‘You wouldn’t want to do that now’: The East End Canal Tales recounts people’s memories of taking regular baths in the Regent’s Canal
- Credit: Dom Bergonzi
Author Carolyn Clark tells Emma Bartholomew how The East End Canal Tales draws on 50 people’s memories to tell of intriguing, moving and often surprising stories of life and work on the Regent’s and Hertford Union Canals over 200 years.
How ice was stored before refridgerators and how people used to take their baths in canal water are just some of the fascinating stories unearthed by Carolyn Clark in her latest book about the Regent's and Hertford Union canals.
The community historian spoke to more than 50 people for her book The East End Canal Tales, which has been published by the London Canal Museum. as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Regent's Canal.
It follows Carolyn's previous works, Shoreditch Tales in 2009 and Lower Clapton Tales in 2017.
Her interest in the water ways from living in BIrmingham for five years which has almost as many canals as Venice.
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She decided to uncover the stories held by Hackney's and the east end's equivalent after running a history project with youngsters at the Laburnum Boat Club in Haggerston.
"We took oral histories and were chatting to more than people about their memories. It's amazing - you just met them in pubs and clubs and places and through word of mouth, because one person would say, 'Oh you must sepak to so and so', and before you knew it you had a whole set of people.
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"There was so much lovely material, and talking to the museum a lot of it hadn't been found before, so the idea came to make it into a book."
Participants recounted the history of the canalside buildings, what it was like to work there, anecdotes about the way the buildings were run, and what they did in their lunch hours like fishing, throwing bread in for ducks or sitting eating sandwiches by the canal.
"It gave a real flavour or what it was like to live and work there," said Carolyn.
"One surprising thing was what the buildings used to be used for. I was aware of the timber trade and that there were a lot of printers getting paper on the boats, but I found two fur factories that made fur coats in Hoxton and in Bow, and there was such a a range of things from chocolate through to soft drinks and beer. It became a question of what wan't made by the canal."
Another surprising thing was how much ownership people felt for the canal.
"People who grew up there felt it was their private space," she said. "People used to use it as a bath because they didn't have bathrooms. One person called Arthur Jackson said that everyone calls it The Cut, and no one calls it the canal. He said it was like a stream in the country for local kids who hadn't been out of the cities, and it was like a resort, where everything went on from fishing to swimming.
"It was so moving, and the sadness is that a lot of people now say they dont go down there becuase it no longer feels theirs, because it's been taken over by aggresive cyclists and luxury flats, and you cant see the water for the boats now. It's not a park like it was."
Carolyn also spoke with Dom Bergonzi whose father Gino delivered ice for Carlo Gatti's Haggerston factory, which was close to Haggerston Park, until the 80s.
Ice would be harvested from ponds and canals until demand made it commercially worthwhile to ship it from Norway, transport down the canal and store it in large, deep ice wells.
George Stevenson was the first English importer of ice and he built an ice house on Haggerston Basin in 1860 with three ice wells.
Stevenson's eventually merged with Carlo Gatti, and the London Canal Museum which has published the book is based in Carlo Gatti's ice well in Kings Cross.
"In an age when you can pop round the corner for a Mivvi or a Magnum, the complexities of the Victorian ice trade beggars belief," said Carolyn.
"Lots of people remembered Carlo Gatti's horse and cart going around and sucking on bits of ice.
"Before refrigeration ice was absolutely essential for people like butchers and fishmongers and for ice cream makers which is why Italians dominated the trade," she added.
"From the 1850s onwards, ice was being distributed from these big ice wells, harvested from the canal itself - you wouldn't want to do that now would you."
The East End Canal Tales is on sale for £9.95 at the London Canal Museum and independent bookshops like Broadway Books and Pages of Hackney.