The treasure trove of Canvey Island

Barking, East Ham and Ilford Advertiser 1890

“The sea shall give up its dead” is not, as a rule, the hard saying it seems, if taken literally. For one wreck in mid-ocean a hundred brave vessels are lost on the pitiless rocks and treacherous sands that lie like dragons round the gates of home and the poor battered shells of what were men are soon cast up by flowing tide or set of sea currents with the merchant’s gear of which they were the too faithful guardians. Lord Cantelupe’s body, which tossed in the stormy waters of the Ulster coast for a month, has found a resting place at last, though the superstitious fishermen of Northern Ireland had already begun to weave legends of the kelpie and water=dragon that keep the bodies of Captains and Commanders prisoners in the water dungeons forever; and the drowned crew of the Serpent are again mustered together under the rocky soil of a Spanish graveyard.

But the Thames is always slow to render back the bodies of the dead. In its rapid and turbid ebb and flow, gliding swiftly by stonefaced banks and steep wharves, the corpse of the suicide and the bodies of the chance-drowned river folk may travel for weeks in the relentless journey from London Bridge to Thames Haven, and from thence to the Nore and back again, till the bare bones sink into the river mud.

But there is one spot on which the greedy river still throws up the bodies of the dead. Canvey Island, the great alluvial swamp, now reclaimed from the sea and river, is the point on which the human flotsam and jetsam of the Thames is cast. The island runs along the Essex shore from Leigh to Hole Haven, where the Dutch eel boats anchor last before facing once more the North Sea gales after leaving their slimy cargo at Shadwell. There they anchor, and the Friesland fishermen come ashore on Canvey Island for a last glass of English rum, and perhaps the last round of fisticuffs with their old enemies the Essex boatmen, outside the old inn on the island. It is on the low point near Hole Haven, facing the downward flow of the Thames, that the bodies are usually thrown up, not far from the inn of which we have spoken. A body is worth 7s. 6d. If taken to the coastguard station — a fact of which the inhabitants are well aware.

It was my fortune (writes a correspondent of The Globe) to spend a fortnight on this strange soil, half land, half water, one black November, and evening usually found me sitting by the blazing fire in the inn parlour, listening to the talk of the habitués. They were all battered, weather-beaten men, connected in various ways with the sea, or watermen, lightermen, or long-shore men of the tideway of the Thames. They had two points in common. They all liked rum and hated Dutchmen. When they came across the former they drunk it. When they came across the latter they fought. One had his thumb permanently out of joint. “He got it along of a Dutchman” —that is, as he explained, in hitting at the Dutchman he had missed him, and hit the beam across the cabin roof instead. Another —a professional wild fowler—was “at half-cock,” as he phrased it for the whole time of my visit, having been jumped upon by Dutchman at the Haven, for a protracted period. “Wooden boats they had, and none so pleasant neither,” he remarked. But what excited my curiosity about this man was his mysterious absence every evening from dusk till eleven o’clock or later. Some nights he would return earlier than others, and, seating himself by the fire, call for a glass of “rum hot,” and smile successfully. Then a friend would join him. “Any luck?” the friend would enquire. “One,” would be the answer. “Where?” “About NN East of the point.” “Watch on?” “Yes; stopped 11.35.” “Ah, that would be the one they was a-waiting. Any money?” “Nowt’e! Do you think ‘e’d a done it if ‘e’d ‘ad a bloomin’ copper! Nowt’e!”

Whose watch had stopped! And what would he not have done if he had had a copper!

These conferences excited my curiosity. What luck did the frieze-coated fowler have at that hour of the night! Whose watch had stopped! And what would he not have done if he had had a copper! One evening the friend enlightened me. “Bill’s in luck again to-night,” he said. “What luck?” I asked. “Woman,” he replied, laconically; “reg’lar swell,” he added, Sealskin jacket and all to-rights; come down with the ebb about ten; not been in above four hours. That’s what he’s arter. That’s what he’ve been arter every night—floatin’ corpses. That bit of shore is better for them than a dozen miles anywhere else. Sometimes they comes thick; just now—that’s the time. Folks gets down on their luck, and then they gets to the bridges or the embankment, and one night they says, ‘Well, here goes;’ and then they comes down to Bill. Bill he knows. Once there was a chap as was advertised for. Bank clerk he was, as had drwn what wasn’t his to draw, and was last seen in a pleasure boat off Greenwich, and was s’posed either to have got on board an ‘ocean tramp’ outward bound, or to have upset. Boat was found, but not ‘im. Bill gets the notice, with time and place they found the skiff. ‘Well he says, ‘if he did upset he should be due here next ebb about four.’ So down we goes to the shore; and blame me if we didn’t see him a washin’ up almost to our very toes, not ten minutes later than Bill was expectin’ him. And in his coat—though you mayn’t believe me—was £400 worth of notes as the poor beggar hadn’t dared to cash, and not sixpence more.”

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