The Story of Canvey Island III
The Days of Not So Long Ago
There must be few who will remember well
The Island all the years of Thatcher Bell;
Yet we who came but twenty years ago
Oft wonder at the changes that we know.
There came the auction sales, with free supply
Of generous lunch for those who came to buy;
When some would take whate’er there was to sell,
For some had dined not wisely, but too well.
Yet though some rued the business of the day,
The wiser ones chose well and came to stay:
Though oft they built ignoring rule and plan,
Or spent the summer in a caravan.
What tell-tale names they gave their bungalows,
What gay discussions ere at last they chose
Maybe the names of man and wife conjoint,
Or words mis-spelt to half-disguise the point.
In those days we would trudge the weary miles
Of winding field-track, climbing o’er the stiles;
In winter forced o’er-flowering dykes to jump,
In summer carrying water from the pump.
Here we would walk along a lonely shore
And see no sign of human movement more
Than some old dame, by scarcity made brave,
Snatching her fire-wood from the teasing wave.
When we would reach the train our way we took
To hire an ancient trap from Farmer Cook;
And there would wait impatient while his steed
Evaded capture round the spacious mead.
And yet, methinks, when well upon our way,
Jogging along ‘mid fields of fragrant hay,
That quaint contraption brought more joy to us
Than now we know in modern motor-bus.
We soon become accustomed to new ways,
And now ’tis hard to think of earlier days,
When life for us seemed almost to consist
Of making ventures like the colonist.
To reach our Island home we braved the deep,
Watching the hungry waves around us leap;
Standing o’er-crowded in the ferry boat
And scarcely knowing how she kept afloat;
Recalled, maybe, the story of the horse
Swept out to sea by the o’er-powering force
Of that strong torrent, swiftly swept away,
To perish in the waters of the Ray;
The day when ice-floes stretched from shore to shore
And strong arms strained upon the bending oar;
Again and yet again swept down the tide
Before the boat was brought from side to side.
At other times the water at the ford
Would passage to a vehicle accord;
Then proudly crossing in our waggonette
We raised our feet to keep from the wet.
Sometimes, again, we raced the rushing tide,
Which left us scarce a moment to decide
To dare the stepping-stones or once again
Wait wistful watching the departing train.
And some remember coming late from town
Creeping in darkness to the water down,
Failing to rouse the boatman with their din,
And lodging for the night at Benfleet Inn.
How narrow seems the little strip of tide
Beneath the Bridge: but then how woeful wide,
When aid to save a loved one’s life might be
So long delayed by that dividing sea.
What do you know who never stood with us
Waiting an hour the coming of the bus?
Nor crouched within the double-freighted Fords’
Watching the roadway through the gaping board?
How should you know, who use electric stoves,
The trials of the house-wife it behoves
To cook a meal to feed a hungry crew
On those old-fashioned oil-stoves that we knew?
Remember, street-lamps are a recent boon;
We fixed our evening gatherings by the Moon,
And Church and Chapel solved the problem vexed
Of who should have one moon and who the next.
And when we dared the darkness of the night
Our swinging lantern was our only light:
We watched a friend approaching from afar,
Tracing his progress by his wandering star.
Yet those who still such days can call to mind
Remember too how neighbourly and kind
The simple-hearted folk all seemed to be,
Bearing each other’s burdens cheerfully.
The Islander no class distinctions knew,
The friendly word, the helping hand, were due
To one and all; nor feared he for his store,
His plot unfenced, no lock upon his door.
What tasks we tackled, what good work would do,
Sharing each other’s tools and labours too;
Counting ourselves well paid with simple thanks
For sweeping flues or cleaning water-tanks.
The news soon spread when so-and-so was ‘down,’
The Island knew when someone was in Town;
And folks expected him without a moan
To do his neighbour’s shopping with his own.
Sometimes when we would have a treat for tea
We took our shrimping nets and scoured the sea;
And, wedding strenuous toil to healthy fun,
Both tea and appetite for tea we won.
We waded out to where the lighthouse stands
Straddling its iron legs over the sands;
We cheer the lonely watcher of the light
And brought the fish his lines had caught at night.
For garden-work we donned a well-worn suit,
Held friendly barter with our home-grown fruit:
And proudly feasted at the close of day
On fish we caught while boating in the Bay.
Though some there were who with indulgent Smile
Would jest about us and our ‘desert Isle,’
Yet spite of jest, and sometimes spite of sneers,
We thought with pride, ‘WE ARE THE PIONEERS!’