The Naturalist on the Thames

published in 1902 possibly written c1896 by C.J. Cornish (1858-1906)

I found Charles John Cornish’s book fascinating, not only because it was written in the 19th century but also because it looks at Canvey and the Thames from a naturalists viewpoint.  Here you can read and see what the place was really like back then. I have transcribed the whole of the chapter which is called simply ‘Canvey Island’. The rest of the book is very interesting too. The pictures are by R D Lodge and are also some of the earliest I have seen. R D Lodge was a photographer in Enfield who specialised in birds. He was exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society from 1890-1909. He also published books, such as ‘The Birds and their story. A Book for Young Folk’ and  “Pictures of Bird Life” .

Canvey Island

DOWN near the Thames mouth is the curious reclamation from the river mud known as Canvey Island. It is separated from the land by a “fleet” in which the Danes are recorded to have laid up their ships in the early period of their invasions, and the village opposite on the mainland is called Benfleet. Though on the river, it is a half-marine place, with the typical sea-plants growing on the saltings by the shore. In summer I noticed that the graves below the grey sea-eaten, storm-furrowed walls of the church have wreaths of sea-lavender laid upon them. But there is not the same rich carpet of sea-flowers as at Wells or Blakeney. Nor is the deposit so rich, so soft, so ready to be covered with smiling meadows as those of North Norfolk, built up from the mud-clouds of the Fen.

Canvey Island itself is a heavy, indurated soil in parts, now well established, and producing fine crops. But is it the kind of ground which would pay a fair return on the cost of “inning it ” to-day? The wheat is good, the straw long, and the ears full. The oats are less good, perhaps because the soil is too heavy. The beans are strong and healthy; clover, which does not mind a salty soil, thrives there; and there are strong crops of mangold. But it is not like the Fenland; it cracks under the sun, “pans” upon the surface, and is not adapted for inexpensive or for intensive cultivation. Such was the writer’s impression from a careful view of the farms in the middle of harvest.

But as a fact in the history of English agriculture, and in its relation to the past story of the Thames mouth, and its possibilities as a future health resort, this work of the enterprising Dutchmen in the beginning of the seventeenth century is full of interest. In 1622 Sir Henry Appleton, the owner of the marsh, agreed to give one-third of it to Joas Croppenburg, a Dutchman skilled in the making of dikes, if he “inned” the marsh. This the Dutchman did off hand, and enclosed six thousand acres by a wall twenty miles round. Like many parts of the Fens, the island was peopled for a time by Dutchmen engaged on the works, and Croppenburg is said to have built there a church. Two small Dutch cottages remain, built in 1621. The general aspect of the island is like that part of Holland near the mouth of the “old” Rhine, but less closely cultivated and cared for.

The Stepping Stones At Benfleet

It has always been a separate region. Never yet has it entered the heads of its proprietors to join it permanently to the mainland. For three centuries its visitors and people have driven or walked over a tide-washed causeway at low water, or ferried over at high tide. You do so still, in a scrubbed and salty boat, while an ancient roadmender is occupied in the oddest of all forms of road maintenance. He stirs and swirls the mud as the tide goes down, to wash it out of the hollow way, otherwise it would be turned into warp-land every day, and become impassable.

The Dutchmen’s roads are sound and straight enough on the island. Outside the wall the samphire and orach beds are wholly marine. Inside the dikes and ditches are filled with a purely sweet-water vegetation. Further seawards, or rather riverwards, at a place called “Sluis,” they are fringed with wild rose and wild plum, and the ditches are deep in rushes, in willow herb, in purple nightshade, water-mint, and reeds.

Camden gives a curious account of the island in his day. It was constantly almost submerged. The people lived by keeping sheep on it. There were four thousand of a very excellent flavour. Evidently this was the origin of pre-sale mutton in England. Camden saw them milking their sheep, from which they made ewe-milk cheeses. When the floods rose the sheep used to be driven on to low mounds which studded the central parts of the marsh, and these mounds are there still. Some are covered with wild-plum bushes. One, in the centre of the island, is the site of the village of Canvey; and on one, at the time of the writer’s last visit, two fine old Essex rams were sleeping in the sun. There was no flood; the island had not known even a partial one for some years. But true to the instincts of their race, they had occupied the highest ground, though it was only a few feet above the levels.

There are few land-birds on Canvey Island, because there are few trees. Some greenfinches, a whinchat or two, almost no pipits or larks, and very few sparrows. The shore-birds are numerous and increasing, for the Essex County Council strictly protect all the eggs and birds during the breeding season. Enormous areas of breeding ground are now protected in the wide fringe of private fresh-water marshes of this river-intersected shore. Plovers, redshanks, terns, ducks, especially the wild mallards, are increasing. So are the black-headed gulls; even the oyster-catchers are returning. After nesting the birds lead their young to the southern point of Canvey Island. It is too near the growing and popular Southend for the birds to be other than shy. But as they are not allowed to be shot till the middle of August, they are able to take care of themselves.

At the flow of the tide, before the shooting begins, the visitor who makes his way to this distant and unpeopled promontory sees the birds in thousands. Out at sea the ducks were this year as numerous as in the old days before breechloaders and railways. Stints and ringed plover, golden plover and redshanks were flitting everywhere from island to island on the mud and ooze; curlews were floating and flapping over the “fleets”; and all were in security. As the tide flowed, they crowded on to the highest and last-covered islets, whence, as the inexorable tide again rose, they took wing and flew swiftly to the Essex shore.

The Sluis, looking across to the Kentish shore, is the home of the seagulls. Many quaint ships lie anchored there Dutch eel-boats, which call for refreshment after selling the cargo; barges; hoys from the Medway bound to Harwich; and fishing-smacks and timber-brigs. Round these the seagulls float, as tame almost as London pigeons. They prefer company, at least the lesser gulls do; the big herring gulls and black-backed gulls keep aloof.

The Lobstersmack

The hope of reclaiming land from the waves exercises a peculiar fascination over most minds. It presents itself in more than one form as a most desirable activity. It is something like creation a form of making earth from sea. The clothing of the fringe of ocean’s bed with herbage, the reaping of a harvest where rolled the tide, the barring out of the dominant sea, the vision, not altogether illusive, of planting industrious and deserving men on the ground so won, all these are alluring ideas. The undertaker, to use the word in vogue in the Stuart days when such enterprises were in high favour, always leaves a name among posterity, generally an honoured name, and in nearly every case one associated with courage, perseverance, and in some measure with benevolence.

The picturesque and sentimental side will always remain to the credit of the reclaimers of the waste of Neptune’s manor. But if the balance of profitable expenditure, or of good done to others, is weighed between winning land from the sea and expenditure in improving the cultivation of land already accessible, the award should probably be given to the latter. Intensive cultivation and the improvement of the millions of acres which we now possess is a more thankworthy task, demands more brains, and should give greater results than the gaining if a few thousands of acres now covered by water. This conclusion is not the one which any lover of enterprise or of picturesque endeavour would prefer. It is a pity that it is so. Perhaps in days to come when wheat is once more precious the sea wastes may once more be worth recovery.

But even so they are not desirable spots on which to plant a population. They are by natural causes on the way to nowhere, and out of communication with the towns and villages. Brading Harbour, in the Isle of Wight, is an exception, for it ran up inland. Lord Leicester’s marshes at Holkham are narrow though long, and, while splendidly fertile, are all well within reach of the farms and villages. But to scatter farms and labourers’ cottages on the dreary flats of a place like Canvey Island is not likely to appeal to the wishes of modern agriculturists, who feel the dulness of rural life acutely already. The growth of the Jewish colonies not far off on the mainland, where poor Hebrews continually reinforce a community devoted to field and garden labour and content to begin by earning the barest living, seems to indicate that a population from the poorest urban class might be found for reclaimed land. But the industrious town artisans of English blood have not yet found life so intolerable as to be ready to try the experiment.

Oxford Dictionary of Biography

Cornish, Charles John (1858-1906), naturalist and journalist, was born on 28 September 1858 at Salcombe House, near Sidmouth, the residence of his grandfather, Charles John Cornish JP DL. He was the eldest son of Charles John Cornish (1834-1913), then curate of Sidbury, Devonshire, and his first wife, Anne Charlotte Western (1831-1887); the geographer Vaughan Cornish was his brother. He was brought up at Debenham, Suffolk, where his father became vicar in 1859. In 1872 he entered Charterhouse School as a gownboy, and left in 1876. After receiving private tuition, he entered Hertford College, Oxford, as a commoner in 1881, and was elected Brunsell exhibitioner in 1882, and Lusby scholar in 1883. He obtained his blue in association football, a second class in classical moderations in 1883, and a second class in literae humaniores in 1885. After leaving Oxford he was appointed assistant classics master at St Paul’s School, London, a post which he held until his death. In 1893 he married Edith, eldest daughter of Sir John I. Thornycroft FRS, and they had one daughter. In 1896 he founded the school field club.

Soon after going to London Cornish started to write occasional articles on natural history and country life. In 1890 he became a regular contributor to The Spectator, and, later, to Country Life; many of his articles reappeared in book form. The work for which he was best known was Life at the Zoo (1895); his final work, Animal Artisans and other Studies of Birds and Beasts, was published posthumously in 1907 with a prefatory memoir by his widow.

Cornish’s country tastes and love of shooting and fishing were fostered by his father, in whose family they were traditional. His artistic and literary gifts he inherited from his mother. His powers of observation were unusually keen and rapid, his memory remarkably good, and he had vivid powers of expression. His literary energy, which continued through twenty years, stimulated public interest in natural history and country life, and helped to give these subjects an assured place in English journalism. He died at 114 Marine Parade, Worthing, Sussex, on 30 January 1906, from an illness originating in an accident he suffered when shooting, many years before. After cremation his ashes were interred at Salcombe Regis, near Sidmouth, and a mural tablet to his memory was placed in the parish church.

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