Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  9 (1884–85), 857–76.

Through London by Canal

Benjamin Ellis Martin


Essay, Travelogue


Zoological Gardens, Navigation, Humanism, Engineering, History of Science, Railways, Pollution, Machinery, Transport, Progress, Environmentalism

    Attempting to travel between Paddington and the Limehouse Basin using London's neglected network of canals, the American narrator describes the journey through Regent's Park and the 'grounds of the Zoological Gardens', noting that 'the quaint buildings, half hidden by the foliage, the queer boxes and cages lying about on the bank above, in which beasts and birds have been brought from other lands, give a flavor of these other lands to the unfamiliar scene'. Soon after passing the Zoological Gardens, the earthy captain of the barge, who has already abandoned his initial impression that the narrator and his companion 'were scientific parties, on discovering our gross ignorance of all the phenomena of canal navigation', mistakes them for 'gents of the Humane Society', and on being berated by a 'ribald youth' standing on the canal path, asks them 'why carn't you do something about this sort o' thing, instead o' botherin' forever about dumb animiles?'. (864) As they approach Kentish Road Lock, the narrator observes that the lock is a 'simple old affair [...] hardly changed in its construction since Leonardo da Vinci built the first one in 1497'. While waiting for the lock to be opened, he reflects on 'other meritorious matters' such as 'how old canals are [...] and how the Chinese dug them, and the Egyptians used them', and comes to 'the Duke of Bridgewater and his great work' before realising that he is 'fast becoming an obnoxious member of the Society for the Diffusion of Useless Knowledge [a parody of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge]' (867). Asserts that along a stretch of canal in Islington the 'air we breathe is almost as poisonous as the delectable compound called by that name [i.e. the air] provided for the passengers by the underground railway' (870). Discusses plans for new railway lines alongside the canal, and suggests that the 'masses of men pouring out of every city station from under-ground and suburban railways of a morning, and in again at night' show that these 'new ways of transit are needed' (873), although those who 'come to the banks of the canal to [...] enjoy the pittance of peace and of beauty left to them amid the city's ugliness and noise feel deeply the loss which is threatened them, and protest [...] against the threatened inroad of iron rails, signal-boxes, steam-whistles, rattling trains, and all that Modern Improvement means' (874).

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