The London Canal Museum by the Battlefield Basin (previously known as the Horsfall Basin and the Maiden Lane Basin) on the Regent’s Canal near King’s Cross station is a conventional canal museum, founded in 1992 but, uniquely, it also conserves buildings associated with the ice trade of the nineteenth century.
The Regent’s Canal opened in 1820 and extended 14 km from the Paddington terminus of the Grand Junction Canal at the River Thames at Limehouse, at what was then called Regent’s Canal Dock. The museum features a cabin typical of those that were homes to the families that crewed some of the canal boats. It illustrates the lives of canal boatpeople, the cargoes carried, and the role of horses on the waterways. There are explanations of how locks work. One section tells the story of the ‘Blow-up Bridge’ that crosses the canal on the edge of Regent’s Park not far from the museum. In October 1874 the bridge was destroyed when the narrow boat Tilbury, carrying sugar, nuts, petroleum and gunpowder, exploded, killing her crew and causing widespread destruction. The bridge was afterwards restored but some of the cast-iron columns that support it, supplied by the Coalbrookdale Company, were re-erected on the wrong alignment.
The museum is accommodated in an ice warehouses of the early 1860s built by Carlo Gatti (1817-78) from Ticino, who settled in England in 1847. He made and sold ice cream and chocolate and displayed a chocolate machine in the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. The same year he established a stand in Hungerford Market in London selling ice creams at a penny each. The market was destroyed by fire in 1854 but Gatti was insured and profitably invested his compensation. He built a music hall nearby in 1857 but sold the site to the South Eastern Railway for the building of Charing Cross station which opened in 1864. He began to import ice from Norway on a large scale, using it himself in the manufacturing of ice cream but also selling it to fishmongers and other traders who needed to keep food fresh. The warehouse has a huge well in which the ice was stored after it was brought to the basin by canal boat from the docks. Gatti returned to Switzerland in 1871 by which time he was a millionaire, and left his family in charge of the business.