The History of a Marshland Community
Written by Dr Basil E Cracknell PhD
“The estuary of the Thames is not beautiful; it has no noble features, no romantic grandeur of aspect, no smiling geniality; but it is wide open, spacious, inviting, hospitable at the first glance, with a strange air of mysteriousness which lingers about it to this very day.” (Joseph Conrad)
Canvey Island lies on the north side of the Thames Estuary about thirty miles from London. The island is four miles long and two miles wide at its greatest width. The circumference is about thirteen miles. Its four thousand acres of flat marshland are entirely enclosed by a high sea wall. Canvey can only just be called an island, since the narrow creek which separates it from the mainland can be forded at low tide, and before the present bridge was built in 1931 this was the usual means of access when the tide permitted. About twelve thousand people now live in this rapidly growing urban district, which barely fifty years ago was inhabited by only a few farmers and their families.
Each summer many thousands of people visit Canvey Island to enjoy the bracing air and open beaches of the river shore. Such an annual “invasion” is tribute enough to the advantages of Canvey Island as a seaside resort. But Canvey has other attractions also. It has a unique and intriguing history which has contributed so much to what Joseph Conrad called the “strange air of mysteriousness” which lingers about it to this very day.
No less than five distinct communities have lived on Canvey Island and the story of their rise and fall over the centuries is as full of interest as any novel. This story has been told in these pages in the hope that inhabitants and visitors alike will find a new fascination in what has been aptly called “the most curious place in Essex.”
The Community Of Salt-Makers
§1. Ups And Downs
The early history of Canvey Island, even more so than in most places in the British Isles, is shrouded in mystery. The earliest written records relating specifically to Canvey date from about the thirteenth century. For the centuries before that we have to rely entirely upon the information we know about neighbouring areas, and upon the results of archaeological discovery.
Why is the early history of Canvey so difficult to unravel? The answer is that for hundreds of years between the Roman occupation and the Anglo-Saxon settlement Canvey Island was wholly or partly submerged by the sea. Thus all surface traces of the Roman period have been obliterated by a sea of mud and they only come to light when excavations are being made or when the tide eats away at the edge of the saltings. It is from such chance opportunities as these that we have been able to piece together an outline of what happened over those early centuries of the island’s history.
When the Romans arrived in the Thames Estuary nearly 2,000 years ago Canvey Island stood some 20 feet higher than it is to-day. In fact it was probably not an island at all, and the river Thames was then very much narrower at this point than it is now. The Romans and Romano-British people had settlements on the island, and these, it is believed, were associated with the manufacture of salt by the evaporation of salt water. Then, towards the end of the second century, it seems that there was a sudden and catastrophic fall of about 15 to 20 feet in the land level which was sufficient to submerge many of the coastal settlements in Eastern England. All along the Thames Estuary on both banks the remains of these ill-fated Roman settlements are still being exposed by the tide.
Following this disaster came a gradual elevation of the land level reaching its peak probably about the time of the Norman Conquest when the level of Canvey Island had returned some way towards the level it had been before the great depression. Thus the Anglo-Saxons would probably have found a low-lying district which was still subject to overflowing by the high spring tides, but which provided excellent grass pasture for their sheep. This was the district they called “Canvey” or “The Island of Cana’s People.”
After about the Norman Conquest the island apparently began to subside but this time it was a very gradual subsidence of about one foot every hundred years. At first this mattered little, but after several centuries had passed the Spring tides were beginning to overflow more and more of the island so that it became clear that a wall would have to be built if the island was to be saved. A wall was built in the 17th century and since then the island has continued its slow but steady subsidence. Every so often the walls have been raised higher and higher so that they now dominate the horizon of Canvey Island in whichever direction one looks. The effect is perhaps most obvious at the “Lobster Smack,” probably the oldest building on the island. Today the top of the sea wall lies almost at the same level as the eaves of the old inn. There is no more eloquent evidence of 400 years of subsidence.
§2. The Red Hills
One question remains to be answered. How is it, if the Roman remains have all been buried, that we know anything about the existence of a community of salt-makers on Canvey Island? The explanation is that in addition to the buried deposits there is another invaluable source of evidence —the Red Hills.
Canvey is not unique in having these curious mounds since they are to be found elsewhere in the coastal districts of Essex, but she is particularly fortunate in that a Canvey resident and distinguished archaeologist, E. Linder, has made a careful study of these remains and has put forward a plausible explanation of their origin. Mr. Linder was so intrigued by these Red Hills that he acquired the site of one of them in Ferndale Crescent and built there a replica of one of the octagonal ” Dutch Cottages ” on Canvey, so that he could excavate at leisure in his own garden!
The Red Hills are low mounds of varying size which obtain their name from the fact that they are composed of burnt earth of a characteristic red colour. Associated with the burnt earth are fire hearths at various depths, and the remains of pottery of the first and second century which appear to be fragments of the large earthenware pans made on the site and used for evaporating the salt. The Red Hills now lie below the level of Spring tides and it is clear from the presence of a layer of mud overlying the burnt earth that they must at one time have been submerged beneath the river. It is equally certain, however, that when they were occupied by the Romano-British people they must have been four or five feet above high water mark. The Red Hills are located in an east-west line parallel with the river Thames. Four were identified by Linder, at Ferndale Crescent, Blackmore Avenue, Meynell Avenue, and on the saltings off Leigh Beck, but it is almost certain that there is another near Scar House, and there may well be others awaiting discovery on the island. The way in which the Red Hills lie parallel with the river supports the conclusion that they were sited at the head of creeks and tidal inlets to which the Spring tides would just reach thus enabling the evaporation pans to be filled.
In view of the importance of salt in Roman times it may well be that Canvey was a settlement of some importance. One historian, indeed, has suggested that a Roman Road can be traced from the mainland opposite the most northerly point of Canvey Island northwards to the Roman settlement at Chelmsford, but the existence of such a road has not been finally established. Another historian, William Camden, writing in the seventeenth century, suggested that Canvey was none other than the island of “Counos ” shown by Ptolemy about 100 A.D. as lying in the Thames Estuary, but archaeological evidence suggests that this is most unlikely. We must therefore reject the attractive notion that Canvey appeared on one of the earliest maps ever made. Nevertheless we can safely assume that Canvey was a thriving settlement of some importance before the great depression which overwhelmed the whole district and blotted out Canvey from the pages of history for at least a thousand years.
The Community Of Shepherds
§1. The Island Of Sheep
The centuries between the mid-Roman period and the Norman Conquest were a period of intensive settlement and agricultural development throughout England, and by the end of that period the main rural framework of England as we know it today had been established. All along the Thames Estuary Anglo-Saxon place names testify to the spread of Anglo-Saxon settlement in south Essex. There can be no doubt that the marshland pastures of Canvey Island were brought into service by these early settlers for the grazing of sheep. The island was low-lying and probably subject to periodic flooding which rendered it unsuitable for permanent settlement. However, with much of south Essex still thickly forested, the open marsh pastures must have been highly valued. Like Sheppey across the water (“the Isle of Sheep”), Canvey was inhabited by large flocks of sheep. A tiny community of shepherds living in crude temporary shelters guarded their flocks from the recurrent dangers of the spring tides which came flooding up the many tidal creeks and inlets. For almost a thousand years a community of shepherds lived on Canvey Island, which was renowned, throughout this long period, for the excellence of its pastures and the large flocks of sheep they sustained.
Mr. Cyril Hart has shown how during the tenth and eleventh centuries the officers of the St. Paul’s estates in Essex were consolidating their ownership of lands on the Essex coastal marshlands. “One cannot fail to be impressed,” he writes, “by the evidence of steady expansion from the early coastal holdings along the low-lying marshy shores of the adjacent river estuaries … It appears probable that throughout the whole five centuries of the period under review (seventh to eleventh centuries) the economy of the St. Paul’s estates was dominated by the sheep-farming industry of the Essex marshlands, for which there was a ready market in London, easily accessible by river and sea.” Thus even in these pre-Conquest times London was exercising the powerful influence which it has always had upon the economy of south Essex.
The Domesday Survey emphasizes further the importance attached to the coastal marshes. Canvey Island is nowhere mentioned by name in Domesday. This puzzled historians until J. H. Round pointed out that the numerous entries ” Pasture for x sheep ” found under several manors near the coast of south Essex referred in fact to detached parts of those manors on the marshes of Canvey Island. These detached portions of inland manors were identified not by fences but by the natural drainage channels, and when the parish boundaries were drawn the same ancient drainage channels were used. Hence the sinuous nature of the boundaries, and the general shapelessness of the parishes represented on the island before Canvey became a civil and ecclesiastical parish in 1881. It is interesting to note that these fragments of parishes belong to different Hundreds. This suggests that the marshes in and about Canvey were never the common pasture of any one village or group of villages. The detached portions were sometimes as far as seven or eight miles from their parent parishes, another indication of the importance attached to them. The fragmentation of parishes may have been of little significance to the community of shepherds, but it became a severe handicap when the island was enwalled and permanent settlement became possible. The full development of community life on the island was hindered on account of it for nearly three centuries.
§2. Wicks And Whitemeat
It has been estimated that at the time of the Domesday Survey the marshes of Essex carried no fewer than 18,000 sheep. These were kept not only for wool and meat but also for their milk, which was used for making cheese. There is ample evidence that the use of ewe’s milk for cheese-making was an established practice at this time, and Mr. Cyril Hart suggests that cheeses were being made and exported from the Essex coastal districts a full century before Domesday. The duties of a shepherd are described in the ” Rectitudines,” believed to date from the eleventh century, as including the milking of the ewes twice a day and the making of cheese and butter. Among his perquisites were “the milk of the herd for seven nights after the equinox and a bowl of whey or buttermilk each night during the summer.” In the time of Henry II the “huge cheeses” characteristic of the Essex marshes were being sold for 6d. each, compared with 2d. for those of normal size. Local evidence of cheese-making on Canvey Island comes in a plea dated 1201, in which Thomas de Camville of Fobbing claims against Robert de Sutton the marsh of Richeresnes in Canvey Island, alleging that in the time of Henry II his grandfather had taken ” issues thereof as in cheeses and wool and rushes.'” Direct evidence of the building of sheds for cheese-making on the Essex marshes comes from a lease of the Heybridge estate belonging to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s dated 1301, in which the inventory includes ” a building for making cheese from sheep.” In Essex the common Anglo-Saxon word wick, which is found in many parts of England, was used to indicate a shed for cheese-making, and when marshes bear a name which includes this sutfix it is reasonable to assume that there was a cheese-shed on them at one time. The earliest mention of such a marsh on Canvey Island comes in 1263 when the marsh called ” Westwicke ” changed hands. Shortly afterwards the names Southwick and Northwick occur, and it seems likely that these were the first cheese-sheds built on Canvey Island, since the geographical designation would have been an obvious one to use in an environment so lacking in surface features. Later they had to resort to names like Furtherwick, Knightswick, and Monkswick. The name Castlewick in the Leigh Beck district probably owes its origin to Hadleigh Castle across the water, which was built in 1230.
Ewe-milk cheese, or “whitemeat” as it was called, ceased to be made in the south of England after the eighteenth century, and there is no doubt that it was strictly an acquired taste long before this. The strong flavour imparted by the ewe’s milk made the cheese very unpalatable. Essex cheese had obviously acquired an unenviable reputation, for Piers Plowman says:
I would be gladder
That Gib had mischance
Than though I had this week y-won
A Wey of Essex cheese.
” Ewe’s milk is fulsome, sweet, and such in taste (except such as are used to it) no man will gladly yield to live and feed withal,” commented the Elizabethan writer William Harrison, and Norden, writing in 1594, was no less disparaging. And F. W. Steer quotes the case of John Skelton’s Elinor Rummin, the unsavoury early sixteenth-century Surrey ale-wife, who had brought to her:
A cantle of Essex cheese
Was well a foot thicke
Full of magots quicke
It was huge and great
And mighty strong meat
For the Devill to eat,
It was tart and punicate.
To lessen the distinctive flavour imparted by the ewe’s milk the practice grew up of adding cow’s milk in the proportion of two parts of cow’s to one of ewe’s milk. Harrison, however, notes that some cheese-makers add a smaller proportion of cow’s milk, “whereby their cheese doth the longer abide moist and eateth more brickie and mellow than otherwise it would.” Perhaps this explains the sustained demand for the huge Essex cheeses; they had a renowned keeping quality which commended them in particular to those responsible for the victualling of ships leaving the estuary on long voyages. The marshes of Canvey were unsuitable for the pasturing of cattle, and the seamen had perforce to take the kind of cheese which would keep longest; hence the survival of this trade despite the unpalatability of the product.
So far the early history of Canvey Island has been pieced together from mere scraps of evidence, but in the latter part of the sixteenth century two first-hand accounts from eminent topographers describe what the island was like.
First, Norden wrote in 1594: ” Near the Thames mouth . . . are certain ilandes called Canvey Ilandes, low merishe grounds, and for that the passage ouer the creeks is unfitt for cattle, it is onlie conuerted to the feeding of ewes, which men milke and thereof make cheese (suche as it is) and of the curdes of the whey they make butter once in the year which serueth the clothiers.” Presumably the butter was sent to Colchester and the other clothing manufacturing towns of East Anglia. Of the marshes further eastwards Norden wrote:”The Hundreds of Rocheforde, Denge (Dansye or Dansing) which lye on the south easte part of the shire, yeldc milke, butter and cheese in admirable aboundance; and in these parts are the great and huge cheeses made wondered at for their massiveness and thickness. They are made also in Tendring Hundred where there are many wickes or dayries.” Then in 1607 Camden added a new paragraph on Canvey to the last edition of his ” Britannica ” which (translated) reads: ” It is indeed so low-lying that often it is all overflown, except for the higher hillocks, on which there is a safe retreat for the sheep. For it pastures about 4,000 sheep, of very delicate flavour, which we have seen youths, carrying out a womanly task, milk with small stools fastened to their buttocks, and make ewes’ cheeses in those cheese sheds which they call there ‘ wickes.’ “
These two accounts confirm the general picture of an island devoted to sheep pastures and renowned both for the size of the cheeses made there and for the way in which they were made. Undoubtedly it was this reputation which drew Camden and Norden into such an isolated and unhealthy corner of Essex. However, their accounts are interesting in other respects and it is to these that we must now turn, for the sheep-and-cheese economy of Canvey was to last only for another decade or two.
§3. The Events Foreshadowing Enclosure
In his description Norden refers to Canvey ” Ilandes.” This is evidently not a mistake, for several islands are shown on the map which accompanies his topography. Moreover two contemporary cartographers, Stent (1602) and Speed (1610), also show several islands between Holehaven and South-church. Altogether Norden’s map shows five separate islands in this district, of which three can be identified as forming parts of Canvey, being separated by tidal creeks which would be impassable at spring tides; a fourth is probably the area now known as Leigh Marsh, but the fifth cannot be traced. It probably represented the expanse of saltings which still remained off the shore of Leigh and Milton after the inundation of 1327. If the hypothesis of a land subsidence from the Norman Conquest to the present day is correct, it is hardly surprising that the island was beginning to suffer from the encroachment of the sea, for the surface had been slowly subsiding for five centuries. The reference by Camden to “higher hillocks … a safe retreat for sheep” suggests that the shepherds may have been forced to make artificial mounds for the safety of their flocks. These hillocks are still very obvious, and they have since become the sites of farmhouses, such as the appropriately named Hill Hall. The shepherds may have had the idea of making these mounds from observing how the sheep sought safety in the flood tides on the ancient Red Hills in the south of the island.
The other Thames-side marshes had of course been experiencing the same gradual subsidence, and from the twelfth century onwards there are many indications that the owners of coastal marshlands were being forced to protect their property by building walls. Generally speaking, the new walls were built in piecemeal fashion. Each enclosure took the form of a wall built out in the shape of a horseshoe from one part of the mainland, or an existing wall, to another. When fresh enclosures were made beyond an existing wall, the old wall was sometimes used to provide material for the new, but this practice was eventually forbidden, since the old “counter walls,” as they were called, formed a useful second line of defence if the main wall was breached. This kind of enclosure was taking place from the Norman Conquest onwards, and it led eventually to a fairly uniform sea wall fronting the River Thames, so that people were later misled into thinking that it was built in one great operation. Even Dugdale in his work on Embanking declared that the walls lining the lower Thames must have been built by the Romans, since only they were capable of so great an achievement.
The question arises, Why had Canvey Island not been enclosed before the sixteenth century? There are several reasons. In the first place, the encroachment of the sea had not hitherto been sufficiently serious to justify such a step, but by the end of the sixteenth century conditions had clearly worsened so much that enclosure was essential if the rich pastures were to be preserved and improved. The second, and probably the more important, reason was that it was not until the sixteenth century that the owners of Canvey Island had a sufficient incentive to undertake a costly work of major enclosure. The population of England was increasing during the late Tudor period, and this led to widespread land-hunger. All over England land was being taken into cultivation from wastes, forest, marsh, and fen. Moreover, good agricultural prices made capital improvements worthwhile. In these new economic circumstances the enclosure of Canvey Island became an attractive investment.
One of the objects in the minds of the enclosers was probably to substitute cattle for sheep on the enclosed marshes. In this connection it is interesting to note the reference by Norden to the unsuitability of the marshes for the grazing of cattle. The Essex cheeses were falling out of favour at this time, and Camden’s account makes it clear that they were eaten mainly by the working classes. Wm. Harrison makes the same observation: “White meats . . . are now reputed as food appertinent only to the inferior sort, whilst such as are more wealthy do feed upon the flesh of all kinds of cattle.” The Thames-side landowners were finding it increasingly profitable to change from sheep to cattle on the marsh pastures. The butchers of London, in particular, were trying to rent grazing pastures near the capital on which they could keep animals until such time as they would fetch a good price on the London market. Norden might well have had this in mind when he visited the island, and it may have been a factor in the decision to enclose the island.
Another possible reason why Canvey had not been enclosed earlier was that it had hitherto been divided between different landowners and it would have been difficult to obtain their agreement to such an expensive undertaking. Enclosure was made easier when the greater part of the island had come into the possession of a few landowners. It is of interest to trace the history of landed property on the island, so that we may see how this had come about, either by accident or design, by the end of the sixteenth century.
One of the first recorded references to landownership comes in 1263, when we learn that a Peter de Moubery was in possession of considerable land in the island, and that in the same year he and his wife Eigena made a grant of the marshland called Westwicke, lying between the marsh called Honemone and le-Holehauene, to one John de Longe. At this time large parts of Essex were within the bounds of the royal Forest, and a fifteenth-century charter, referring to conditions about the year 1245, declares that the boundary between the royal Forest and the Hundred of Rochford (one of the few districts in Essex lying outside the Forest) runs from the marsh which was William de Cloville’s called Attenesse (in Canvey Island and probably near Thorney Creek) right through the centre of the island to the boundary between the parishes of Hadleigh and South Benfleet. Thus the eastern part of Canvey Island was outside the Forest pale because it happened to lie in Rochford Hundred. Of course Canvey was never wooded, at least in post-Roman times, but it was subject to the irksome regulations of forest law. The first reference to the Appleton family, who were later to be responsible for the enclosure, comes in the year 1322, when John de Apeton gained possession of Lymwerd Marsh from Peter de Heneingham.3 In 1340 William Fitz-Peter granted the marsh of Northwick-cum-Wykes to William Woodham at an annual rent of two marks. This marsh, together with Chaffleet and Fatherwick marshes, eventually passed into the hands of the Appleton family who also gained possession of Northwhick and Westwick marshes in 1557. The Appleton family were by now the largest landowners on the island, and in 1563 Sir Henry Appleton, Roger Appleton, and William Appleton paid a sum of £500 to the Crown to have their estates disforested. These estates included the family seat of Jarvis Hall near Thundersley and surrounding lands on the mainland, “with divers marshes on Canvey Island.” Meanwhile another family had been acquiring considerable estates on the island. In 1543 the Bakers, who were large landowners and near neighbours of the Appletons on the mainland, are mentioned for the first time in connection with land in Canvey, and twenty years later James Baker is recorded as holding 500 acres of salt marsh in the island.
The picture which emerges from this account of the land transactions relating to Canvey Island is that by the beginning of the seventeenth century the majority of the island was owned by two wealthy and influential families, the Appletons and the Bakers. Moreover it seems that the Dutch were already taking an interest in the Thames marshes. Part of Canvey Island itself was owned by a Dutchman named Julius Sludder in 1622″. Dutchmen had settled elsewhere in the estuary, for in 1605 an agreement was made between Charles Holford, of West Thurrock, and Richard Yan, of Holland, whereby the Dutchman would “repair, scour, emend, and build up the decayed river banks.” In the registers of Corringham church appears the entry (18 February, 1623) “Powell, a Dutchman living in Ooze was buried,” and there are several entries relating to Dutchmen about this period in the registers of Fobbing and Vange. Finally, Sir Henry Appleton himself conveyed a marsh in Fobbing to Giles Vande Putte, a Dutch merchant of St. Andrew Undershaft, London, about the year 1623. It therefore seems that by the beginning of the seventeenth century the Dutch merchants of the City were looking for opportunities to extend their interests in the Thames-side marshes, and Canvey Island, the largest remaining area of unenclosed marsh, would naturally attract their attention. Thus the stage was set for enclosure; the long pastoral period was almost at an end.
§4. Postscript: An Unsolved Mystery
One of the many unsolved questions relating to Canvey Island is whether or not any attempts had been made to enclose the island with a seawall before the seventeenth century.
There is plenty of evidence that conditions on Canvey had deteriorated so badly by the sixteenth century that enclosure had become a necessity if the island were to be saved from the sea. We have a graphic description of what the island was like at the time from William Harrison who passed very close to the island in 1577. He wrote: ” Being entered into the Thames mouth I find . . . the Canvey Isles, which some call marshes only, and liken them to a . . . vice screw or wide sleeve, because they are very small at the east end and large at the west. The salt rilles also that cross the same do so separate the one of them from the other that they resemble the slope course of the cutting point of a screw or gimlet in very perfect manner if a man do imagine himself to look down from the top of the mast upon them. Certes I would have gone to land and received these parcels as they lay (or at the best have sailed round about them by the whole haven which may easily be done at high water) but for as much as a perrie of wind caught hold of our sails and carried us forth the right way towards London.”
Wm. Harrison was writing only a few years after the great storm of 1570 which was the fourth of a series of violent storms that occurred during the middle years of the century, the others being in 1551, 1564 and 1565. Of the 1570 storm the contemporary historian Holinshed wrote:
“From a town called Rainham unto the town called Maldon all along by the water side were the marshes all over-flowen, wherein were a great number of cattle drowned.”
Thus there was every incentive for the landowners to attempt some enclosure if only to protect the cheese-sheds. What evidence can we find that such small piece-meal enclosures were being mad ?
The evidence consists of a number of clues, none of which is decisive in itself. Perhaps the strongest evidence is the fact that one of the marshes disforested by Sir Henry Appleton in 1563 was called “Newinins ” or ” New Innings.” The reference, in the same year, to the 500 acres of salt marsh owned by James Baker is also interesting because the use of the description ” salt ” implies that some at least of the marshes on the island were enclosed, i.e., ” fresh.” Further support is found in the inquisition of 1557 already quoted, where reference is made to “arable and pasture” in connection with land on Canvey Island. It is unlikely that arable cultivation would have been possible without some protection from the spring tides.
There is some evidence which suggests that the Lobster Smack Inn at Holehaven was built before the seventeenth century. It is said, for instance, that a lip tile in the roof is dated 1510, and the licence is thought to date from 1563. It is interesting to observe that the old inn lies within the triangle formed by the sea wall and the “Y” shaped causeway on the landward side. There would certainly have been every justification for locating an inn at this spot since Holehaven Creek is a deep and sheltered inlet where many vessels entering and leaving the river would take up temporary anchorage. It was here, for instance, that the “Mayflower ” lay whilst taking aboard provisions for her historic voyage. Apart from the “Lobster Smack” it is known that other buildings existed on the island before the Dutch wall was built. For instance the names “Scarhouse,” Waterside Farm ” and “Kittcotts ” (i.e., ” Cawtecote ” in 1544, which means “cold cottage”) all date back to the sixteenth century. Admittedly these may have been the names given to cheese-sheds, but if so it is curious that the traditional term “wick” was not used. Whether these were permanent inhabitations is not known for sure, but there is no doubt about the octagonal cottage at Hill Hall known as the “Dutch Cottage,” since this bears the date of its construction, 1618. This is one of the two octagonal cottages on Canvey Island which are traditionally said to have been built by the Dutch workmen who made the sea wall, and it may have been the home of the Dutchman Julius Sludder who, as was shown earlier, owned land on Canvey Island in 1622.
Some writers have suggested that the existence of old disused sea walls within the island indicate the existence of enclosures before the Dutch arrived on the scene. But this is inaccurate since the innermost wall is in fact the one erected by the Dutch, and there is no visible evidence of earlier walls. It may be, of course, that the earlier walls were pressed into service as roads, or that the Dutch built their own wall on the site of earlier embankments.
We may conclude this postscript by saying that the verdict is still “not proven.” Some piecemeal enclosures had probably taken place but the situation demanded action of an altogether different scale. We will let the rector of North Benfleet in June, 1595, have the last word. Giving an account of a visit to the detached portions of his parish on Canvey Island he wrote: “I, the said Thomas Meredith, with certain of the said parish, went into Canvey to see the said marshes and there to make merye in the said Henry Wood his marshe. But to perambulat or fetche them in is not a thing usual nor almost possible to be donne, neither have I heard that it hath been donne at any tyme.”
The “Netherlandish Community”
§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.”
The English Rural Community
§1. The Maintenance Of Worship
For the next two hundred years, though the outward appearance of the island may have changed a little, its communal life was almost the same. Most of the Dutch people who remained abandoned their national language and form of worship and became integrated into the community. The only events which occurred to enliven the community were connected
with the church or the old public house down by Holehaven Creek, whilst the occasional inundations, damaging as they were, must almost have provided a welcome break from the monotony of island life. Apart from their agricultural duties, the main energies of the community were absorbed in three directions, the maintenance of worship, the roadways, and the walls.
The first real break with the past was the arrival on the scene of a Church of England curate in 1709 and the pulling down of the old Dutch chapel which was replaced by one capable of accommodating eighty people. Dedicated to St. Catherine, the new structure was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 11 June, 1712. There were no wealthy families actually living on the island, and the building of the church was made possible by one of the absent landlords of Canvey, a Mr. Edgar, of the Victualling Office. Historians of Canvey Island have always been puzzled by the appearance on the scene of this unknown gentleman since he seems to have had no previous connection with the island. The solution to the mystery is at once simple and significant. Mr. Edgar was in fact none other than Mr. ” Otgcr,” patron of the original Dutch chapel and a member of the Dutch Church in London. This we know by the chance discovery of a copy of the original sermon preached by Samuel Hilliard, Rector of Stifford in Essex, at the consecration of the chapel on 11 June, 1712. The sermon is printed and bears the dedication:—
To the Rt. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Henry Lord Bishop of London: May it please your Lordship,
At your Lordship’s commands and the request of the generous Gentleman who gave and endowed the chapel your Lordship has lately consecrated, this plain discourse appears in public . . .
In the margin opposite the words “generous gentleman ” has been written in manuscript ” Abraham Otger of London—Gent.” This finally establishes the fact that the Dutch Church in London, rather than washing their hands of the little community of brethren on Canvey, actually paid for the construction of a new chapel for services to be held in English. They had clearly come to the conclusion that it was time the Dutch community became absorbed into the district.
There is some evidence that Dutch residents on Canvey had anglicized their names: for instance, the John Bell who was living on the island in 1742 was probably descended from Gilles van Belle, one of the Dutch settlers. Other Dutch names disappeared by intermarriage between the English and the Dutch. One such marriage took place in 1735 between Thomas Hansom and the daughter of a Dutch family on the island. In other cases the Dutch preserved their own names. Thus in 1720 there is a reference to a Mr. John van de Voord occupying a small piece of land on Canvey. [This family seems later to have moved to Prittlewell since we find an Abraham Vandervord occupying a cottage there in 1839.] In the following year, 1721, there is a reference to a Mr. Vanbord living on Canvey. Thus it is clear that at least some of the Dutch inhabitants stayed on Canvey and retained their Dutch names.
The new church was poorly endowed. The sum of £10 had been allotted to enable a curate to visit the island to preach a course of twenty sermons a year ” wind and weather permitting,” but the small community could not support a resident minister because the tithes went to the incumbents of the nine parishes between which the island was divided. The rector of Stifford made a reference to this in his first sermon in the new church: ” It is a pity the endowment is no larger, that there might have been sufficient maintenance for the minister, but what is wanting in an effectual provision of lands and tithes for this sacred use and purpose it is to be hoped will be sufficiently made up by the generous and voluntary contributions of those of my brethren to whom the care of the souls of this island is committed.” This hope was largely unfulfilled, although the incumbents of the nine parishes did later contribute a total sum of £17 per annum towards the expenses of the church. Benton comments in a footnote: ” In the so-called ‘ Dark Ages ‘ under similar conditions, this island and Wallasea would probably have been parochialized. Foulness was constituted a chapelry as soon as the necessity arose, the mediaeval clergy and patrons voluntarily surrendering their proportion of the tithe for the purpose, and parochialized in 1554.”‘ One can hardly blame the minister of, say, Vange, seven miles away, for not taking an enthusiastic interest in the spiritual welfare of the small detached portion of his parish which he may scarcely even have visited. Thus for nearly two hundred and fifty years after the Dutch enclosure the community on Canvey Island was denied the full benefits of church life because the parish boundaries had been drawn when the island was an uninhabited sheep-run.
Since there was no resident minister the church was closed down during the week (although it may not have been altogether deserted, for the smugglers certainly had caches there for their contraband) and was opened only at week-ends during the summer months when the curate came across from South Benfleet to deliver the stipulated twenty sermons per annum. On these occasions a flag was flown from the church steeple to warn the parishioners (and no doubt the smugglers) that a service would be held. Even during the summer months the journey across the creek was not easy, and in the winter, when it was regarded as impracticable, the church was closed down altogether.
The church erected in 1712 does not seem to have been a very substantial building for it had fallen down by 1740 and was rebuilt in 1745, being rededicated to St. Peter. There have been four churches on the same site on Canvey during the last two hundred years, and all of them have been built of wood. It would seem that the relatively crude timber structures, which were all the poor communities on the island could afford, did not stand up well to the severities of the climate. The present church, although built of timber, has been given a coating of cement. The new church built in 1745 was erected partly by public subscription but mainly through the benefaction of D. Scratton, a landowner on the island who lived in Prittlewell and gave part of the tithes of his land in Canvey to trustees to pay £10 per annum to the vicar of Prittlewell, the better to enable him to perform divine service in the new church. He gave a further £10 to the minister duly appointed to preach the course of twenty sermons per annum.
§2. The Maintenance Of The Roadways
From 1742 to 1789 an unusual and valuable piece of contemporary evidence is available which gives an intimate insight into several aspects of life on the island. This is an account book “bought for the yous of the survaires of the Cassey and footbridges and roads belonging to Canvey Island.” It contains the details of annual rates levied by the survaires (or surveyors) on the landowners of the island for the upkeep of the roads, and for many other tasks curiously unconnected with the roads, such as ” washing the parson’s surplis,” and full details are shown of the disbursements made each year. The history of these road surveyors may be traced back another hundred years, for the Essex Record Office holds an order of the Quarter Sessions at Chelmsford dated 1694 concerning the complaint from landowners of Canvey Island that the several parishes between which the island was divided had attempted to levy rates for road work on the inhabitants of the island. They were doing this regardless of the fact that in the fifteenth year of King Charles I it had been decided that they should be responsible only for the upkeep of the roads and causeways in their own island. “It is therefore accordingly ordered by this court that the said order made in the fifteenth year of King Charles I be again confirmed, and the inhabitants of Canvey Island exempted from paying towards the repair of highways of any parish or parishes without the said island.” Thus Canvey was given a special dispensation to look after its own roads and footbridges, and a group of surveyors was elected to arrange for the levying of an annual rate and to see that the necessary works were carried out.
The accounts are mainly filled with such entries as these:—
“May 13th 1742. For one day’s work, a cart, three horses and two men 6/6
For a frait of gravel £3 5 0
For a knew [sic] foot bridge over the creek into the island £14.”
From such workaday entries we can glean something about the work involved. Each year one barge-load of gravel, and sometimes two, were unloaded at Holehaven Creek and from there the gravel was carted to the parts of the island where it was needed. Generally speaking the work occupied two or three men for about two weeks in the year, and the cost ranged from £10 per annum to about £30. The rate in the £ was about 2d. or 3d. in most years, but in one year it rose to 6d. This was in 1761, when the accounts record the delivery of twenty-six loads of stones. This was obviously a special event, for there is a new item in the accounts: ” For going to Laindon Hills to agree for the stones … 2s. 6d.” Unfortunately there is nothing in the accounts to indicate for what purpose this delivery was required. Apart from gravel and stones the other materials used were chalk, flints, and bushes. The reference to a footbridge over the creek is curious, for such a bridge is never mentioned in contemporary references to the island. For such a small sum it could hardly have been more than a flimsy plank raised slightly above the marshy floor of the creek.
Other activities of the surveyors were the maintenance of the sluices and counter walls, the provision of ” handfasts ” for the bridges over the fleets, the care of the chapel, and of course the annual dinner. Judging by the sums allotted for this function it must have been the social event of the year. The references to the chapel are interesting for they show how stagnant was the church life of the little community at this time. It seems that even the stipulated twenty sermons per annum were not preached, for the accounts contain references to ” Paid Jolly for thirteen Sundays and whasing [sic] the surplis, 9s.,” ” Paid Bennett for being cleark at the chappie twelve Sundays, 6s.” The accounts show that the surveyors were busy during the building of the new church in 1745. They erected a new gate to the churchyard and provided a table for the chapel. The chapel windows were constantly being blown in, and the item ” Glazing ye chaple windows ” appears with monotonous regularity. It was eventually decided to fit shutters, and in 1761 appears the entry ” Paid for the chapell windows £2 Is. 2d.” Benton, one hundred years later, comments: “The chapel has the peculiarity of having windows secured by outside shutters.” The shutters were only taken down when services were to be held.
§3. The Maintenance Of The Walls
How soon after the Dutch wall was built the Third Acre wall rates were instituted is unknown, but two extracts from the records of the Dutch Church in London suggest that some elementary system of rating was in force by the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1721 one John Green-way gives a receipt to Mr. Vanbord for ” Twelf pound fifteen shillens by the order of the Dutch Church for 51 ackers (i.e., acres) at five shillens a naker for the uses of the seay walls.” About this time also there is an entry: “If there comes an outrageous tide to allow in proportion what other gentlemen doe.” Outrageous tides certainly did come, for in 1731, and again on 16 February, 1735, the island was inundated. Not only Canvey but all the levels of the estuary were affected by the floods in 1735. The minutes of the Dengie Commissioners tell of ” the late outrageous tide,” and those for the Commissioners of the Gravesend Levels record: ” All the lands in the levels are now under water by the very extraordinary inundation or overflowing of the sea on Monday last, and several breaches are made in several parts of the walls of the said levels whereby great loss and damage has happened, and more damages are likely to ensue.” It was on this occasion that the Thames overflowed into Westminster Hall while the Courts were sitting and the Judges were obliged to be carried out. Giving an account of these events the contemporary ” Gentleman’s Magazine ” continued: ” The little isles of Candy (i.e., Canvey) and Fowlnesse were quite under water, not a hoof was saved thereon, and the inhabitants were taken from the upper part of their houses into boats.” There were no Commissioners of Sewers for Canvey Island because of the Dutch responsibility for the walls, and therefore no direct evidence is available of the effect of this flood on Canvey Island. However, it must have made a deep impression upon people at the time, for Morant, writing some thirty years after the event, makes a special point of including a footnote in his History of Essex about the following incident which occurred at the time. “One half the cattle and sheep were drowned. A cow and five hogs, then happening to stand on a dung hill, were swept by the on-rushing water nearly a mile over a deep creek and luckily preserved from being driven with the rapidity of the stream by the dung hill being stopped by a high bank.” No lives appear to have been lost in these floods; this may have been due to the fact that most of the houses were located on parts of the island which were slightly higher than the surrounding marsh. Some credit must also be given to those who designed the original Dutch cottages, for, unlike most of the dwellings in modern Canvey, they had bedrooms upstairs.
Even before the turn of the seventeenth century there had been further enclosures of saltings beyond the original Dutch wall, for a map in the Essex Record Office dated c. 1700 shows a portion of Canvey Island on which is marked ” counter wall or old sea wall ” along the line of the original Dutch wall, and seawards of it there is a new enclosure, now called ” Smallgains,” which is marked on the map ” new land.” Additional areas were reclaimed elsewhere in the island, for the remarkably detailed map of Chapman and Andre dated 1777 shows several new enclosures. All these lands enclosed after 1622 were called Outsands to distinguish them from the Third Acre lands and the Freelands which were the lands within the original Dutch wall. The owners of the Outsands, like those of the Freelands, were not rated for wall rates, but on the other hand they were individually responsible for the maintenance of their own walls. Meanwhile, where the original Dutch wall had been superseded it fell into disrepair. Throughout the eighteenth century Canvey Island was the only marshland district without a Commission of Sewers in the whole of the Thames estuary. In 1791, however, came another great flood which destroyed the main walls fronting the Thames and inundated the whole island, proving beyond doubt the necessity for a special Commission to maintain the walls.
In 1792 an Act of Parliament was passed “for more effectively Embanking Draining and Otherwise Improving the Island of Canvey in the County of Essex.” Some indication of the extent of the damage is contained in the preamble to the Act: “. . . the walls embankments and works are in a very ruinous state and afford such a feeble protection that there is great reason to fear the whole island will in a short time be totally lost.” The Act established a new body called the Commissioners of Sewers for Canvey Island. This body was similar to the many Commissioners of Sewers already existing in marshland districts in England and Wales, but it had special powers and responsibilities of its own. The most important of these related to the Third Acre lands. The Act recognised that although the owners of the Third Acre lands were legally responsible for the maintenance of the walls the burden was an onerous one, and it gave powers to the Commissioners to enable them to levy wall scots on the Freelands whenever they found themselves unable to keep the walls in adequate repair from the Third Acre rates alone. Thus the first small breach in the privileged position of the Freelands was made, but for another century the Third Acre lands continued to bear the main brunt of the repair and maintenance costs of the wall the Dutch had built about two hundred years before.
§4. The Commissioners Of Sewers
The opening years of the nineteenth century were marked by continuous activity on the repair and strengthening of the walls of Canvey. The Commissioners of Sewers of Canvey Island who were now responsible for the work decided to make full use of a specific provision in the 1792 Act which enabled them to make new insetts behind the line of the existing wall where serious breaches had occurred, so that the old wall, and the marshes between, would serve as a protective foreshore to the new wall. This technique was used extensively along the south side of the island facing the River Thames. A considerable length of the old Dutch wall, from Holehaven to Leigh Beck, was “flung to sea” during the period 1810-15, and a survey by the Commissioners in 1817 showed that altogether fifty-two acres of land along the southern shore had been abandoned in this way. The old Dutch wall has been a notorious hazard to small ships ever since.
Between 1792 and 1812 the Commissioners levied wall rates on the Freelands as well as the Third Acre lands, but from then onwards until 1881 the Freelands remained free of wall rates except in the three years 1837-9. Thus the provisions of the 1792 Act did not greatly affect the position of the landowners of Canvey and the main outcome of the Act was the establishment of a Commission of Sewers. To the local historian this is important, for their manuscript records have been preserved and provide useful information on the important work of sea defence. One of the greatest sources of concern to the Commissioners was the damage done to the walls by depredations of various kinds. Almost their first action was to order that ” a notice be publicly given that all persons who shall take away the cockle shells from off the banks, saltings, or any other part of the island . . . will be prosecuted.” These cockle shells, found in such abundance in the Leigh Beck district, were used for many purposes. They were used for cement (they are found in the walls of Hadleigh Castle and the little Dutch cottages on the island), for lining marsh ditches, and for the surfacing of paths. In September, 1797, appears the entry: “It having appeared at this meeting . . . that much injury had been done to the piles and wall by divers persons laying lobster chests thereon, and also by other persons suffering their cattle to feed upon the walls . . . etc.” In 1808 Mr. Whitwell, of Canewdon, was ordered to make a special survey because “the walls are in a dangerous state,” and it was as a result of this survey that the decision was taken to abandon the Dutch wall along the south shore. In 1813 and 1814 there are references to the “new insetts ” being made along the southern shore, and in 1817 there is a ” Survey of Lands made into Foreshores by new insetts.” From then onwards until 1881 the minutes are mainly devoted to the routine work of a Commission of Sewers: fixing the rates for the Third Acre lands, prosecuting offenders caught damaging the walls, advertising in the Kent papers for supplies of Kentish Ragstone for the walls, and arranging for the drainage of the “new enclosed lands.” It is clear that the new southern wall continued to give the Commissioners some anxiety, for in May, 1864, they arranged for a Mr. Elliot, a leading drainage engineer from the Romney Marsh district, to make a special survey of the wall between Holehaven and Thorney Creek. He suggested breakwaters to lessen the erosion, but it was decided that the foreshore shelved too steeply, and no further action was taken. Seventeen years later these very walls collapsed and Canvey was once again completely inundated.
§5. Agricultural Prosperity
The first decades of the century were prosperous years for agriculture and land values were high. The preamble to the 1792 Act emphasises the agricultural importance of Canvey Island: “The produce of the land is considerable and many families are maintained in the cultivation thereof.” Compensation was paid by the Commissioners of Sewers for the abandoned lands at the rate of £40 per acre during the years 1808-14, and Benton describes how Wreck Hall, a farmhouse on the south side of Canvey Island, was bought for one hundred guineas in 1770 and sold in 1815 for £1,300. Conditions changed after 1820, however, in Canvey as they did throughout Britain, for in 1822 the Commissioners resolved and ordered ” that the rate made upon the several owners and occupiers of the Third Acre lands within the said island in consequence of the depressed value of the produce of the land be reduced after the rate of ten per cent upon the last rate,” and three years later there are complaints from the Expenditor of shortage of money to pay the expenses of the Commissioners, who were forced to request an advanced payment of wall rate at five per cent interest. The tithe schedules enable a complete picture of the land use of Canvey Island c. 1840 to be mapped, and this shows that the major part of the island was in arable cultivation. Six of the farms on the island at this date still bear the suffix wick.
After about 1850 conditions in agriculture greatly improved, and Benton, writing in 1867, quotes the case of a farm lying in the south-west corner of Canvey Island, all Third Acre land, which was sold for £2,500 although it had changed hands only a short time previously for £250. Of the farming on the island he says: “The soil of the island is heavy but good corn land and the arable portion is all laid up in beds from three to four rods in width.” He also recites the curious incident by which, to augment the slender endowment of the chapel on the island, Queen Anne’s Bounty acquired a small piece of land in Hawkwell parish on the mainland for £600. This represented £100 per acre and Benton justly comments: “The price paid for it seems to have been far beyond its value.” The incident is interesting because it illustrates how grossly inflated land values had become in this “Golden Age ” of British agriculture, and it helps to explain how disastrous the crash seemed when it came a few years later.
Canvey Island has always depended heavily upon the few wealthy and influential people who have been associated with it at different stages in its history, and the nineteenth century was no exception. There were three such men. The first, Mr. Hilton, of Danbury, owned 1,850 of the island’s 3,800 acres in 1840 and was a great reclaimer; the second, the Rev. M. Hayes, was a devoted pastor; and the third, Mr. Hester, was a financier and estate developer. Most of Mr. Hilton’s reclamation work was done during the years 1840-60 and considerable areas were added to the Outsands at this time. In the course of the work he became involved in a legal dispute with Lady Sparrow, of Leigh, over the disturbance to the Leigh fisheries, and only brought it to a satisfactory conclusion by himself purchasing the fishing rights so far as they related to Canvey Island. Mr. Hilton relaid the gutters and sluices some four to six feet lower than they had been seventy years before, and, above all, he arranged for the boring of seven artesian wells, about 250 feet deep, thereby solving the age-old problem of the marshes. Iron water-pipes and stopcocks in the marshes of Canvey ushered in a new era of agricultural prosperity.
§6. Heyday Of The Rural Community
The prosperity of agriculture was reflected in the life of the community. In 1845 the church was almost entirely rebuilt by local contributions, and seventeen years later the first stained-glass windows were fitted. Shortly afterwards, thanks to an improvement in the financial position of the church under the statute of 29 and 30 Victoria, the first full-time minister of the Church of England came to live and work in Canvey Island. Canvey was a reasonably prosperous place when the Rev. M. Hayes first set foot in the island. The railway had been brought to Southend and passed Canvey’s front door at South Benfleet, the roads of the island, according to Benton, were in an excellent condition, and most important of all, the ague had disappeared.
The true significance of the ague as a factor influencing communal life is difficult to assess. There is no doubt about Norden’s account: he actually caught the disease! And so did Lady Rich, whose death from the disease inspired Waller to write : ” May these already cursed Essexian plains Where hasty death and pining sickness reigns, Prove all a desert, and none make there stay But savage beasts, or men as wild as they.” His words were apparently fulfilled for James Brome, after travelling through South Essex in the year 1700, had this to say of the people there: “The Commonalty (of Essex) are for the most part pretty well refined but for them who live in the ‘ Hundreds ‘ (as they call that part of the county which lying more low and fiat and near to the sea is full of marshes and bogs) they are persons of so abject and sordid a temper that they seem almost to have undergone poor Nebuchadnezzar’s fate and by conversing with the beasts to have learned their manners.” So many of the later references, however, seem to be hearsay that one is a little suspicious, particularly when writers like Defoe give obviously exaggerated accounts. A writer in 1900 says: “The church clerk, who has been resident on the island for over eighty years, still remembers the day when only people who cared little whether they lived or died would undertake the farm work on the island ” (i.e., because of the ague). But then if we go back to Benton, writing some forty years earlier, we read: “Canvey formerly was shunned for its unhealthfulness; an old writer tells of old bailiffs who being seasoned and acclimatized had married in some instances from four to six wives.” We have to go back a further sixty years or so before we begin to find substantive evidence that ague was widespread. Mr. Thompson tells of a Mr. E. H. Rowley living in the Essex village of Orsett who “remembers being told as a young man how, in the early years of the last century, the village people would pay a weekly visit to the parson for their ration of ‘ white powder’ or bark. It was quinine.” Corroborative evidence is not wanting that in the early years of the nineteenth century the ague was still a serious nuisance in the marshes. An aged minister, writing in the Essex Review in 1902, recalls how it was a recognised fact in his younger days that few curates cared to stay more than a year or two in a Thames-side parish for fear of catching the ague, and he remembers how it was customary to avoid going out for an hour or two after sunset, when windows were kept closed to keep out the aguish miasma that arose after sundown.
Ague disappeared quite suddenly during the middle of the nineteenth century, and the rising town of Southend-on-Sea quickly outgrew the prejudice which had attached to it on this account. Indeed, it soon began to advertise its bracing air and even the mudflats became endued with health-giving properties. The complete disappearance of ague naturally attracted the attention of scientists during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and some strange theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon. Some people ascribed it to the felling of woodlands, a favourite remedy which had long been advocated, others to the increase in smoke from steamers on the river, the increased use of sugar, and the general improvement in modes of living. Dr. Henry Love, in a paper to the Essex Naturalist in 1888, suggested that the disappearance of the ague was due to “the cyclical nature of the disease ” and he said that it might return again as suddenly as it had vanished. There were also some who hit upon the real solution: improved drainage. Exactly how improved drainage brought about the eradication of the disease could not be explained until medical research workers had discovered the origins of malaria and how it was spread. They found that the disease was carried by the Anopheles mosquito which breeds on stagnant water. Thus the reduction in the area of stagnant water by improved drainage greatly reduced the mosquito population. Furthermore, they discovered that the mosquito could only transmit the disease if it had first sucked the blood of someone already suffering from malaria. Thus the introduction of quinine, which reduced the number of people suffering from the disease, rapidly accelerated its eclipse. In a remarkably short space of time ague had been eradicated and even forgotten, so that the author of a recent brochure on Canvey Island was able to speak of “the proverbially healthful climatic conditions” of the island!
Before the Rev. M. Hayes arrived on Canvey Island the social life of the community must have been very limited. Such as there was would probably have been centred upon the Lobster Smack Inn at Holehaven. Here a cosmopolitan crowd of seamen, many of them Dutch sailors from the eel schuyts which anchored in the haven, would be found in the low-beamed parlour. Because of its lonely situation it was frequented by all those who found this a virtue. Here were fought some of the most famous of the bareknuckle fights in the nineteenth century, and in the bar were usually to be found the skippers of the ” tasker tugs ” waiting on the off-chance for a tow up to London, and the ” brum ” or unlicensed pilots. Canvey Island acquired a reputation for the unusual, and even the sinister, which Charles Dickens did little to dispel when he selected the Lobster Smack as the scene of the closing chapters of his Great Expectations. Apart from this international haven of activity, however, Canvey was still a lonely and virtually uninhabited wilderness. On Saturday, September 10th, 1859, the vicar of South Benfleet, after visiting his parishioners, ” lost his way returning from Canvey Island,” caught typhoid fever and was dead within a fortnight. “I ain’t a country girl, I hate the country,” says the heroine of Buchanan’s Andromeda (1900). “I hate Canvey Island most of all. It’s right enough, perhaps, in the summer time, but in the winter, when the fogs come, and the sun scarcely shines, and there’s nothing to look at but the black marshes and the river and the rainy sea out yonder it’s like being dead and buried.”
The Rev. M. Hayes, the second of the two men who had such a marked influence on the community of Canvey Island in the nineteenth century, arrived in Canvey in the year 1872, and he was the first minister of the Church of England to reside permanently on the island. He dedicated the next twenty years to the task of improving the lot of his parishioners. His first achievement was to pull down the old timber chapel and erect a larger and more beautiful building. The new church, rededicated to St. Catherine, was again a timber structure but it was very much larger, being capable of accommodating two hundred people. It was completed in 1875. Mr. Hayes then turned his attention to the building of a school for the children on the island, the first on record, where there were soon fifty boys and girls in attendance. Finally he tackled another urgent need of the villagers of Canvey, a deep well for fresh water. Previously, according to a contemporary writer, the only source of water for many of the inhabitants had been rainwater— or ditch water. Some of the islanders were apparently fastidious in this respect, for they took their supplies only from those ditches which were the home of water rats! Above all, the island finally became a civil and administrative parish in its own right in the year 1881. After a long period of neglect the little group of farmers and their families had at last become a worshipping community with a full-time minister of its own, one who could baptize, marry, and bury them, and who lived in the island among his people. From this time forth Canvey Island developed with remarkable rapidity. The small rural community, almost at the moment of its maturity, was now swept into the mainstream of events and experienced yet another metamorphosis.
§7. Agricultural Depression And Its Aftermath
The Rev. H. Hayes arrived on Canvey Island at about the peak of its agricultural prosperity, but within a few years the crash had come. Cheap wheat began to flood into England from the New World in the early 1870’s and soon swept away the traditional basis of agriculture in south Essex. The heavy sticky clays were difficult soils to plough, “three-horse” land it was called, and although they gave good yields the costs of cultivation were high. Moreover the Essex farmers had become so accustomed to corn-growing that they could not readily adjust themselves to the changed conditions by turning to the production of milk or livestock. In the five years following 1875 the clay-land farmers suffered another severe set back from a series of bad harvests, which coincided with the low prices for wheat and caused such distress in agricultural areas that in 1880 the government set up the Richmond Commission to investigate the position. Mr. Druce, in his report to the Commission, had a depressing account to give of the conditions in south Essex. “There are a very large number of farms in the landlords’ hands, some of which are practically, though not actually, uncultivated and others cultivated by the landlords. As seen in several parts of the country the state of agriculture was deplorable. Some land was altogether derelict, and more was full of weeds and natural grasses upon which a few cattle were picking up a bare living, farmhouses were empty or only occupied by overlookers or caretakers, in some cases the cottages were empty, and the general aspect of the county was desolate in the extreme.” Fourteen years later the Royal Commission on Agricultural Distress submitted another report to the government which was even more alarming. “Some idea of the deplorable straits to which agriculture in Essex was reduced between 1880 and 1884 may be gathered from the fact that on one Roothing estate twelve farms were in the owners’ hands at one time, while on another near Billericay in 1884 seven, comprising an area of two thousand acres, were under the management of the estate agent … A regular panic set in . . . some tenants refused to renew their leases on any terms . .. many farms after lying derelict for a few years were let as grass runs for young stock at nominal rents. One extraordinary example may be quoted as descriptive of the depression in Dengie Hundred:—
Shoats and Canny Farms, Steeple (638 acres)
Rent in 1873 £760 per annum
Rent in 1883-6 £460 per annum
Rent in 1886-91 £1 per annum.”
Mr. Pringle, the member of the Commission who prepared the report on south Essex, also quoted the case of an island of six hundred acres of marshland, some of it salting marsh, which had been purchased in 1875 for £8,000 and was sold in 1885 for £420. The report of the Commission included a map showing the lands which had been arable in 1880 and had reverted to pasture or waste in 1894. This shows how seriously all the riverside marshes were affected, particularly those in the Pitsea Levels.
§8. Inundation And Legislation
In the year 1881, whilst the agricultural depression was at its worst, another disaster overtook Canvey: the collapse of the sea walls and the flooding of the island. The history of Canvey Island is studded with such events, but one must remember that seldom did a very serious flood occur more than once in a lifetime, and when they came they were disastrous in their consequences. The minutes of the Commissioners of Sewers for Canvey Island for February, 1881, give a graphic account of the flood on 18 January. Great damage had been caused to the main wall facing the river from Scarhouse to Leigh Beck and altogether there were five hundred men working desperately on the walls to repair the breaches sufficiently to keep out the spring tides, including 150 soldiers ferried from Chatham. The minutes tell of the difficulty of raising sufficient money to repair the walls, and it is clear that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, when appealed to for assistance, would only agree to help if the Sewers Commissioners applied for an Act of Parliament to reform the arrangements for the maintenance of the walls. An Act was duly applied for, and in 1883 the Canvey Island (Sea Defences) Act was passed amending the Act of 1792. The main provision of the new Act was the abolition of the distinction between the Freelands and the Outsands. ” Whereas certain works vested in the Commissioners have become useless by reason of the execution of the works executed for the protection of the Outsands … it is reasonable and expedient for the benefit of the whole island that the distinction between the Outsands and the Freelands be abolished on condition of the Commissioners taking over and maintaining the works executed as aforesaid for the protection of the Outsands.” Thus the Act did not change the historic responsibility of the Third Acre lands, but it did render the Outsands liable for wall rates in the same way as the Freelands. This step was clearly essential, for the large reclamations carried out in the middle years of the century had rendered long stretches of the Dutch Wall obsolete.
Great efforts were made to repair the breaches, and the main wall held firm when the next big test came in November, 1897, but on this occasion it was the rear walls that were breached. ” Dry and crumbling owing to the lack of rain,” went a contemporary report, ” it [i.e., the rear wall] soaked up the salt water like a sponge and three ominous cracks appeared. Through these the water gushed in torrents. The farmers hastened away with their wives and families but the only lives lost were those of two bullocks. A strong north-easterly gale was blowing and when it dropped the water rushed up in swollen volume bringing destruction and desolation. After bursting the sea wall the water followed the line of the dykes and ditches.” These two serious floods, following so quickly upon each other, had a salutary effect upon the Commissioners of Sewers, and the walls of the island were so greatly improved in height that no other serious floods were experienced for nearly half a century. This may have engendered a sense of complacency about sea defence during the period when Canvey was fast becoming a densely-populated urban district. A study of the records of the Commissioners of Sewers for the Thames Estuary marshes over the past three hundred years shows that serious flooding occurred with remarkable regularity every fifty years or so; this may well be explained, at least in part, by the complacency which so often set in after a period of intensive work on the walls following a serious flood. Of course the continuing subsidence of the whole area must have something to do with it as well.