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History of Carpenters Road Lock

Find out how the construction of Carpenters Road Lock was a pioneering solution for East London's waterways and why it was all left to rust in the 1960s.

Working boat on the waterways

The Bow Back Rivers consist of several waterways running through Stratford and East London. They originate with the River Lea, which starts in Hertfordshire and flows south, joining the Thames at Bow Creek about two miles south of the Olympic Park.

By the 1850s this area of marshy land around the Lea valley was home to a wide variety of industries producing everything from paint to rubber to gin to gunpowder. The factories were smoky, often smelly and generally tipped their unwanted by-products into the rivers, but they provided thousands of jobs to the growing districts of East London.

Back then the tidewaters of the Thames made some sections of the Bow Back Rivers look very different. Twice a day the river level would rise, making it hard to get boats under the bridges and even flooding low-lying ground. And twice a day the river level would drop, leaving wide muddy areas on either side, and even the occasional stranded boat.

The lock

This ongoing situation was made worse by extreme weather. Heavy rain in Hertfordshire would send a surge of water down the River Lea. If this met rising tide water coming up the Thames, the rivers here could burst their banks and flood out homes and factories.

A particularly bad flood in 1928 caused damage all along the Thames, and put the Stratford railway works under water. The answer was to invest in flood defences to control how much water flowed where. In 1934 Carpenters Road Lock was built between the Waterworks River and City Mill River.

The giant radial gates allowed the lock keeper to regulate the flow of water from Waterworks River into the City Mill channel, thereby keeping the water level on either side below the danger point. By using two gates, boats could pass through the lock without too much water being transferred between the two rivers. This ‘double radial' lock gate reflects the need at Carpenters Road to allow river traffic while guarding against flood, and is unique in Britain.

The decline

Carpenters Road Lock in the 1970s

The canal and river network turned Stratford into an industrial district. But by the mid 19th Century, Britain's 4,000-mile-long canal network had increasing competition from that other marvel of the Industrial Revolution, the steam locomotive train.

It was a competition that the canals were doomed to lose, slowly and painfully. Railways kept on getting faster, and canal companies could only compete by cutting prices (and wages) and spending less on maintenance.

Even nationalisation of the canals and railways after World War II failed to revive canal traffic. By the 1950s the Bow Back Rivers had no commercial use. The lock gates and lifting mechanism at Carpenters Road were allowed to rust, and were last opened in the 1960s.

But London is an irrepressible city and our canals and rivers never stand still. The story of the old 1935 lock, left abandoned and rusting now comes to an end. But, thanks to the efforts of our skilled team and a growing recognition of the value of the waterways, the story of the modern day lock, designed to sit in a public park and allow leisure boaters access to the Bow Back Rivers begins.


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Last Edited: 29 June 2017

photo of a location on the canals
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