The Makers of Canvey Island (part one)

By Mary L. Cox 1902.

This article originally appeared in the Home Counties Magazine in 1902. These are also original photos from the magazine.

Dutch Boats off Seawall

To assert that Canvey Island possesses one of the most unique histories of any locality within a short distance of London is no unreasonable claim to distinction for a place which, at first glance, appears quite destitute of any of the usual historical landmarks. Lacking in this respect, the island does, nevertheless, bear witness of the past, and in no small way—not of any great enterprise of our own countrymen, but of the dogged perseverance and indefatigable energy of a colony of determined Dutch people, who from 1622, for close upon a century, were almost the sole inhabitants, converting the six tide-washed, marshy islands into the wall-bound island of the present day, and instituting a system of drainage that made habitation possible, at least for those willing to risk the possibilities of malaria and ague. Until the improvements of the last thirty years were effected, converting the island into one of the healthiest places of the Essex coast, Canvey was shunned by all but those acclimatised.

The Dutch, although not occupying any land at the present day, still continue their connection with the island, for in the creek they anchor their picturesque eel-boats (that supply the demands of the London market), and carry on a small local trade in cheeses,, brooms, and sabots.

Canvey Island, situated at the mouth of the Thames, and divided from the Essex mainland by Hadleigh Ray and Benfleet Creek, is accessible to pedestrians at low tide. Its length is about five miles, its breadth two miles; contains some 3,600 acres, and supports a population of over 300.

Until the seventeenth century, although generally spoken of as Canvey Island, the area now comprised within the sea walls was in reality six islands, cut up by many creeks and waterways, and constantly overflowed by the tides. These six islands are found in Norden’s map of 1594, and also on that drawn by Speede in 1610. Tillage was practically impossible, but the marshes and saltings afforded very valuable pasturage for about 4,000 sheep, according to Camden. Cheeses of the ewes’ milk were made in the small huts or dairies called “wicks,” the nuclei of many of the present farms. This dairy work was carried on by men, for it was impossible for the women and children to withstand the un-healthiness of the climate. Until recent years it was no parish, but paid, and still pays, tithes to the following nine parishes: North and South Benfleet, Bowers Gifford, Laindon, Pitsea, Vange, Prittlewell, Southchurch, and Hadleigh.

Its history divides itself into three distinct parts, with sharply defined characteristics attached to each. The first, longest, and undoubtedly the least interesting, terminates with the introduction of the Dutch in 1622. The time they practically possessed the island, and the years subsequent, comprise the second, a period full of interest; and the third dates from the arrival of the Rev. Henry Hayes (first vicar) in 1872, who henceforth, until his death in 1900, devoted his ceaseless energy to the development of the resources of the island and a village life, which before his time was absolutely non-existent.

Canvey Island is doubtless the Convennos mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography, but of its early history facts are very meagre. In 1263 Peter de Moubery, and Eigena his wife, granted the marsh called Westwick, “lying between the marsh called Horemors and le Hole hauene,” to John de Longe, and Joan his wife, they in return rendering annually to God and the church of Morton five and a half marks. Before 13 Edward I. William Woodham held the marsh Northwick “cum Wykis” of William Fitz-Peter, at an annual rent of two marks. These marshes Roger Apulton, esq., possessed when he died in 1557, and were by him held of Suzanna Tonge, alias Clarensiux, as of her manor of Thundersley; Chafflett and Fatherwick Marshes he also held, all this property having be­longed to his grandfather, Roger Apulton, who had died in 1530. In 1604 the Appletons also held a salt marsh called Autliche and Wolfpittle, and another called Shornam. The greater part of the island, in fact, belonged to the Appletons, who made a consider­able figure in county history, and lived at Jarvis Hall, South Benfleet, for nearly two centuries. The family was ruined through its adherence to the royalist cause in the Civil War.

Other ancient possessors of lands in the island were Edward Baker, who, in 1543, Nicholas Wentworth, esq., three marshes in Canweye, called Knightswyke, Southwyke, and Attnashe. In 1569 James Baker, esq., held 500 acres of salt marsh here.

In 1322 John de Apeton held a marsh in ” Canefe,” called Lymwerd, of Philip de Heneingham. In 1317 negotiations were opened with John, Duke of Brittany, respecting the ship La Lyon de Herwiz, that had been seized by one of the duke’s vessels in the island of Keneveys. Justice to Henry de Oreford, a burgess of Ipswich, the owner, was demanded and denied, but the captain and mariners were allowed their freedom.

Beyond such few facts as these little seems known of Canvey, being, as it was, a place of dreary, unhealthy marshes, unsuited for habitation. The incursions of the sea, so frequent and disastrous to the owners and their flocks, at last made it necessary that steps should be taken to ensure the marshes from these inroads. In times of danger the sheep were driven to the centre of the island, where the ground is somewhat higher. Quite possibly, before the arrival of the Dutch in the island, attempts had been made to protect the land from the sea, but the efforts made were evidently of little avail.

When the contracts for draining the marshy and fenny districts of England were undertaken by Cornelius Vermuyden in the seven­teenth century, the landowners of Canvey Island appear to have realized that it would be advisable to negotiate for securing their marshes from the sea. Accordingly, on 9th April, 1622, we find the following landowners—Sir Henry Appleton, Julius Bludder, John, William, and Mary Blackmore, Thomas Binckes and his wife, and Abigail Baker—granting in fee simple to Joas Cropenberch, haberdasher and citizen of London, one-third of their lands in the island, in consideration of his sufficiently “inning” and recovering the island at his own cost and charges, and maintaining an effective sea wall.

This was doubtless a speculation on his part, for the engineer who actually built the wall was the above-mentioned Cornelius Vermuyden, who about that time undertook the drainage of Dagenham Flats, and the marshes around Leigh and Hadleigh. Certain it is, that by 1st December, 21 Jas. I., Joas Cropenberch had performed his contract, for by indenture of that date Sir Henry Appleton granted him the third part of his lands, amounting to 471 acres, 120 rods, which included the marshes of Westwick, Shornares, Westateues, Chaffleet, Willispitt, Darlette, and Castleweeke. As frequently occurred, the capital for the undertaking was most probably raised in Holland, for Heinrick Brouwer, writing from Amsterdam in 1637, says, that through his acquaintance with the Croppenburghs, he obtained, when in London in 1622, a six­teenth share in the embankment of Canvey Island.

Their method of reclaiming the land appears to have been to dig a deep and broad ditch, called a delf, some little distance from the shore, and to have banked up the earth obtained by this means along the tide line, facing the whole towards the sea with stone. Marshes thus protected were levelled by filling up the smaller run­lets, the water which was tidal being directed into the larger ones that discharged themselves into the sea by sluices, seven in number, in various parts of the island. These are now known as the “Commissioners’ Dykes,” and in no way belong to the farms through which they run. The utilization of these natural water­ways accounts for the very tortuous dykes that form the boundary of one field from another. “Sunken” and “Rilly” marshes appear never to have been levelled after enclosure, for they bear to-day the deep traces of the smaller streams; but perhaps the best idea of a general condition of the land before the Dutch began their work may be gathered from the saltings, as seen in the photograph of the island from the mainland.

When once the island was secured from the tides considerable numbers of Dutch labourers settled there, for, in 1627, 200 of them employed in “tilling and husbanding of ground in Canvey Island ” petitioned George Monteigne, Bishop of London, that services should be held in Dutch, either in some near church, or in the house they had provided and fitted for divine service until they had built their intended chapel, within two or three years. This petition apparently was granted.

On 21st December, 1631, the Dutch community of Canvey Island elected Cornell’s Jacobsen as their minister, agreeing to pay him three pence 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.” This agreement was signed and approved by the following:

Henryck Thomassen ; Jan Lawrensen ; Jan Pieterssen ; Rutger Shuller; Jan Janssen ; Bartholomeus Janssen ; Pieter Martenssen ; Morinus Pieterssen ; Willem Key; Lenaert Adriaenssen; Bal­thazar Janssen; Morinus Aertsen ; Wouter Janssen; Lieven Jacobsen; Jacob Lievenssen; Boudewijn Stekelorum; Hugo Teunissen ; Jan Pietersen ; Peter Cornelissen ; Simeon Pawelsen ; Herman Claessen; Adriaen Janssen; Geraert Henrycksen; Boudewyn van Pachtenweghe; Adriaen Cornelissen; Teunis Claessen ; Jan van Collenberch.

Canvey from Benfleet Station

Six years later Heinrick Brouwer, of Amsterdam, offered to the consistory of the Netherland community in London, for the benefit of the poor, either the profits of his farm and house and barn, for the building of which he had incurred great expense, for the space of three years, or the outstanding balance, after all expenses had been paid, of a sale of the farm. This was managed by the minister, Cornells Jacobsen, who, as appears from the correspondence resulting from these negotiations, was a man whose writing left much to be desired. The consistory chose the former offer. Jacobsen’s know­ledge of farm management was, as might be expected, small, and re­sulted in practically no return to Heinrick Brouwer’s investment for the fifteen years it remained in his management. Jacobsen had the use of the house, barn, horses, and waggons, but as he personally worked on the land, he claimed a further annual benefit of £20, to the great resentment of Heinrick Brouwer, who argued that such work on the part of Jacobsen was inconsistent with his calling. In connection with this matter the farmer-minister was summoned to London in the autumn of 1638, and there stated that, with the exception of that year’s barley harvest, which was good, the land had been in a poor case, the proprietors suffering losses. Next year he succeeded in paying £6 2s. 6d. arrears of rent as tenant of “Mr. Nicholas Pelseere, Doutchman,” showing that farming for his own benefit was scarcely more profitable. He, together with Peter Priem, elder of the church, represented in the London colloque of 1641 the Dutch community of Canvey Island, one of the eight Dutch churches in England. As such they petitioned Charles I. for free exercise of their religion.

After thirteen years of useful and varied services to the islanders, Cornelis Jacobsen died, whereupon Peter Priem, who appears to have been one of the most wealthy and influential of the Dutch, was dis­patched to London with authority to elect a new minister. The choice fell upon Mathyas van de Westhuise, who a few months later seems to have succumbed to malarial influences, after an illness of seven or eight days, to the great loss of his congregation, by whom he was much loved. The difficulty of finding anyone to undertake this cure was considerable. No candidate appearing in London, the community there applied to Holland, in January 1645, for help. It was at this time suggested that, owing to the very small stipend, and the unhealthiness of the place, one minister should serve the two churches of Maidstone and Canvey Island, residing alternate months in each place. The powers in Holland demanded an assured annual income of £30, but only £14 could be raised on the island. The proprietors in London would supplement this sum only by £12, and then conditionally for work done. Should the islanders submit to a bailee, then that sum should be further in­creased by £5.

Upon this guarantee, Derick Hoste, of Middleburg, persuaded “a very learned and devout young man,” George Meunix, to undertake the ministry for one year. The congregation of Yar­mouth thought his talents hidden in Canvey, for they took steps to secure his ministrations, that brought upon them a rebuke from the London community. Being bound to serve the islanders for one year, George Meunix remained with them that time, for he deputed two of the community to be representatives at the colloque held in London in 1646. Upon his resignation Dom. Ketelaere undertook the ministry, and during his absence from the island to attend the colloque of the following year the Dutch found it necessary that baptism should be administered by the English, whereupon the consistory of Canvey begged their minister should return to them the earliest moment business would allow. Neither he nor his probable successor, Isack Snijers, found the circum­stances of life on the island sufficiently attractive to remain long, for, in 1650, the Dutch complained that they had been a year without any minister. Meetings, however, had not been aban­doned. In the name of the community Peter Priem begged that a minister should be sent from London for at least one service. This unsatisfactory condition of affairs was of long duration, for they had no minister to represent them in the annual London meeting in 1651, and the members of their consistory were “simple people with no learning,” incapable of transacting their business. Indeed, it is doubtful whether anyone attended to their spiritual needs until Dom. Johannes Beutacq, formerly of Nieuwkercke, was provisionally accepted by the community of Canvey Island in 1654.

This was the beginning of evil days for the islanders. Bad reports were current in Holland concerning this man, but, ac­cording to the evidence he produced in England, all the accusa­tions had been withdrawn. It was in that year’s colloque that Peter Priem made the provisional appointment known in Lon­don, but owing to a visit in the spring to Holland, his affairs in Canvey required his attention so urgently that the elder Antheunis Diericksen was deputed to replace him as the Canvey representative, and to decide all matters concerning the island. The colloque saw fit to decree that Dom. Beutacq should be sus­pended from office until his innocence was proved, and such was the news that Diericksen took back from London. Indignation burst out in every home, and a letter was despatched in all haste to London to beg this might not be the case, as “he has accom­modated himself to the 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.”

Chaffletts Farm

Meanwhile inquiries were being made in Holland, the result of which only confirmed the London consistory and colloque in the decision already arrived at. Harvest operations delayed a deputa­tion from the island to London, but by September division had crept into the community—the consistory willing to abide by the decision imposed upon them, the greater part of the congregation more determined than ever in their adherence to their minister, which determination they communicated to London, in a letter signed by twenty-nine members, saying that Dom. Beutacq had been with them for sixteen months, and was much liked also by the English, adding: “If we cannot have our wish we will not contribute to­wards the maintenance of another minister.” Peter Boije evidently was the ringleader of the resistance, for to him was addressed the re­monstrance by the London consistory as to its wrong. The party in favour of Beutacq never showed any sign of wavering in their resolution to retain him, for finding “no guilt for eighteen months we intend to let him preach, as we derive great benefit in illness and other respects, as former ministers very seldom visited our sick.”

Throughout these proceedings the consistory remained faithful to the London decree; but matters reached a climax on Sunday October 7th, when outside the church the people assembled, some “seemingly to hear the word of God, while others to let Beutacq preach, and not having the keys of the church, to break it open.” Peter Priem begged the people to comply with authority, but none would listen. They threateningly demanded the church keys, whereupon Priem and his fellow elder, desirous of avoiding open riot, decided to hang the keys upon the church door, admonishing the people to consider. No sooner was the door open than Dom. Beutacq, in the flush of victory, mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon, promising his adherents two for the following week. Immediately Peter Priem tendered his resignation, after fifteen years’ service. This the London consistory would not accept, asking him to have patience until some remedy could be found. The situation, however, was sufficiently grave to call for an extraordinary assembly in London in January, 1656, to which the householders of Canvey Island deputed Franchois Mannandijse, (elder), Johannes Malstaff, Anthoinis de Smith (deacons), and Pieter Parmentier, in the place of Gillis van Belle (elder), who was ill. In their plea for leniency towards Johannes Beutacq, they say the place was inconvenient and unfit for a minister of great respect. Canvey was again without a minister, as for some two or three months Johannes Beutacq appeared to take no active part in the religious services, remaining quietly in his lodgings in the house of Pieter van Belle’s widow. By July, however, they had a young minister, but he had no intention of remaining, so that on behalf of a theological student, Dom. Lambertus Schenckius, then resident on Canvey, the islanders applied to London for a testimonial of fit­ness for service. At the end of a year he, too, left them. Then, reduced to great despair by these constant changes, and the difficulties of finding ministers, the consistory forwarded to London a form of election “for anyone.”

Again fresh troubles were looming large for this much-tried com­munity, and these from their English neighbours. In great perplexity, the consistory wrote to London for advice in the new crisis. The island was the property of several parishes, to which the Dutch paid tithes, but one man of the six or seven English families that had gone to live amongst them refused to pay, saying the different clergy did nothing for them. The ministers advanced they should either go to church (to some of the parishes a distance of seven or eight miles) or provide some place for preaching in the island. Thereupon the English residents looked longingly upon the Dutch church, for the loan of which, in due course, they made application. Use of the same was denied again and again, on the ground that the clause in the article provided only for service in the Dutch language, as could be seen in the document which was in the possession of the pro­prietor, Abraham Otgeer, merchant of London. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that Dom. Beutacq had com­menced preaching in the English Church, attracting a great part of his former Dutch congregation. On the Whit Monday angry scenes were again witnessed around the little church, but this time between the English residents and the Dutch; the former had summoned a minister, and clamoured for the use of the church, and a united Dutch party determined to allow no encroachment upon their prerogative for fear of losing their “privilege.” The keys of the church were successfully withheld, and the English had to retire, with purpose unattained, to await the development of their affairs.

Next year, in May, 1658, their “worthy brother and minister Dom. Joannis Lodewyck was elected to the community of Sand­wich, so that again application had to be made to London for a minister, who afterwards proved the needs of the island could be well served for £30, although he was compelled to keep a horse. In 1663 Canvey sent its minister, Dom. Justijnus Smetius, to the London colloque as its representative. Thirteen years later we still find Dom. Smitt minister of Canvey Island, and deputed to the colloque summoned by that consistory in London on account of the inaccessibility of the island. The elders, however, could find no time for the journey to town, on account of the great drought of that year. After again representing Canvey in 1680, this minister, who had remained longer than any of his predecessors, made it known in the following year that he wished to leave the island, without proffering any reason for so doing. Persuasions, both from his own congregation and from the London consistory, were alike of no avail to make him withdraw his resignation, and so in the course of time, and in the early days of 1682, the community accepted the services of Mr. Nicholaus Steenis. For two or three years he remained their minister, during that time sending, in 1684, Joores de Schilder and Cornelius Classens, his elders, to the London meeting. The registers of this community are, unfortunately, lost, but there was at least one Dutch wedding celebrated on the island, and that during the time of Dom Smidt. This was the wedding of Joanis Smaagg who espoused a certain “Janeke,” whose sur­name is now unknown.

Through accepting office on Canvey Island ministers had evidently suffered in regard to subsequent preferment, at least, so we may judge by the decision of one in 1697, who, though desirous of being employed elsewhere, would not ” leave the community, even in case of crossing to Holland, as to say one has had a place here (Canvey) sounds strange to many people, and a fact interpreted unfavourably.”

The last minister of whom anything is known was Dom. Gerard de Gols, who, with Peter van Belle, attended the colloque held in London in 1702, at the summons of the Canvey consistory. [To be continued.]


Comments about this page

  • The Makers Of Canvey Island. What a great historical record!! During my 12 years on the Island I remember having a very simple answer to the question (How did Canvey Island come about?) by saying that it was land re-claimed from the River Thames by the Dutch in the early 1600’s. Perhaps I had heard this simple explanation at Kingsley Hall, I’m not really sure. But, That simple description by no means covers the hardships and elements endured by the early settlers who had the irrigation, dyke and wall building knowledge required to develop the whole island into an area that would eventually grow into todays thriving community. Thank you for this in-depth account of the actual facts and with more to follow. Gerald Hudson

    By Gerald Hudson (03/07/2012)

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