Illustrated London Times 1978
The poorest people came to Canvey and made homes out of next to nothing. At first they slept beneath the stars, pitching their tents and doing for themselves. They built houses, little by little, at weekends.
“Charlie came and he helped us put the roof on. Came back next year and we put a fence around our property. Ronny came down, that was my wife’s youngest brother, stayed a week with his fiancée and made us a lovely water butt.”
The first pioneers, inspired in the trenches of the First World War, had expected to come back to Mighty to homes fit for heroes. When they found, in the East End, insecurity and bitterness, some of them escaped to the badlands of Essex. They sank their service gratuities into small holdings: “The Nest”, “The Quest”, “Wye Wurrie”. Some of the now permanent homesteads of Canvey have names that seem to satirize more solid suburbs: “Kaos”, “Roughway”, “Charvine” (because she’s always brewing tea).
They’re not named in Canvey after the romantic honeymoon in Clovelly but after the struggles of life for “Meum et Tuum”. Some names are pinned like badges of courage: “Hazards”, “Kanjusta” (afford it). Some, like trade union banners of pride, proclaim a dream: “Christiana”, “Renaissance”, Takitezy”, “The Homeland”, “Finito “. My favourite, somewhere off the Papenberg Road in the still unsewered 60 acres, is called “Nobel Villa”. It deserves a prize—one of Nobel’s explosives factories was just across the creek in the marshes at Pitsea where today is Britain’s biggest poison dump.
Canvey is unique in Britain, and it came about through someone else’s hard luck. There had been a dreadful agricultural depression in the 19th century, when American corn came in plenty and it didn’t pay farmers to grow it at home, particularly in three-horse counties like Essex. There was no planning permission then, and speculators bought land from bankrupt Essex farmers who divided it into tiny strips and advertised it for sale in East London papers: plots for summer holiday and retirement retreats, near to London, near to what could be called the seaside. But it never boomed. The land was rough. Many tried but few persevered. Deeds changed hands in London pubs and in the Blitz many got lost. In wartime people fled London, and holiday chalets were a refuge for the bombed; some even camped in the fields. After the war it was estimated there were in south-east Essex more than 25,000 people living in homemade shacks along grass track roads. There were hundreds of plots of unknown ownership, and the squatters moved in, claiming the land on which they squatted—much in the manner of the colonials—so entering property-owning democracy.
Canvey is an island—situated where wide old Father Thames gives up to the sea—4 miles long and 2 miles wide. You can walk around it in a day.
The Romans came to Canvey. Their traces have been washed away but for little red hills they used for evaporating salt The Anglo-Saxon island was submerged by the estuarine sea. It rose again. Nobody lived there permanently, but shepherds milked ewes in wicks or sheds. They made a sheep’s cheese, white meat, Essex cheese. “Mighty strong meat, for the devil to eat.
No one makes it now or wants to. The milking was done by shepherd youths who carried small stools around with them fastened to their buttocks. Candy Island, Defoe called it, getting the name wrong but reporting that the shepherds would go to the uplands, on the mainland, to find a wife, presumably having unhitched their milking stools. They’d bring the woman back and after a season or two she’d die of the ague, a sort of malaria you get from badly drained land. Some shepherds, immune to the ague, had 20 wives in a lifetime.
The Dutch, when they arrived, dyked Canvey. Fields were drained so that they were fit for the plough, but tidal saltings—full of cockles and eels and rich wildfowl—were lost. What was a bog, a nasty swamp, to the Netherlandish community was a lot of tasty meat, free for the catching, to English shepherds.
The Dutch—some 200 at their peak—wouldn’t speak English. They built their own church and refused to let the English in. They lived in odd, octagonal cottages, two storeys high, which suggested that they didn’t trust their dykes that much.
The ague killed some of the Dutch. Others were made to feel unwelcome, and went home. A few adopted the ways of the marshmen.
And then came a grand entrepreneurial Edwardian Englishman. Mr Frederick Hester, who was a market gardener. He bought up a lot of land on Canvey and opened a nursery as a Winter Gardens, best seen in summer. There were fountains, a menagerie and aviary, a bazaar of bric-a-brac, and among the rustic woodwork a musical phonograph would play. He organized boozy jaunts for Cockneys, who would be met at Benfleet station and taken there in a coach, which involved fording the creek. The Londoners would get a posy for their buttonholes and then be taken off on a horse-drawn mono rail that he’d constructed over flat fields. At a licensed barge on Canvey’s riverside he’d then auction off land in tiny plots—immediate possession on the instalment plan. Some bought two.
Though Mr Hester went bust his plans for Canvey went ahead. What were names on a map he made are tarmac roads today.
People say it has all changed It has. Many of the wooden bungalows were soaked in the great tidal flood of 1953, when 58 people died on the island. Much is rebuilt in brick. To induce people to continue settling on the island the Council offered 100 per cent mortgages on brick, builder-built houses; that attracted the poor again, but a different generation of poor.
“Tain’t what it was.” When people say that you may be sure there’s just a little left to remind them how things were. On a mudbank sits a shabby houseboat—Persecuted London. The rigging of hundreds of small boats rattles like tin cans at the back of a horse drawn gipsy caravan. Oil flares shoot into a mackerel sky. Cyclists pedal sedately above the fields. On drainage dyke tops are concrete strips, signposted “Footpath No 10”. Flatland has perspective. A ship hoots but the sea and ships hide behind the sea walls.
There is a lot of traffic, fast flowing, one way out of the island—to work. I turn down a gravel road that becomes in a matter of feet a mere mud track, bush and scrub. I push through the bushes and I’m into a field of yawning horses—all lying down. Over vetches and celandine I come upon a hutlet in a woodlet. Behind another bush, another bumpy field and there’s an Eastern National bus stop on freshly flagged pavement beside a new tarmac road a row of neo-Georgian, 1977 houses, with bow-fronted windows unlaced and top soil freshly dug. There is a bus queue of silent people, some in collars and Lies. A man in fresh gaberdine without the slightest show of emotion, or any interest from the rest of the queue, gives a horse a sugar lump as the 151 to Romford rounds the corner.
By 8.15am the island is as deserted as any south-east dormitory town. There’s no shopping precinct here yet, and the last parade of shanty shops may survive.
The town of Canvey, with 30,000 people, is big enough now for estate agents to call it commercially progressive. You can come in your car, do business here, and not know you’ve been anywhere special, other than noticing that mid-town Canvey is a subtopian forest of telegraph poles and that the street names are peculiar—old Hester’s legacy: Budna, Bommell, Daarle, Dovervelt, Heilsberg, Gafzelle Drive, Paarl Road, Zealand and Zelham Drive and Zider Pass—as if the place had been once occupied by a colonial power, overrun by the Boers.
Canvey is shaking off the shanty image now. But buy a four-bed bungalow for £17,500 and you’ll not have much garden, for few plots are deep. The street pattern is Edwardian Hester’s—well and tightly planned. Drives and avenues are close together.
At the very end of Furtherwick Road there is a sea front, but no deck-chairs. The Council doesn’t welcome trippers any more. No free car parking but then it never did have much. The bank holiday crowds pass Canvey by, on the arterial road, as did once the Eagle steamers—you could hear the band on board, people dancing on deck—which would stop at Southend pier, but not at Canvey which has no pier. Nor are there hotels. At high tide the water laps the sea wall: at low tide it reveals a couple of feet of something like sand: tiny, soft, crushed shells and rock pools. No room to spoon upon the sands, but little children like it. Most resorts have parks of sweet-scented flowers changed with every season, but the public parks of Canvey are more recreation grounds than ornamental gardens. No boarding houses but caravans. Walk along the sea wall thatpasses for an esplanade and you get a lovely view of world shipping. Second World War pillboxes are teenage dens. Coils of barbed wire protect a caravan site from the humming methane terminal. An aluminium dome covers frozen Algerian gas. There are kiddies’ roundabouts, cockles and jellied eels, a couple of fish tea caffs below sea level, two discotheques and a bingo parlour offering Co-op stamps with every prize.
I like the idea of Canvey, of people building their own homes. It’s something the poor still do in Latin America but that we have lost. I love walking the streets and spotting the few remaining home-made houses. I enjoy walking the island walls to Deadman’s Point and Smallgains Creek, so called because it was where men made small gains of land from the sea.
I like the pubs, two especially: the Lobster Smack, which Dickens mentioned in Great Expectations when it was used for prize fighting and by unlicensed river pilots, and the Oysterfleet, by the lake in mid-town, with its low beams and bumpy floors and bamboo cane chairs, its piano used for a nightly knees up and illegal Radio Caroline in the day time.
A historical association has been formed, but it is difficult to preserve shacks. Like the tents they are there for but a season or two.
The drains are coming, the last sewers going to the first pioneers. The action committee against further oil installations point out there’s only one way off the island. Once there was none. “Oh,” say old residents, “have you ever been to Sark in the Channel Isles—we were like that—on our own. You crossed on stepping stones. There were no cars. It was beautiful, peaceful and free. Only 30 miles from London .”
People still come to Canvey for holidays, and for weekends messing about in boats. But Canvey was a fluke. Its story, when historians tell of the British seaside, may be only a footnote. And when British town planners boast of new towns, someone may say, “By the way, there was at that time an interesting phenomenon in a place called Canvey Island.”