From the Sunday Times 1877
Out and About
“A chiel’s amang you takin’ notes” – BURNS
Canvey Island, 11th May, 1877.
The human race may be classed under two great denominations, – to wit, people who know where Canvey Island is, and people who don’t.
Now, my sweet reader – far sweeter than the roses of June—you and I have been so long acquainted, and have always got on well together, that a mutual rule of courtesy naturally prevails between us. There is no need for us to make allowance for one another’s frailties, neither of us being afflicted with any. We are each of us as good as good can be. Gooder persons than you and I never adorned humanity. We are simply the goodest out – “quid plura?” For my own part, I can safely declare that such is my love for you, if you be a woman, such my pity, if you be a man, and such my idolatry, if you be a child, that for no earthly consideration would I wantonly say one word to hurt your feelings. Nothing could induce me to cast an unmerited slur upon your intellect, or without adequate justification to call in question the quality and extent of your accomplishments. But the truth must be spoken, my dear, at all hazards, aye, though the sky should fall for it ; and so speaking, I am bound to express the honest conviction of my soul that you, even you, beloved reader, are to be ranked among the benighted human beings who don’t know where Canvey Island is.
It makes my heart bleed to say so, but say it I must, for Truth is a merciless mistress, and her interests may not be sacrificed to the exigencies of friendship. It may be that I do you wrong. If so, please accept my apologies; but no more can be required of the best of men than that he should make the utterances of his lips conform to the dictates of his conscience. If my conscience mislead me, it is no fault of mine. I know no truer guide. She it is, and she alone, who impels me to declare my belief that good, and beautiful, and clever though you unquestionably are, you don’t know where Canvey Island is.
Come, now, I’ll bet you my boots that you don’t. I never yet met fellow-creature of mine, in any quarter of the globe, who did. One man has told me that it is in the Grecian Archipelago, another that it is in the Hebrides, a third that it is in the South Pacific Ocean, but they are all equally in the dark. Canvey Island is in no such distant latitudes. It is upon the river-coast of Essex, and not more than about thirty miles from London Bridge.
It is a queer, quaint place, and for the sake of its ugliness, though for no other reason, so well worth a visit, that I go down with you from Fenchurch Street for the sole purpose of seeing it again any day you please. A free first-class railway ticket there and back, a dinner at the Café Royal in Regent Street, and five-and-twenty gold sovereigns are the only inducements I shall require over and above the pleasure of your society.
It is one of the many strange peculiarities by which this eccentric place is distinguished, that whereas other islands – England in the number – are islands all the year round, it is only every now and then that Canvey Island is an island at all. Its occasional insularity is created by the circumfluence of the Thames at high tide, but at low water the river vanishes so completely to a dry communication between Canvey and the neighbouring shore. Assuming an air of indignant disdain akin to that which Remus may have exhibited when, to the no small disgust of his brother Romulus, he leaped across the foundations of Rome, the present writer jumped from the mainland to the island with a grace and agility that would have done no discredit to Madlle. Zazel, that wonderful artist who, in the literal acceptation Of Will Shakespeare’s words, seeks the bubble reputation in the cannon’s mouth. At the time when the present writer performed his amazing feat of gymnastics, about a spoonful of water flowing in the channel, and he landed sicco pede, which means in the vernacular, “with dry feet,” upon the other side. There was a shout of applause from the crew of a dirty little collier unloading hard by, which the P. W. acknowledged with grateful gesticulations. His satisfaction would have been unalloyed, had not the sooty-faced sailors followed up their cheers with a requested for “money to drink his health with,” a solicitation which savoured of an interested motive. With characteristic liberality, however, he bestowed a sixpenny piece upon the enthusiastic mariners, and after exhorting them to temperance, went on his way rejoicing.
Canvey is about five miles in length’ and two in breadth, and contains nearly 3,600 acres of rich arable. The history of the place is peculiar, and proves its right to be regarded as a sort of Dutch appanage to the British nation. It seems that the island having been formerly subject to be overflowed by high tides, a certain Sir Henry Appleton and others, the then owners of the land, agreed, by a deed dated April 2, 1621, to make over one-third of the lands in fee-simple to Joas Crappenburgh, a Dutchman skilled in constructing dykes, in consideration of his forming, at his own cost, sufficient embankment to protect the island from any future recurrence of the same evil. He did his work effectually enough to resist ordinary currents, but not so thoroughly as to be proof against inundations at some particular high tides. One of the most remarkable of these occurred, as Morant tells us, in his “History of Essex,” on February 16, 1735, when about half of the cattle were drowned. “A cow and five hogs then happening to stand upon a dunghill, were carried with it near a mile over a deep creek, and luckily preserved from being driven into the rapidity of the stream by the dunghill being stopped by a high bank.” What a delightful ride they must have had of it, and how uncommonly nice they must have looked, as they were thus swiftly and smoothly wafted along, without either trouble or expense to themselves! In some of the old surveys it is mentioned that Canvey Island then fed near 4,000 sheep, and that great quantities of cheese were made from their milk, such a luxury as is to be found in any market of England in our degenerate days.
The advantage incidental to a residence in this miniature Holland are many and various. If it be objected that it is ugly, the reply is obvious that beauty is proverbially a matter of taste, and that every eye has its own ideal of loveliness. Assuming flatness to be essential to picturesqueness—an assumption which has at least, the merit of novelty – then must Canvey be pre-eminently picturesque, for it is as flat ag the palm of your hand. The Dutch lineage of the natives is to this day discernible in their faces and figures, the former being as round as full moon, and the latter having all the massiveness of structure and all the breadth of beam characteristic of the dwellers by the Zuyder Zee. “Damns have had their day,” as the man says in the comedy; but not so dams, else would Canvey be in a sad case, for it is only because it is a dammed spot that people can live there in comfort. If the sluices were removed, and the place were not worth a dam, it would be swept into the sea. All which calls to mind Lord Thurlow’s charming epigram upon the Dutch:-
“Amphibious creatures! speedy be your fall;
May man undam you, and Heaven d__n you all.”
Hans Breitmann would find himself quite at home in this queer little island, which seems to defy the vicissitudes of fortune and to remain unchanged from generation to generation. Nor is the surface of the soil unrelieved by objects of interest, mud walls of the most symmetrical design, and ditches filled with nice water of a deep verdant hue, being very numerous. Should any discontented person take exception to the island because it is an island, just as there are people who would find fault with a circle for being round, the grumbler may be respectfully reminded that Canvey Island is just as often not an island as an island. Whether it is a continent or an island, or what not, is a matter contingent upon the state of the tide, and possibly of the visitor’s digestion as well, for the stomach has more to do with our estimate of things than is commonly credited. All I know is that I found Canvey a peninsula, and left it an island. What it has become since, I neither know nor care. And by the way, that remark of mine reminds me of the road-labourer who, being asked by a traveller, “Where does this road go?” replied, with equal wit and truth, “Well, I leave it here in the evening, and I find here in the morning, but where it goes to in the meantime is more than can say.”
All the houses are of wood, the soil not being strong enough to sustain the weight of heavier edifices. This is an excellent arrangement, wood being cooler than brick in the winter and warmer in the summer, so that the denizen of a timber dwelling has the advantage of being frozen in the former season and scorched in the latter, which is just as it should be. If fire should break out, it will make short work of the habitation, and there will be no noise or bother with fire-engines. The flames will, of course, get the upper hand, and like your wife, keep it, but it is pleasant to know that there is a boundless supply of unavailable water at hand. The trees are few, so few, indeed, as to make one think of the characteristic growl of Dr Johnson, who objected to Brighton, Or “Brighthelmstone,” as it was called in his day, “because it was a country so truly desolate, that if one had a mind to hang oneself for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope.” Owing to the fewness of the trees at Canvey, birds are naturally rare, but Nature, never unmindful of the law of compensation, has provided an innumerable supply of frogs, and I have never heard anything at the Italian Opera to be compared to their multitudinous croakings. Otherwise, it is a peaceful spot, as peaceful as any within the four seas of England. “Silent, O Thames! be the roar of the waters; break not, ye zephyrs, your chain of respose!” for this is the abode of tranquillity. Hear the odious bells of the tram-car disturb not the ear; here are no organ-grinders, to distract your throbbing brain and turn your teeth on edge with their horrid discord; here no bagpipes excite homicidal projects in your soul, making you thirst for the blood of the piper. There is not a bell the island – no, not one; and itinerant musicians have never been known to profane with their unholy hoofs the sacred soil of the island.
No telegraph-wires, suspended overhead, invite the wandering breezes to mournful melody; and wonderful to relate, not a postman is to be seen from one end of the year to the other, for strange as it may seem, it is no less true than strange, that though there are several hundreds of islanders, there is no post office on Canvey Island. This complete absence of telegraphic and postal communication constitutes in itself an irresistible attraction. Nobody ever receives a letter at Canvey, and nobody ever writes one. How delightful to find yourself in a place where no telegram will come to terrify you with bad news, and where no duns can invade your quiet with their importunate applications! Both good beer and good baccy are to be had at the capital of the island, which consists of a school, a pretty little church, a vicarage, at once elegant and comfortable, and two publichouses, at one of which “tobacco” is spelt over the door with two b’s, and at the other with only one c, a sensible and friendly compromise.
The vicar is a pious and hospitable gentleman, who illustrates in his life the blessed doctrines which he inculcates with equal zeal and eloquence regularly every Sunday, in a neat little church of his own, which looks for all the world as though it had been taken out of a child’s toy-box and dropped in Canvey, to give prim neatness to the landscape. And talking of children’s toys, it is worthy of remark that regularly on the 25th of June there is, in this sequestered and forgotten spot, a fair for the sale of such things. This circumstance alone would justify the transportation of the infantine population of London en masse to Little Holland, where dolls, drums, and whistles are to be had in vast abundance for ready money down. The clergyman of Canvey, the Rev. Henry Hayes, would seem to have a pleasant life of it, for he loves his people and his people love him, and as he is gifted with that most precious of all attributes, a contented mind, proverbially a continual feast, he is no doubt to the full as happy in Canvey Island he could be in Cavendish Square. So true are the words of the poet, – “Quod petis hic est, est Ulubris, animus si te non deficit aequus.”
The climate of Canvey is peculiarly nice, being soft, slimy, moist, and so foggy, that at times you may almost cut it with a knife, and take away lumps, of it in your pocket. Large pieces of the heavy alluvial soil may also be conveniently abstracted, through their sticky adhesion to the soles of your boots; so that what with the portable climate and the portable clay, the visitor carries away with him a lot of the island, thus always leaving Little Holland poorer than he had found it. You will find the natives an honest, hardy, intelligent race, but they have their “national” sensibilities, and if you would live on good terms with them, you will do well to praise the island on all occasions, and to speak disparagingly of the mainland, as though the latter were a distant and hostile country.
The fall of empires and the shock of conflicting hosts are to the inhabitants of Little Holland even as the idle wind, which they regard not. I asked one of them what he thought about the war. “I think nothing about it. The less it is thought about the better,” was his reply. “But surely,” I ventured to remonstrate, “you must have sympathies on the one side or on the other.” “No,” he answered imperturbably, “on neither. I have no sympathy for people who tear each other’s hearts out, and fight like devils in the cause Of Christianity.” “The war is exciting a great deal of interest in England,” l rejoined. “So it may, for anything I care,” he returned; “they may say or do what they please over there on the mainland,” – and he pointed contemptuously in the direction of Benfleet – “but you may take my word for it, that let England pursue that course she may, Canvey Island will remain neutral.” I should have wired this important intelligence to the Sultan and the Czar, had there been any means of doing so, but was prevented by want of telegraphic apparatus. However, I have conveyed the intelligence to the Embassies of both potentates through Mr Gladstone’s favourite method of communication, a halfpenny post-card. Meanwhile, I could not choose but smile at my Canvey friend, the most phlegmatic little Dutchman I had ever met out of Amsterdam.
At Benfleet, on the adjacent coast of Essex, is a railway station, whence a train on the Tilbury and Southend line will take you to town in about an hour. Arrived in London, you may, if you like, heave a pensive sigh, and stretching out your arms in the direction of the island, exclaim, in jubilant accents, –
“Habitans de Canvey, qu’il est doux ajouter
Au plaisir de vous voir, celui de vous quitter!”
P.S. – At Rayleigh, a few miles distant from Little Holland, there is a tailor or the name of Sneezum! – there is, upon my word of honour. His shop is about mid-way in the street, on the right hand side as you look in the direction of the church.