The Most Curious Place In England
By A Goodrich, Photos by C Arthur Person Ltd
Article published in the Royal Magazine 1899
Londoners may be divided into two classes, those who know Canvey, what, and where it is, and those who do not. The latter constitute by far the larger proportion of the community, and include such topographical authorities as messenger boys, telegraph clerks, and postal officials.
One extremely well-crammed urchin, to whom I addressed myself, thought it was in the Grecian Archipelago; a telegraph clerk on the day I visited Canvey “opined” that it might
Be in the Hebrides, whilst the General Post Office once located it in the Atlantic Ocean.
A letter was addressed to the Vicar of Canvey. The authorities, not knowing the place and misled by the foreign sound of the name, sent it to the Canary Islands.
This is strange, for Canvey is not far from St. Martin’s-le-Grand. Access to it can be obtained by the London, Tilbury, and Southend Railway. It lies in the Thames, off Benfleet, in Essex, almost opposite to the point where the Medway flows into the great metropolitan river, and can be reached from London for less than two shillings.
What makes this ignorance of Canvey so remarkable is that whereas Great Britain is always an island Canvey is not. It is an island when the tide is up, but a peninsular when it is down. In fact, it would be non est at high water but for a wall running all the way round, which came to be built in the following manner.
In the year 1621 the sea had obtained such a mastery over the lands of Benfleet that Sir Henry Appleton, a principal owner, with others interested in the soil, summoned to their councils one Joas Crappenburgh, a celebrated Dutch dyke-maker. On condition that the coast was secured against any future inroads of the sea they agreed to make over to this worthy and his mates one-third, in fee simple, of all the land they rescued. Crappenburgh then sent for a number of his countrymen versed in this class of work, and selecting a huge slice of the most exposed portion of the shore, dug a creek, and detached it from the mainland. To secure this newly-made island from any-further ravages of the ocean Crappenburgh then encircled it with a wall twenty-two miles long, which for 250 years successfully defied all the efforts of wind and wave, which at this point know how to assert themselves.
At last, in 1881, a terrific storm arose, and the greedy ocean, which had never forgiven the work of its human foes, managed after a desperate struggle to effect an entrance, and did not desist till it had shorn Canvey of some eight miles of territory. Still, the Dutchmen did their work well, although many portions of the wall are now exhibiting all the infirmities inseparable from old age.
But the geographical peculiarities of Canvey are not yet exhausted. Some of them are so oddly un-English that the visitor, after successfully threading his way across the planking which constitutes the highway at low water, could easily imagine himself in Holland. In truth, Canvey is so Dutchlike in appearance that it might be described as a Dutch appendage of the British Crown.
It is quite flat, the roads are higher than the land through which they pass, there are deep ditches on either side, dykes abound and trees do not. Although it cannot be said that Dutch people are to be found on the island, the round faces, the square heavy figures, and the phlegmatic temperament of the inhabitants show that Dutch characteristics abound even if names do not.
This is to be attributed to that process of evolution which has metamorphosed De Wilde into Savage, Van de Welde, a great Dutch patronymic, into Field, and so on. The remaining evidence of the Dutch occupation are to be found in the few Dutch houses which have contrived to survive the vicissitudes of time.
They are so small that they look for all the world as if they had been taken from a child’s toy box and dropped down on the soil. The church, too, is another quaint structure. It is entirely destitute of ornament and made of wood. The soil of Canvey not being suitable for brick-making, houses in Canvey are built of timber. There is one called Brick House from the fact of its being made partly of wood and partly of brick.
No name has as yet been given to the capital of Canvey, a little hamlet comprising fourteen houses, the principal of which is the parsonage. The most interesting feature of the village is the well, which is 312ft. deep. Previous to its being sunk, the inhabitants drank dyke water, which so vexed the soul of the worthy vicar, that he addressed himself to the Corporation of London, who, by a donation of fifty guineas. So woke into activity the dormant philanthropy of the surrounding districts, that the money was soon subscribed. The high, pointed, thatched roof was designed by that talented artist, Mr. Clement Skilbeck, and is, as it should be, Dutch in character.
The stir and bustle of the great Metropolis has not yet penetrated Canvey. There are no telegraph wires in the island, and the liliputian pillar box near the” Lobster Smack ” is only cleared once a day. Canvev is so completely out of this world that itinerant minstrels know it not and to the musicians of Saffron Hill the place and unknown land. The feverishness of youth born of brighthopes and bitter disappointments might find in Canvey a Slough of Despond, but for those who would exchange the storm and stress of everyday life for a tranquil environment there are few places which can boast the attractions of Canvey.
If you want a bath, climb the sea wall. The orthodox machine is absent but the water is salt and clear, and whilst disporting yourself in the briny, your modesty is not shocked by opera glasses being levelled at you.
You are in need of repose. Well, although Canvey would make one of the healthiest pleasure resorts in the world, its north coast being three miles from the shore, and steeped in an atmosphere heavily laden with ozone, there is at present no asphalte promenade, no mammoth hotel, and no pier crowded with visitors. Flys and wagonettes are unknown, lodgings are scarce, there are no beach performers, no bath chairs for invalids, and the nearest band plays at Southend. Not to mince matters Canvey is the quietest spot near London.
The capital boast a few trees, so it may be presumed that the island is not quite destitute of birds, and the vicar says there is a rookery. There may be, but the occupants must partake of the Dutch temperament, for they do not overwork their vocal organs. In a word Canvey is throbless, noiseless, and serene. The people, true to the traditions of their ancestors, talk slowly, walk slowly, and think slowly. They are civil to the stray Londoner who happens to find them out, but they do not gush over him. Why should they? London has not thought fit to discover Canvey, so why should Canvey trouble itself about London? And it does not. England is regarded as a distant country, so much so indeed that even if the Empire went to war, Canvey might be relied on by our foes to remain sternly neutral.
As the inhabitants seldom leave the island, the ignorance which prevails on all matters concerning the great metropolis is not so astounding as it seems, for with people so circumstanced, belief is strictly limited by experience. A Canvey lady recently, in conversation with the Vicar, utterly refused to believe that London was larger than (Gravesend. And very naturally, for Gravesend was the largest town she had ever seen.
Still, although Canvey cares nothing for the mainland, it speaks our language with additions of its own. Thus, with them “timid” does duty for”fragile,” and were they to ask a visitor to look at their cabbages, they would say, ” Come and see my ‘sauce.’ ” ” Bangy” weather is applied to seasons when it is rainy, and if it is not a “fine ” day, they will tell you it is a “coarse ” one.
Belief in the unreal and wonderful dies so slowly in districts removed from civilisation and lamp-posts, that no surprise will be felt on learning that Canveyitcs are superstitious. It is an article of belief that at dusk the island is invaded by spirit horses that gallop wildly about till midnight. No one avers that these spectral steeds are visible, but numbers declare that they hear the sounds of hoofs, and feel the wind of them as they career along.
It is difficult to obtain the number of houses, in Canvey believed to be haunted; one thing is certain that Canvey ghosts show little regard for the feelings of mortals. One visitant proved so objectionable that the owner, to get rid of it, recently pulled down his house and rebuilt it.
There are no bakers’ nor butchers’ shops on the island. Some months since the little community was stirred to its profoundest depths by the announcement that a butcher’s shop had been opened on the mainland some miles away, but the enthusiasm soon waned.
The nearest doctor lives seven miles off. The people of Canvey, well, I won’t say they never die, because such a statement would probably treble the population in twenty-four hours; but they are seldom ill. On the last occasion that the aforesaid medical man was sent for, he took so long in coming that when at last he did arrive, the patient had recovered. The worthy man being naturally greatly incensed, declared he would never go to Canvey again.
The islanders pondered long over this threat. There had been a time when ague and malaria fairly rioted in Canvey, but that was before the advent of gutters and sluices, so they smiled demurely at the doctor and said, as is their way, ” nuffin.”
Yet for all their seeming innocence, smuggling, it is to be feared, would be very prevalent but for the presence of the coastguard, comprising a chief officer, chief boatsman and six men,
Before the arrival of the Rev Mr Hayes on the island only twenty sermons a year were delivered in the predecessor of the little wooden church. During that time it came to the ears of the authorities that vast quantities of spirits and tobacco were being smuggled into the island, and every house was searched without avail. The secret was unearthed at last, the hiding-place being the church.
Mr. Hayes looked profoundly shocked when I expressed a hope that all the Schiedam drunk in Canvey paid duty. His flock, he was careful to explain, were neither smugglers nor wreckers. But the good pastor being nothing if not ingenuous, admitted that on leaving home one morning to go his rounds, he noticed everyone he met eating oranges.
When the entire population of an island numbering 300 souls gives itself over for several days to the consumption of oranges, the chilling pangs of suspicion are likely to obtrude. A few questions elicited the fact that two nights before a vessel with a cargo of oranges had gone to pieces on the bank and been deserted by the crew, leaving the cargo to be annexed by the islanders.
“I read them a severe lecture on the subject,” said the Vicar, ” but, to be candid, I am afraid the discourse was a failure. No more oranges were eaten in my presence, but I noticed pockets for several days after had a decidedly bulgy appearance.”
Some few years since the cause of law and order was vindicated by the introduction for the first time of a real nineteenth century policeman, The scorn and indignation aroused by the arrival of this blue-coated guardian of the peace has now subsided, but the islanders have never forgiven the insult, and show it by keeping out of his clutches.
The poor man, who is burning to distinguish himself as an able and zealous officer, acutely feel’s his position. He may be seen at intervals during the day, darting vigorously about the island in quest of evildoers, but he invariable returns empty-handed. Whenever Southend wants a hand —which is frequently the case in the tripping season—he goes to Southend, to the great joy of Canvcy, which, disliking all “Guv’ment ” except that of the Vicar, turns out to give him a hearty cheer as he departs.
The “Lobster Smack” is the chief of Canvey’s two inns. It lies under the wall by Hole Haven, a little creek where barges and bawley boats can ride. The “Lobster Smack” is the house of call for “brum,” i.e., unlicensed pilots, who are patronised by captains objecting to the higher dues charged by the regular Trinity House men at Gravesend.
In the evening Dutch is the principal language, the guests being mostly captains of the Dutch fishing boats, with eels from the Texel.