The "Netherlandish Community"

Written by Dr Basil E Cracknell PhD

§1.   The Building Of The Dutch Wall

In September, 1621, the sea wall at Dagenham, which had already been repaired in 1593, was again breached, and the young Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was commissioned to superintend the work of enclosure. This is the first mention of Vermuyden in connection with the Thames estuary, and indeed the first record of his arrival in England. He did not come to England specifically to undertake this relatively minor work of reclamation; his main object was to drain the Great Level, and he only accepted this commission as a stopgap pending the completion of the negotiations for the major task in the Fens. Vermuyden was related to one Joas Croppenburg, a wealthy Dutch merchant of Cheapside, who had married his great-niece. Croppenburg was also known to Sir Henry Appleton, and it was very likely through these connections that Vermuyden came to be interested in the reclamation of the marshes at Canvey and elsewhere in the Thames estuary. Probably it was Vermuyden, with his agile mind and energetic enthusiasm for land reclamation, who suggested to Croppenburg that the Dutch should build a wall round the saltings of Canvey Island if Sir Appleton would give them one-third of the lands enclosed as payment for the work. The proposal evidently appealed to Sir Henry, and in April, 1622, an agreement was signed by which the following landed proprietors of Canvey Island, viz. Sir Henry Appleton, Julius Sludder, John, William, and Mary Blackmore, Thomas Binckes and his wife, and Abigail Baker, granted to Joas Croppenburg, citizen and haberdasher of London, in fee simple one-third of their lands, in consideration of his sufficiently inning and recovering the island from the overflowing of the tides and the encroach­ments of the sea, and maintaining an effective sea wall at his own costs and charges. The agreement was to be void if any breaches made in the sea walls erected by him were not made good within a year after their being made. On 1 December, 1623, Sir Henry Appleton’s conveyance of one-third of his lands in the island was enrolled on the Chancery Close Rolls.1 By this deed Sir Henry Appleton made over to Joas Croppenburg a total of 471 a. 120 r., including the marshes of Westwick, Shonares, Westatnes, Chaffleet, Wellispit, Darlette, and Castlewick. The detailed identification of marshes in this document proves beyond doubt that the wall had been completed by this date.’

It will be noted that the name of Vermuyden is not included in the agreement of 1622 and it is a curious fact that Salmon (1740), Morant (1768), and Wright (1831) make no mention of Vermuyden in connection with Canvey Island. However, there is a strong tradition in the district which connects him with the work, and there are no less than three houses in the vicinity which are supposed to have been occupied by him when he was superintending operations, at Grays, at South Benfleet, and on Canvey itself. In view of his personal relationship to Joas Croppenburg, and of the fact that he was already working on Thames-side at Dagenham, it seems probable that he did in fact carry out the engineering work on behalf of Croppenburg.

The Dutch engineers built the wall from the marsh clay available on the spot, as was the usual practice in land reclamation. The broad ditch which was created in the process ran parallel to the wall and was called the Delph Ditch; it played an important part in the drainage system. The smaller runlets in the enclosed marshes were filled in, and the drainage concentrated into the main natural channels which were allowed to discharge into the river through seven main sluices. These later became known as Commissioners’ Dykes and did not belong to the owners of the property through which they ran.

Although the agreement was originally signed by Joas Croppenburg alone, on the one part, it is clear that he obtained the necessary capital for the work from elsewhere by borrowing on the security of the one-third of the land enclosed. The capital probably came from Holland, for one Heinrick Brouwer, writing from Amsterdam in 1637, says that he obtained a sixteenth share in Canvey Island through his acquaintance with Joas Croppenburg whilst in London in 16223.

When the wall was completed, considerable numbers of Dutch workmen settled on the island as farmers. Tradition has it that the two small octagonal-shaped cottages on Canvey Island were built by the Dutch settlers, and they have long been known as the “Dutch Cottages.” The cottages are built of plastered timber framing with a thatched roof and a central brick chimney stack. However, the cottages bear dates 1618 and 1621 respectively and this suggests that at least the earlier one was built some time before the wall was finished. It may be that both cottages were the homes of Dutch engineers employed to carry out reclamation work on a limited scale before the main wall was built. The Julius Sludder mentioned earlier as one of the signatories of the 1622 agreement was at that time the occupier of the land adjacent to the Dutch Cottage at Hill Hall (dated 1618).

The curious octagonal shape of these cottages has been the object of considerable speculation. Some believe they were designed to withstand the force of the winds, and were built with two storeys because of the danger from flooding. Others hold that the shape was dictated by the fact that the cottages were built on mounds, i.e., “Hill Hall” and “Church Hill” (the old name for Chaffleet Farm). Possibly the shape owes something to the windmills of Holland.

Until some time between 1872 and 1902, when it was either blown down or burned down, there was a third Dutch Cottage on the island. This cottage, which was not built on a mound, was located on the south side of the road to Northwick just east of the footpath to Little Brickhouse. It is clearly shown as an octagonal building in the map prepared in 1839 for tithe purposes. At that time it was occupied by one John Mew, who farmed 41 acres around the cottage, all of it Third Acre land (see below). In a manuscript sketch map of 1771 at the Essex Record Office this land is shown to be in the occupation of one Wm. Kesterman, apparently of Dutch origin.

There are two other Dutch Cottages in Essex, and both are similar to those on Canvey Island. One is at Finchingfield but this is known to have been erected at the end of the eighteenth century, and the other is at Rayleigh. Although this cottage bears the date 1621 it is probably a copy of the cottage on Canvey Island which bears that same date since it has no seventeenth-century features. It is almost certain that a genuine Dutch Cottage of the seventeenth century, similar to those on Canvey Island, once stood on the edge of the marshes at Shopland near Rochford. From excava­tions at the site it is known that the building was rounded and had a thatched roof and a central brick chimney stack. Remains of pottery of European origin and dating from the early seventeenth century were found on the site. It is known that the Dutch were employed on reclamation work at several points round the Essex coast at this time, and it is likely that one of the Dutch engineers made his home here.

Dutch visitors to Canvey Island have not recognised the cottages as being typically “Dutch,” but this is hardly surprising. With their timber-frame construction and thatched roofs the cottages were particularly susceptible to fire. It is probable that, in a country as densely settled and cultivated as the Netherlands, such cottages as survived the hazard of fire were demolished to make way for more modern dwellings. It is to the extreme isolation of Canvey Island for so many generations that we owe the survival of these quaint and unique little cottages.

In 1628, the year in which Cornelius Vermuyden received his knight­hood, two hundred ” Low Country Strangers ” employed in ” tilling and husbanding of ground in Canvey Island” petitioned King Charles for permission to hold services in the Dutch language. It is doubtful whether the whole 200 were actually living on Canvey Island. It is known, for instance, that several Dutch families were living in the neighbouring district of Fobbing and Vange where the Dutch had also been employed in reclamation work, and these would almost certainly have added their names to the petition. The King instructed the Bishop of London, George Monteigne, to see that this request was granted. On 21 December, 1631, the Dutch com­munity elected Cornelius Jacobsen as their minister, agreeing to pay him three pence per annum for every acre in their possession ” on condition that as long as the land does not produce anything the proprietors shall allow the half of this contribution to be paid from the rent “—perhaps an allusion to the saline condition of the soil and the poor crops it yielded so soon after enclosure. The entry was duly made in the registers of the Dutch Church in London: ” Cornelius Jacobsen, Minister of the Divine Word in England in the Netherlandish Community at Canvey Island.”

So was established the Dutch Community on Canvey Island: a curious enclave of foreigners on a little island, a closely-knit community which remained for a long time Dutch-speaking and was only absorbed into the life of the neighbourhood after much tribulation and bitterness.

§2.   Sources Of Anglo-Dutch Conflict

The Dutch Community had not been in Canvey for many years before it found itself faced with several difficult problems, most of which ranged the Dutch people in opposition to their English neighbours on the island.

The first, and perhaps the most serious, was the religious conflict. The Dutch, who were Presbyterians, had erected their own chapel after obtaining permission from King Charles, and the services were conducted in the Dutch language. This soon became a source of ill feeling between the two nationalities on the island. The English residents had no option but to make the long, and at times hazardous, journey across the island and over Hadleigh Ray to the church of St. Mary, or “Benfleet-cum-Canvey” as it came to be called. Nor was this all. If they wished to have a child baptized, or to get married, they had to make arrangements with the priest of the particular parish in which they lived, who might well be several miles away on the mainland at, say, Vange, Pitsea, or Prittlewell. The parish records of these places contain many references to such duties performed for parishioners on Canvey Island. Eventually matters came to a head when one of the English families refused to pay tithes to the parish priest on the ground that they received none of the spiritual benefits to which they were entitled. The priest suggested that the English people on the island should provide a place of worship, but when they appealed to the Dutch for permission to use their chapel for services occasionally they were refused. The Dutch were probably afraid that if they permitted the English to use the chapel they might forfeit the privilege of holding services in their native tongue. There was a heated exchange of views, if not blows, outside the Dutch chapel on Whit Monday, 1656, and the English retired discomfited. The Dutch chapel continued to be used by the Dutch Community until 1704.

The perennial problem of the marshlands, water, was another source of friction. Before the Dutch wall was built wildfowl provided a useful sub­sidiary source of income to the marshmen. But when the Dutch settled there, they began to cultivate the soil. Mention has already been made of their application for leave to hold services in their own language, in which they described themselves as employed in “tilling and husbanding of ground in Canvey Island.” There is plenty of corroborative evidence that they were engaged largely in arable cultivation. In 1638, for instance, the Minister Cornelius Jacobsen, summoned to London to explain why he had made so little return from the farming of land which had been presented to the Dutch church on Canvey by Heinrick Brouwer (mentioned earlier), complained that with the exception of one good barley harvest the land had yielded poor crops. Apparently the harvests improved, for in the following year he was able to pay arrears of rent of £6 2s. 6d. to another Dutchman, Nicholas Pelseere, whose tenant he was.

The majority of the coastal marshlands at this time were devoted to the pasturing of livestock. The marshes on the south bank of the River Thames had hardly been ploughed at all; those on the north bank appear to have been given over mainly to pasture until about the middle of the eighteenth century. As late as 1795 an agricultural writer says of the marshes of Dengie: ” The estates bordering the sea coasts . . . and the lands which have been produced by and embanked at different periods from the sea, were formerly under pasture but of late years a considerable portion of them have been brought under the plough.” This may be compared with the observation of Daniel Defoe in 1722: ” It is observable that great part of the lands in these levels [i.e., along the north shore of the lower Thames] . . . are held by the farmers, cowkeepers and grazing butchers who live in and near London, and that they are generally stocked . . . with large fat sheep.” Thus, at a time when the traditional economy of the coastal marshes took the form of pasturing sheep and cattle, the little Dutch community of Canvey Island was turning to arable cultivation. Friction was inevitable because the water requirements for arable are different from those for pasture. The English residents, most of whom were engaged upon livestock farming, wanted the water level in the drainage ditches to be kept sufficiently high to ensure adequate water for their stock, whereas the Dutch were more anxious to keep their arable fields adequately drained. Moreover the English probably resented the effect of the enclosure and subsequent drainage upon the traditional marshland harvest of eels and wildfowl. They did not go to the lengths of compatriots in the Fens in taking up arms against the reclaimers, but they gave vent to their feelings in the words of this con­temporary ballad:—

Our smaller rivers are now dry land The eels are turned to serpents there And if Old Father Thames play not the man Then farewell to all good English beer.

Why should we stay then and perish with thirst? To the New World in the moon then away let us go For if the Dutch Colony get thither first Tis a thousand to one that they’ll drain that too.

In the original agreement the Dutch had undertaken not only to reclaim the land but also to maintain the walls at their own expense. Here was yet another constant source of irritation, for as the memory of the original enclosure faded and a new generation of Dutch people was born, not only among the settlers on the island but among the distant Dutch landowners, so the responsibility for wall repairs must have seemed increasingly onerous, and the Dutch must have resented having to maintain the wall when their English neighbours, with twice as much land as they, benefited twice as much and paid not a penny towards the cost. The gradual land subsidence was continuing all the time, and in the Holehaven area particularly, where the shore dips steeply down to the bed of the river, erosion of the banks gave constant trouble. Just how the Dutchmen arranged for the repair of the walls is unknown, but their lands became known as ” Third Acre lands ” and the owners were called upon to pay a special ” Third Acre ” tax for the upkeep of the walls. It was because of this that the conveyance of the Third Acre lands in 1623 specified the acreage of the lands conveyed down to the nearest rood, instead of in very vague terms as was usual with marsh­land conveyances. There are no records of serious floods during the seven­teenth century until the year 1690, when the minutes of the Commissioners of Sewers for the Rainham Levels tell of a great inundation at Tilbury and refer to ” several breaches in the walls occasioned by the great winds and tides which had then lately happened,” and to the Tilbury Levels as being ” drowned with salt water.” This great storm must also have affected Canvey Island and added considerably to the difficulties and expense of maintaining the wall.

One final source of conflict may be mentioned although its importance should not be exaggerated. When the Dutch refugees from Catholic persecu­tion began to arrive in England in the late sixteenth century they were received with a sympathetic welcome; many of them settled in Colchester and established the bay industry there. Probably several Dutch families settled in the Thames-side district at this time. Early in the seventeenth century, however, the political climate changed drastically. Hardly had the Dutch settled on Canvey when the massacre of Amboyna took place (1623), an event which greatly incensed the English and presaged a long period of commercial rivalry and wars.

During the Dutch War of 1651-4 the Dutch Church in London sent a circular letter to the various Dutch churches in England suggesting that a “colloque” or assembly be called. The elders of the Canvey Chapel replied:—

“On the 6th inst. we received your letter asking our opinion as to convoking the triennial colloque. It having been put off last year on account of the then existing troubles, and these seem to have increased rather than diminished, whereas we now have this deplorable war and discord with our own nation, such an assembly might easily be regarded with distrust. Hence we think that it should be again postponed till better times, perhaps for a whole year.”

The middle years of the century were largely occupied with these wars, which reached a humiliating climax in 1667 when the Dutch admiral De Ruytcr sailed up the Thames estuary and burned our finest ships as they lay at anchor in the Medway, Parliament having paid off the crews in anticipation of an early peace. Canvey figured prominently in these events, for the Dutch sailors landed on the island, presumably in search of provisions, and caused considerable damage to property. Sir Henry Appleton wrote to the Secretary of State after the incident: ” The Dutch have landed on Canvey and plundered it, damaging barns and eight houses and taken several small boats.” Further evidence of the damage comes from Vange, where the rector, George Maule, in his will dated 23 September, 1667, directs that the residue of his goods, chattels, and plate be bestowed “in erecting and new building of my house and barn on my farm in Canvey lately burnt down by the Dutch.” One wonders whether the Dutch seamen subjected the property of their compatriots to the treatment they evidently meted out to that in English ownership! It seems that Admiral De Ruyter was indignant at the behaviour of his men on this occasion, for it is said that they were severely punished on their return to the ships. During the Dutch wars the community on Canvey Island was completely cut off from the home-land and was unable to obtain a minister for several years. When William of Orange came to the English throne in 1688, the political climate changed again in favour of the Dutch connection, and it may be that, having experienced so many years of isolation in an enemy country, some of the Dutch settlers took advantage of the changed situation to return to their country of origin.

§3.   Disease And Dissension

Conflicts with their English neighbours were not the only troubles the Dutch had to face; there were also internal difficulties which undermined the community life of the settlement. Foremost among these was the incidence of disease. In common with all the coastal marshes at this time, and indeed until quite recent times, the marshes of Canvey were cursed with the ague, or malaria as we should call it to-day. Camden refers to ” the unhealthy soil and air of the coastal hundreds,” and Norden complained ” I cannot com­mend the healthfulness of it [i.e., Essex] and especially near the sea coasts Rochford, Denge, and Tendring Hundreds and other lowe places about the creeks which gave me a moste cruell quarterne fever.'” It may well have been the fact that women seemed to suffer more severely than the men, added of course to the natural difficulties of access to the coastal saltings, that led to the practice of having sheep milked by men and boys. Defoe, in a much-quoted passage from his Tour of Eastern England in 1722 (p. 29), refers specifically to the effect of the ague on the women of the marshy districts and upon social life there:—

” I took notice of the strange decay of the sex here insomuch that all along this country it was very frequent to meet with men that had had from five and six wives to fourteen and fifteen wives, nay and some more. I was informed that in the marshes on the other side of the river over against Candy Island (i.e., Canvey Island) there was a farmer who was then living with the five and twentieth wife, and that his son, who was then about thirty-five years old, had already had about fourteen. Indeed this part of the story I had only by report though from good hands too, but the other is well known and easy to be inquired into about Fobbing Corringham Thundersley Benfleet Prittlewell Wakering Great Stambridge Cricksea Burnham Dengy and other towns of the like situation. The reason, as a merry fellow told me who said he had had about a dozen and a half wives . . . though I found afterwards that he fibbed a little . . . was this: That they being bred in the marshes themselves and seasoned to the place did pretty well with it, but that they always went up into the hilly country, or, to speak their own language, into the uplands for a wife. That when they took the young lasses out of the wholesome and fresh air they were healthy fresh and clear and well, but when they came out of their native air into the marshes among the fogs and damps there they presently changed their complexion, got an ague or two, and seldom held it above half a year or a year at the most. ‘And then ‘ said he, ‘ we go up to the uplands again and fetch another ‘ so that marrying of wives was reckoned a good form to them. It is true the fellow told this in a kind of drollery and mirth, but the fact for all that is certainly true, and that they have abundance of wives by that very means. Nor is it less true that the inhabitants of these places do not hold it out as in other countries, and as first you seldom meet with very ancient people among the poor as in other places we do, so take it one with another not one half of the inhabitants are natives of the place, but such as from other countries or other parts of the country settle here for the advantage of good farms, for which I appeal to any impartial inquiry having myself examined into it critically in several places.”

Malaria is not usually a fatal disease to those who are acclimatized to it; as a rule they only suffer occasional incapacitation at the height of the fever. But those who are not acclimatized succumb quickly. The bulk of the Dutch settlers no doubt suffered the inconvenience of periodic shivering fits, but probably treated them as we treat an attack of the ‘flu to-day. Indeed, it was once the polite form of enquiry into another person’s health in south Essex to ask ” Have you had your ague this spring? ” The worst time for ague was, of course, in the autumn, but since probably eighty per cent of the people underwent attacks at that season there was little point in asking ! The ague was thus little more than a nuisance to the permanent residents of Canvey, but to the visitors it was more than that: it was often fatal. The priests who came to minister to the Dutch people, in particular, often found that they required ministering to more urgently than their flock. The first minister, Cornelius Jacobsen, it is true, served his people for thirteen years apparently without suffering unduly, but with his departure there is a sorry succession of ministers who found the unhealthiness of the place too much for them. Jacobsen was succeeded by one Mathyas van de Westhuise, who had been on the island only a few months before he was stricken with the ague and died after an illness lasting seven or eight days. Not unnaturally the little Dutch community found the greatest difficulty in obtaining a successor. They were too poor to be able to afford more than £14 per annum, which the Dutch Church in London increased to £26, but this was hardly sufficient to attract a clergyman across from Holland to such an outlandish station. Eventually a ” very learned and devout young man” named George Meunix agreed to undertake the ministry for a period of one year. He was followed by two other ministers, but they can only have remained for a short time, for in 1650 the Dutch community complained that it had been a year without a minister. This was doubly unfortunate, for the Dutch War of 1651-4 prevented anyone from coming across from Holland to fill the vacancy. After five years the Dutch chose a man whose reputation in Holland was unenviable. [It was said that after the death of his wife he had had a child by his maidservant.] Perhaps the Dutch of Canvey Island could not afford to be particular, but it appears that what­ever may have been the failings of Dom. Beutacq in his own country, he did at least make an effort to enlist the sympathies of his new parishioners, for they wrote to the colloque in London to say that ” He has accommodated himself to this place. For whereas all former ministers have resided far away from us, which was very inconvenient in cases of illness and death, this man resides with us and is content with our food and drink.” They added: ” The brethren and sisters of the Fobbing side, as well as those of the Island, mostly declare that they will not allow preaching to be stopped till the old offences are proved, or till he has given fresh occasion for considering him unworthy of the ministry.” However, the London colloque had made enquiries about the new minister in Holland and their fears had been confirmed. They therefore insisted that Dom. Beutacq could not be allowed to become their minister. The consistory of the Dutch chapel on Canvey accepted this decision loyally, if reluctantly, but many of the congregation refused to agree and twenty-nine of them wrote to the London Church: ” John Beutacq has been an exemplary minister to us . . . and is liked by the English among whom we live. If we cannot have our wish we will not contribute towards the maintenance of another minister. We intend to let him preach as we derive great benefit in illness and other respects as former ministers very seldom visited our sick.” Dom. Beutacq was eventually ousted from the Dutch chapel and another minister appointed, but it appears that the schism was never properly healed and some of the Dutch settlers took to worshipping with their English neighbours.

Two ministers followed Dom. Beutacq in quick succession, but then came Dom. Justijnus, who stayed for nearly twenty years. Perhaps his stay was not altogether from free choice, for once having held a post on Canvey Island it was apparently difficult to obtain a position elsewhere. Thus the minister at Canvey, writing in 1697, complains that he could not leave the community ” even in case of crossing to Holland, as to say one has had a place here sounds strange to my people, and a fact to be interpreted unfavourably.” The last Dutch incumbent on the island suffered from the ague and, if his widow is to be believed, from acute dissension and unhappi-ness among his people. Maybe, however, the fault was not entirely theirs for the Dutch Church in London found it necessary in 1703 to expel their minister, Emilius von Cuilenborgh, from the church. In her letter to the Dutch Church in London appealing for an increase in her pension after the death of her husband (who was buried in South Benfleet churchyard in 1704), his widow speaks of his fight against marsh fever, and tells how ” wounded to the soul by oppression pain and calumny he at last yielded up the ghost.” It was a pathetic epitaph to the story of a community’s struggle for existence against a harsh environment in a foreign land.

The disappearance of the Dutch community of Canvey Island still remains something of a mystery. It has always been assumed that the Dutch people, disheartened by their misfortunes, returned to their home­land about the end of the seventeenth century. But there is no evidence of such a mass exodus, and indeed no direct evidence of their departure at all. The only clues one can find are of a negative character. Dutch names disappear from the registers of St. Mary’s, Benfleet, after about 1700. No more Dutch ministers are appointed to the chapel after 1704 and it is allowed to fall into disuse, to be rebuilt after a few years for services in English. Taken in conjunction with the evidence of disease and dissensions within the Dutch community, these facts certainly provide some basis for the assumption that some at least of the Dutch did leave the island. But on the other hand it is difficult to imagine second-generation and third-generation Dutch farmers who had never known any other home suddenly forsaking all they possessed without some more pressing reason. More plausibly it may be suggested that the Dutch settlers had come to the conclusion that there was little point in retaining their Dutch nationality and had deliberately anglicized their names and adopted the language, customs, and even worship, of their English neighbours. It is now certain that something of the sort did happen. And this might also explain why the Dutch Church in London continued to own lands in Canvey until about 1800, when the sale of fifty-six acres brought to an end their financial interest in the island. Only the curious little round cottages built by their ancestors remained, two of them to the present day, as authentic reminders of what was significantly called the ” Dutch Colony.”

Comments about this page

  • Great article – thank you! But you miss out my ancestor who was minister there c.1688-94: Peter des Reaux. Do you have any information on him? He was a French Huguenot, so rather interesting.

    By Monica Kendall (17/07/2018)
  • The thesis was written in 1959. If you read it carefully you will see that he has not named any encumbered during that period. If your ancestor was the encumbered what proof do you have. The name does not show up on any documents we have seen so far but we do have more to go through.

    By Janet Penn (17/07/2018)

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