Peckham had a Canal!

Many people across London know that there is a specialist timber merchants, Whitten Timber, in the centre of Peckham next to the library, but probably very few of them know why it is there. I have only just found out the reason behind it. In fact four generations of the Whitten family have traded in the area, beginning with William Henry Whitten in 1919. The reason why he could trade quite easily in such a bulky, heavy material as timber right down in south London was that in those days, Peckham had a canal. It was part of the Grand Surrey Canal, opened in 1807, which ran from Rotherhithe through Deptford to Camberwell, with a branch off southwards ending in Peckham, which opened in 1826. Originally the intention was to take it as far as Portsmouth!

The canal started from the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe, which specialised in the timber trade from the Baltic and North America. Timber was unloaded and the larger pieces stored in timber ponds, in 1914 there were six of them covering much of the Rotherhithe peninsula. The larger timbers were stored stapled together in rafts in the ponds, so that they didn’t dry out before they were needed. Planks and boards were stacked on the wharves to dry, sometimes in sheds. They were shifted by hand by deal porters, wearing protective leather headgear and aprons. It was a very tough and skilled job. Rotherhithe’s links with the timber trade survive in the names of the old docks, Canada Water, Russia Dock Woodland, and in the three Scandinavian churches in the area, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish.

Canal barges pulled by horses were used to transport the timber, and the canal was also used to transport limestone for cement, and by the South Metropolitan Gas Company to take coal to the gasworks on the Old Kent Road. In the later 19th century, the canal authorities charged for fishing licences, a local pub hired out rowing boats, and there was also swimming and illegal dog racing going on around the canal. It began to decline after the Second World War when lorries became the dominant means of transport, and then when the Surrey docks closed in 1971, the canal was redundant. It became polluted and filled with rubbish, and the PLA and Southwark Borough Council decided in 1974 to fill it in. Nowadays you can follow the line by bike or on foot from Peckham through into Burgess Park, which makes a nice walk, and you can admire the two handsome old canal bridges going over the path.