Memories and recollections of Leigh Beck 1925-1939
Written in 1994
First published in her daughter’s book ‘The History of Canvey Island, Five Generations’
When my parents were first married they lived in London and my father (John Fenwick) by trade being a carpenter and joiner, used to travel each weekend with his tools to Canvey where he was building a bungalow, he had already helped build one for my Grandfather (William John Robert Fenwick) in Wageham Drive, (later re-named Chapman Road as the road was more or less opposite the lighthouse). I was born in 1925, and when I was six weeks old the bungalow was finished and we were able to move in. My father had then decided to start building holiday bungalows, it was rather difficult because they had to be cash sales, although a little later A. M. Clarke Estate started giving loans.
On Canvey I led a very free and unsophisticated life throughout my childhood, there was fields to roam in, unmade roads to play in, you could in fact head over heels from the top of the road to the bottom with no one to bother you only an odd stray cow or horse that had lost its way. Apart from my grandfather’s house that was named ‘London Cry’ an uncle, my father’s eldest brother had a holiday bungalow in Bommel Avenue, so at weekends when all the relations were in residence, we used to picnic on the saltings, swim off, of Browns’ steps and when the tide was out we used to walk to the lighthouse and play rounders or cricket on the mud flats.
I can remember when very young being taken to tea to Auntie Rosie as I called her, a friend of my parents that lived in what seemed to me a very large house, called Beach House on the sea front, the house fascinated me as it was full of ornaments and curious, to a small child the house and gardens seemed like fairyland.
Four years later my brother Jack was born. I can remember going to Claydon’s farm to buy drinking water for one half penny a bucket, my mother would carry the bucket and I would push the pram. Adjacent to the farm was a small shop come dairy, this was run by Cookie, the housekeeper of Farmer and Mrs Claydon, she was always dressed in a long white starched apron and cap, I can remember rows of shelves with jars of sweets, so many that it was difficult to choose, if we could not afford the half penny to buy them she would slip us a sweet each when no one was looking. She also sold milk from a very large jug also butter and cheese. Although we bought water for drinking, the water for washing and cooking was collected in water butts after heavy rainfalls.
When Jack was about 2½ years old I told my mother that he was having a swim in the water but, he wasn’t swimming he had fallen in and was drowning, luckily they got him out in time. When we were older my brother and I used to go to the farm on our own. Farmer Claydon used to sit in a big wooden chair in the yard, he would sit my brother on his lap and he would tell us about when Mr Hester used to live in the farmhouse, it was his pet subject, but my brother was more interested in going to the cow shed, to see Nelson (so called because he only had one eye) to milk cows. We would often meet Nelson with his herd of cows coming towards us, waving his stick, when we were out playing and later coming home from school.
When I was five I went to Whittier Hall School, I was taught by Miss Nora Bromley, the day I started school I remember I was most impressed by the Helliker sisters they were both dressed the same in blue dresses. Another person I remember particularly was Denis Lloyd, who when he grew up he devoted his life to looking after his mother, I remember he was a poet, I think he had some poems published.
As there was such a mixture of ages in one class, after much discussion my parents decided to send me to private school. For about two years I went to Kingsley Hall Road, where I was taught by Miss Irene and Miss Gwen. The school was approached by the arcade of shops near Maurice Road, I can particularly remember Mrs Richbell who was the school caretaker, she also looked after us if we were not well or fell over and needed bandaging up. She was a very nice lady that had quite a few children whom I think she had to bring up on her own. She lived opposite the school so was always on hand.
I was eight when my sister was born, nearly all the wives and mothers on Canvey belonged to the Nursing Association, I can remember my mother paying a subscription at Whittier Hall to Miss Stevens of the association, it covered you for sickness and for a mid-wife if you were pregnant.
Nurse Morgan was the mid-wife that brought my sister into the world, the night she was born was a very windy night and unfortunately there was two mothers in labour at the same time, the other mother was in Gills Avenue, so it was quite a long way for the nurse who was quite a large lady to cycle, the other baby was quite a well known character on Canvey, Charlie Neale Junior.
I can remember Nurse Morgan telling me that night, she hated winds, as one night over Winter Gardens she was attending a birth, when she needed to go to the toilet it was quite a challenge to get to the lavatory that was at the end of the garden, it was next to some geese, that was not helping, she managed to get herself into the toilet and all of a sudden there was a gust of wind it lifted the whole of the wooden surround off and left her sitting on the toilet in the garden surrounded by geese. I think if anyone deserved a medal on Canvey it is Nurse Morgan, she brought endless children into the world under some very difficult situations, with her bicycle and hurricane lamps.
As I was now considered to be growing up I was allowed to join different clubs at night, today you would have not gone out under those conditions, but the unmade roads were quite safe to walk in during the friendly darkness, with the glow of the hurricane lamp to light the way. There was Magic Lantern, also we had a practice night for a concert when we were put through our paces by Mrs George she encouraged us in acting, poetry reading and singing. These concerts were always enjoyed by the participants and the audience at Whittier Hall. At the Baptist Hall we had Christian Endeavour, and the Girl’s Life Brigade when we would practice very hard all the year for the display which was held at the Casino Ballroom every year.
The greatest problem at night, especially in winter was the muddy roads, they had been cut up by coal lorries and were at times impossible, you had to find the driest point change your shoes and hide your wellies behind a bush, but make sure you remembered which bush. There were quite a few characters living at the point, there was Charlie Stamp his wife and son Winkle that lived on a houseboat in the creek, Charlie was said to be a smuggler.
When I was selling tickets for the Life Brigade, for years I had my regular customers, there were the two Miss Lee’s they looked as if they had dipped their faces in the flour bin. There was another lady who lived in Southfalls Road, who was a titled lady, but I cannot remember her name, it could have been Lady Taylor, she was always very heavily made up, and wore large hats decorated with everything but the kitchen sink. There was Polly who always wore a long overcoat and a man’s cap, she lived in an old gypsy caravan in the vicinity of Kollum Road and I think she later moved to the Holehaven Coastguard Cottages. In later years after the war there was Mr Benson and Fag End Connie as she was called who used to busk in the West End of London, they could be seen coming out of Benfleet Station in the early hours of the morning.
Brown’s Stores was the shop where we bought most of our groceries, a store that sold everything from paraffin to a loaf of bread, alongside it had a cage almost as big as the shop itself, this housed a monkey called Jacko. I was told in later years, that an Aunt had taken me to the shop when I was about 18 months old, while she was in the shop the pram rolled towards the cage, and Jacko who had very long arms, put his hand out and grabbed the fur on my coat, they eventually tempted him from me with bananas. We used to put in our weekly grocery order, this would be delivered by Joe the owner’s son, who had a trade bike with a large basket on the front, unfortunately Joe was subject to fits and on occasions he would be found on the ground surrounded by groceries. Joe was an epileptic who eventually had to hospitalised.
There was Stewart the Pearly King who used to ride a three-wheel bicycle. Until the roads were made up everyone had to have their coal delivered in the summer, although Bernard the Oilman used to deliver paraffin oil summer and winter with his horse and cart, also we had our laundry delivered by Bill Byron and his daughter Gladys.
When I was about nine we moved off Canvey as my father had a job in Middlesex, we had let our house at Leigh Beck, but the job finished earlier than expected, so we rented a bungalow in Grafton Road, opposite the Mason family.
Margaret Mason and I became very good friends, my memories at that point were building camps underneath the Labworth Café, playing games in the Rabbit Warren in May Avenue, we used to make camps, have picnics put on shows for the little ones, actually we were practicing to perform at the Jolly Boys and Uncle Sam’s Minstrels. We both had a sister quite a lot younger than we were, these two were taken everywhere with us we taught them to sit in front and clap us as loud as they could, my sister became a teacher at Leigh Beck School and Margaret’s sister Hilda (better known on Canvey as Auntie Tilly) taught hundreds of Canvey children at pre-school nursery.
The day Leigh Beck School opened I was amongst the first pupils, I had two very happy years there before transferring to the Senior School in Long Road. Miss Vincent, the Head Mistress spent many hours teaching us to dance round the Maypole and getting the choir perfect for the Leigh Festival, it was a very happy school. Some thirty years later when we were raising money to build the school swimming pool, I became the Secretary and Miss Vincent the Chairman, it was the first Junior School on the Island to get its own pool.
I was also a member of the St John’s Ambulance cadets when I was about twelve. The officer was Ms Bertha Wade, she had run the senior section for many years, she got a group of us girls together and taught us from scratch, she was very proud when we all passed our exam we all had new uniforms, grey dresses and grey felt hats, we were to go to a big rally in Hyde Park, London. To give us an idea what was going to happen in London, we all lined up outside the Haystack Pub, Madam French and her friend Kate Carney, the old-time music hall artist, inspected us. We used to help nurse’s do duty on the sea front during the summer months, treating minor cuts and insect bites etc.
This year (1994) I attended the 60th anniversary of Leigh Beck School, it was incredible the amount of people there that I was at school with, I’m sure it could only happen at a place like Canvey.
I spent the next two years at Long Road School, at that time I started Tap dancing classes at Kathleen Geden School of Dancing in Baardwyke Avenue, we used to learn routines and sometimes we would appear on the Uncle Sam’s Minstrel show on Friday nights on the sea-front. At this particular time my best friends were Iris and Beryl Pierce from Barn Café and Terry O’Dare, daughter of Mr Terry O’Dare who had been a dancer. Terry ended up in Ensa during the war entertaining the troops, sometimes in the same show as her father, whilst Iris Pierce and myself joined the Army.
Thank you to Iris for giving us permission to published her memories.