Family's Night of Terror on Canvey Island
Bakers National Association Review 13th February 1953
Stevens and Son’s bakery, The Reliance, the only one on Canvey Island, is all set to resume production when circumstances permit Meanwhile, Mr. Oliver C. Stevens and his son Aubrey have been doing much voluntary work as their contribution towards bringing back to something approaching normal the state of the island, which they have seen grow from a population of 3,500 to over 11,000 and now slump to about 1,000.
Since the first day of the disaster their visits to the mainland have been merely for their limited sleeping hours.
After the two Stevens families had been driven by the floods to Benfleet it was possible to learn something of their experiences: – Said Mrs. Aubrey Stevens, mother of four children:
“We went to bed about 12 o’clock on the Saturday night. Shortly before 4 o’clock we heard a syren and thought it rather unusual, but we took no further notice and went to sleep again. Then Aubrey’s father came over—he lives on the other side of the road—and said ‘The sea-wall’s gone.’ We didn’t take much notice of that, however, because that sort of thing, on a minor scale, had happened before. Shortly after I looked out of the window and saw water in the road. We went down into the hall and water started to come into the house.
“Our next thought was for my father, Mr. Graham Porteous, who is in his 89th year and, because of his age, sleeps downstairs. I woke him up and as by then water was coming in quickly I helped him upstairs and made him comfortable there. My husband went out for awhile to find out the situation and I got the children up and the eldest, Graham, who is ten, helped in various ways like a little man.
“My father-in-law and my husband made tea and took it to the school nearby for people already flooded out of their homes. They had made sure that the bakery was all right; it was not flooded at all.
“When, after about 20 minutes, my husband returned we stayed downstairs till the water overflowed into the Wellington boots we had put on. He made tea downstairs and got us something to eat and brought it up to us. He then went down and salvaged what he could. By that time he was stone cold.
“The next decision was to get the children away. Earlier, on a warning from my father-in-law that we must get out, I got my father dressed and some boatmen came along and pick-a-backed us to a bus on the main road and we were driven to a rest centre on the mainland. Meanwhile, I didn’t know where Aubrey was.
“Finally, the youngest child, my father and myself were taken to the home of a friend of ours here in Benfleet. The other children and Mrs. Stevens, sen.” —who is a semi-invalid, but looks after the firm’s books, assisted by Mrs. Stevens, jun.—”were taken to London.
“When we left the house some of the furniture was floating about. The firm’s books and our personal papers were all saved. The most inconvenient loss was practically all the children’s shoes.”
At that point in the interview Mr. Aubrey Stevens looked in for a very brief respite from the island. He explained that he had been authorised to organise a temporary postal system on the island itself, the permanent system having been transferred to Benfleet, and he hoped to get into touch with former Friends’ Ambulance Unit colleagues so that they could also help in any respect which was not already covered by official organisations. His great wish at that time was to find a baker on the mainland—or anyone else—who could lend them a spare motor-vehicle to use for that purpose. (He served with the F.A.U. during the war.)
“At the bakery,” he said, “we have offered stores for Red Cross purposes and the ovens for any drying required.
“As to the business, we have all our staff standing by and as soon as we get the word ‘Go’ we shall open up again.”
The members of the Stevens families, who all escaped from the floods, include Miss Stevens, sister of Mr. Oliver Stevens. Her house was not flooded. Her part in the business is to help in one of the three shops and the post office (part of the concern) at peak periods.
Mr. Graham Charles Porteous, who was 88 last year, seemed none the worse for his ordeal. He recalled some of his early days, in the course of which he mentioned that he was apprenticed as a confectioner to W. Hill and Sons, Bishopsgate Street, London, and afterwards continued to work for the firm until he had his own business, at Crouch Hill, London. Eventually he disposed of that and worked, still as a confectioner, for the N.A.A.F.I. for many years. He retired from that organisation, under the age-limit, twenty years ago.
He has won many medals for decorative work, and says: “I’m sure I could do piping now . . . I’m not shaky.” His wife died seven years ago.
Mr. Wilfred E. Barnett, of the Golden Crust Bakeries, South Benfleet, a past-president of the Essex Federation, found himself extremely busy within a few hours of the disaster occurring. One of his shops, is on the island. It had two to three feet of water in it and he has closed it for the time being. He got his fires going about 9.30 on the Sunday morning, as soon as he heard what had happened, and from then on baking became continuous.
He was supplying requirements, not only for bread, for all the W.V.S. relief organisations on the island and at two large rest centres on the mainland, and the work resolved itself into about a 20-hour day.
Most of his staff were living on the island, but were flooded out, and, in consequence, he was 12 short at the beginning of the rush and still about five short by the end of the week. They were all safe, but some had, apparently, been affected by shock.
On the other hand, about a dozen friends of the Barnetts gave valuable help.
Mr. Bert Wood, the manager, putting his heart into it with others, had only two or three months ago gone to live on Canvey Island from Leigh-on-Sea. He was flooded out, so accepted accommodation with Mr. and Mrs. Barnett
Mr. and Mrs. Wood were in bed when the floods came and the water was almost waist high – in the house before they were able to get out.
Mrs. Barnett (the first president of the Ladies’ Section of the County Federation) who is slowly recovering from a serious spinal operation, gave assistance in the business rush, within—and sometimes almost beyond — her present physical capacity.