, there’s an exhibition today and tomorrow at the Lewington Centre, Eugenia Road, Rotherhithe.

If you want to find more about how it was, the brilliant London Canals site has more, including details of the short-lived Croydon Canal, which explains why some of Brockley’s streets are a little oddly-laid out.

(Thanks to Mary Mills for supplying the archive photos of the Grand Surrey Canal.)


  1. This area has traumatic memories for me, although it did add a new word to my vocabulary.

    About 5-6 years ago, my car was stolen. I reported it missing and within 2-3 days, got a call from the Mets which went something like this:

    Mets – We’ve found your car
    Me – Good, thank you, where?
    Mets – Do you know London well?
    Me – Reasonably, where?
    Mets – Lovelinch Close
    Me – I’m not a cabbie, could you give me a little more?
    Mets – off Ilderton Road
    Me – (by now slightly confused at the unwillingness to give me an area) Sorry, I still don’t know where that is, do you have the postcode?
    Mets – (Seemingly confused by my lack of local knowledge) No.
    Me – OK, I’ll look it up. Will the car go?
    Mets – We don’t know

    Turns out my stolen car was almost literally in the shade of the New Den. (Which as a West Ham fan, merely reinforced certain prejudices widely held by West Ham fans.) And so me and Mrs Will spent 2 hours going to see our car on a Bank Holiday Monday. As we arrived at the New Den, the heavens opened. We had not travelled in anticipation of rain.

    The car did not go, mainly because the ignition had been ripped out, leaving just a tangle of wires. We went home, wet and less than gruntled.

    As we got home, I got my insurance papers out to call the insurers, when the phone range.

    Mets – It’s your car, it’s been re-stolen.

    That’s ‘re-stolen’. Which I assume means it doesn’t get recorded as two thefts, and they maybe even chalked it up as found becuase it once was. Never saw it again.

  2. Thanks Darryl – great photos – I used to walk the canal a lot when I was working in Bird in Bush Road in the 1980s.
    The area around the Old Kent Road is very tied up with the gas works – which was originally built alongside the canal and moved southwards as they bought more land. Canal Grove in the 1980s had no road access and you had to go down a little alley way to get to it. The gas works seem to have used it for senior staff accommodation from the 1830s – and found some very romantic accounts of how beautiful it was in the 1840s-1850s.
    Of course it could, and should, have been used. We built a huge great waste incinerator alongside where it once ran – and deliver the waste of several boroughs to it by lorry! But I think you are living in fairyland if you think the LDDC would have done anything positive!
    So, what next?? The Croydon(two tiny bits left, but interesting) – Pilkington’s in Woolwich – or be really brave and over the river to see the remains of the Grosvenor and/or the Chelsea.

    – oh- and ps – until about ten years ago there was a sign on the Surrey Canal Road which said something like ‘Lower your main mast before going under the bridge’.

  3. Fascinating stuff, thank you Darryl. That answers so many architectural & landscape questions for me, from when I used to scoot round Peckham on the bus.

  4. I was just kicking myself at forgetting to mention the Oxestalls Road scheme – thanks for popping it on here. I guess the land ownership must be all over the place now, and Pepys Estate residents might prefer their little park to a canal…

  5. my question is why did the PLA remain in control and not British Waterways by the late 60s?

    BW tended to keep canals alive, even the GLC picked on the issue in 1969

    1969 – With the canals’ relevance in society diminishing, a report by the Greater London Council states “old workshops and warehouses, having turned their backs on the canal, stack refuse and scrap materials beside it, marring what could, very often, be a pleasant scene. Some bridges crossing the canal have advertisement hoardings on either side concealing it so effectively from view that many Londoners do not know that there is a canal.”

  6. That figures, since the GLC built the Pepys estate, which was built around the canal.

    Interesting about the division of powers between BW and the PLA, mind. British Waterways now runs the docks on the Isle of Dogs, but when did this start being the case?

  7. British Waterways and the Docks – Darryl I can’t remember exactly when it was, sometime in the mid 1990s. I know I booked a speaker for a meeting from BW to talk about it. They were very very enthusiastic and there were all sorts of things they were going to do. There was even talk of them freeing up the Millwall entrance which would have allowed barges up to West Ferry Printers and thus keep Convoys open.
    But it was going to be a whole new commercial future for the area with lots of jobs and stuff.

  8. – oh – and – PS the Regent Dock (now renamed Limehouse Basin!!) was always British Waterways I think. I organised a boat trip down there from Bow Locks to see the wonders British Waterways were going to perform. We met a community representative half way down – and they were going to do a double act about regeneratiob. The trouble was that they had a fight on the quayside instead.

  9. Good post – I note though that your mention of ‘south east London’s other club’ seems to have overlooked the team based at Selhurst Park SE25! Not that I support them either, I hasten to add.

  10. There’s a reason why, “amazingly”, there’s a “canal-era timber wharf remains behind the library, complete with loading bays and wood stacked up outside” it’s on reserved land as the planned terminus for the Peckham-Camden tram, now scrapped by Boris.

  11. Hello

    My grandparents lived in Varcoe Road, Bermondsey and I remember many childhood weekends watching the barges go by their back garden – Standing on upturned dustbins so we could see over the wall! – It seems like I’m talking about a long long time ago – but I’m not even of retirement age yet!

  12. The dreadful scandal of the loss of canals in south east london Old Kent Road is a disgrace.As is alot of the loss of south east history of the Bricklayers Arms and Tower Bridge Road.Perhaps the whole scandal of workhouses and the poor is and has been to much to bear by the middle and upper class that made the 1960s and 1970s mistakes in regenerating south east London.It is a national disgrace that historic south east london has failed to be reconised for its historic importance beyond the romans/The whole concept of community and pride was born in south east London.I appauled anyone who attempts to put this neglect to right

  13. Hello, I use to work on the Old Kent Road for years at the Livesey Museum and I just never thought about the canal until I started to do some work for Friends of Burgess Park on a lottery project. Part of this project is to find people’s stories and memories of the Grand Surrey Canal. It’s great to work out from maps and photos of the canal route and the buildings off the canal and wonder what it would be like if we still had it. I would love to hear from anyone who would like their story captured as part of this project so please contact me on

  14. I remember the canal very well, I live near Peckham Park Road. I still feel deeply saddened that it was filled in and a fantastic opportunity was missed not to keep it and look after it. I remember the canal being drained by Canal Bridge and couldn’t believe the rubbish that was in it. If you look on the Britain From Above website and search Grand Surrey Canal, it has some brilliant photographs that you can zoom into.

  15. Like so many ex. south east Londoners from Peckham and Bermondsey, I look back with great affection of those days in the 1960’s. We were more optimistic then, and we believed that the huge demolition and rebuilding programme was going to create a better way of life. But we very soon began to have our doubts….the loss of traditional low rise housing, the isolation of people in high rise flats as well as the demise of the Surrey Canal. We seemed to be part of a great social experiment , too many foreign architectural blunders and the alienation of our unsupervised children. Our estates became graffiti covered mugging areas to be avoided. Great people…..terrible politicians and planners!

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