Canvey Island and its Churches Price 6d

Published in 1947 By W Marston Acres with Illustrations

Early History of the Island
The Island of Canvey, which Camden identifies with the ‘Covennos Insula’ of Ptolemy, was until the 17th century a dreary marshland separated by creeks and waterways into six islands and subject to flooding at high tides; but although unsuited to human habitatition the marshes and saltings afforded valuable pasture for sheep, and the grazing rights were, from early times, divided between parishes of South Benfleet, North Benfleet, Bowers Gifford, Pitsea, Vange, Laindon, Hadleigh, Prittlewell and Southchurch. The sheep were kept not so much for their flesh and wool as for their milk, from which cheese was made in sheds known as ‘wicks’.

When flooding was threatened the sheep were driven to the centre of the island where the ground level was rather higher than elsewhere, but incursions of the sea frequently occurred without warning and involved the owners in serious losses; it therefore became imperative that something should be done to prevent such disasters. Experiments in drainage were made by Sir Henry Appleton of South Benfleet, the largest landowner on the island, in the early years of the 17th century, and the Dutch cottage, built in 1618, which still stands, may have housed an engineer from Holland engaged in these experiments.

By a deed of 1622 Sir Henry Appleton and other Canvey landowners granted to Joas Cropenberch one-third of any land he might reclaim by building a sea-wall. It is probable that most of the capital for the enterprise was raised by Cropenberch in Holland and that he engaged the famous engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to carry out the work. The embankment was completed in 1624.

The Dutch Chapel
After the sea-wall was finished, about two hundred of the Dutch labourers who had been employed on the work remained on Canvey where they found employment in manuring and tilling the soil. On the 12th February, 1628, these men petitioned the King that they might be allowed to hold divine Service in their own language in some nearby church, or in the house they had fitted for the purpose, and on the King’s instructions the Bishop of London authorised the Dutch Church in London to appoint a minister to conduct services on Canvey in the Dutch language. In 1631 a small chapel of timber was completed and Cornelius Jacobson was appointed minister.

1618 Dutch Cottage

When Jacobson died, in 1644, much difficulty was experienced in securing a successor, for the stipend was small and the climate unhealthy. Between 1644 and 1649 five ministers served for brief periods; in 1650 the Dutch complained that they had been without a minister for a year, and as England and Holland were at war from 1651 to 1654 the lack could not be made good during that period.

In 1654 the Canvey community chose Johannes Beutacq as their minister, but the Dutch Church in London refused confirmation of the appointment. Thereupon the majority of the islanders refused to contribute towards the maintenance of any other minister than Beutacq, and although the responsible officials of the chapel were not prepared to ignore the London authority, the elders surrendered the keys to avoid a riot when Beutacq’s supporters threatened to enter the chapel by force on 7th October, 1655. Beutacq, however, refrained from taking services and Canvey was again without a minister until 1657.

By this time several English families had settled on Canvey, and as their parish churches were inconveniently distant they applied to use the Dutch chapel for their services, but permission was refused on the contention that it would be contrary to the purpose for which the chapel was built if services were held there in any other language than Dutch. The English then held services in a farmhouse, which they invited Beutacq to conduct, and so many of the Dutch were attracted that it became necessary to secure a larger building. A climax was reached on Whit Monday, 1657, when the English assembled outside the Chapel and demanded its use. The Dutch put up a strong resistance, and after an unseemly struggle the English were obliged to retire without accomplishing their purpose. This event became known locally as ‘The Battle of Canvey,’ but it was a bloodless affair.

Towards the end of 1657 Joannis Lodewyck was appointed minister, but in the following May he left Canvey and no successor was found until 1661. Justinius Smetius, who then became minister, remained longer than any of his predecessors for it was not until 1681 that he decided to resign.

From 1665 to 1667 England was again at war with Holland, and on June 10th, 1667, part of the Dutch fleet anchored at Hole Haven and landed a raiding party on the island. Some houses and barns were burned and a number of sheep carried off, but it is unlikely that the Dutch sailors damaged the chapel used by their compatriots.

After the departure of Smetius services were carried on at the chapel until 1704, but during that period many of the Dutch left the island and settled at places on the mainland, and as they had learnt the English language they were satisfied to attend services in their parish churches. Only a faithful few continued to support the chapel, and after the death of Emilius van Cuilenborgh in 1704 no other minister was appointed and services were discontinued. A few years later, however, the chapel was used for English services, and in 1709 the Reverend Mr Lord was curate-in-charge of the island.

The First English Church
The old Dutch chapel became dilapidated and was rebuilt in 1712, probably on the same site, at the cost of Mr Edgar, a Victualling Officer. A note in the South Benfleet Registers records that the new chapel ‘by ye name of St Catherine’s Chapel’ was consecrated by the Bishop of London on June 11th, 1712′. In this small timber building, which accommodated about eighty people, services were held with more or less regularity until 1745, the nine parishes between which Canvey was divided sharing responsibility for providing a minister. During this period the island was seriously flooded on many occasions, probably from failure to keep the sea-wall in proper repair. There was a violent storm of wind which caused the sea to overflow its banks on February 15th, 1713, and numerous floods occurred between 1720 and 1738, particularly in February, 1736, when water covered the soil to a depth of four feet and many cattle were drowned. Besides causing serious inconvenience to the inhabitants and heavy losses to the landowners these frequent inundations must have been very detrimental to the fabric of the chapel, and in 1745 another re-building became necessary.

The Second English Church
Funds for the re-building of the church in 1745 were provided by a benefaction of Daniel Scratton of Prittlewell, supplemented by gifts from local sources. Mr Scratton also provided fro the payment of £10 a year to the Vicar of Prittlewell towards the cost of providing services in the church, and a further £10 a year for the minister to preach sermons in the church on twenty occasions in every year. Like its predecessor, the church was constructed of timber with a roof of red tiles, but it was dedicated to St Peter instead of St Katherine.

The exterior of St Katherine’s 1933

On days when services were being conducted at the church a flag was hoisted on the small spire and the shutters were taken down. No services were held during the winter months or when the weather was considered unsuitable. Marriages of residents on the island were performed in their respective parish churches, and burials usually took place at South Benfleet. It is to be feared that for long periods the building was used only as a convenient repository for smuggled goods.

In 1792 Commissioners were appointed for ‘more effectually embanking, draining and otherwise improving the island of Canvey,’ the preservation of which was a matter of public interest as its produce was considerable. At that time there were 50 houses on Canvey with a population of about 200. The church accommodation was presumably considered adequate, for no considerable additions were made to the building until 1875, although it was partly rebuilt in 1849. An attempt to beautify the interior was made in 1862, when five stained-glass windows were inserted, and seating was renewed, and a Communion Table and pulpit provided.

The Present Church
In 1872 the Reverend Henry Hayes was appointed curate-in-charge of Canvey, and in 1881 when the island was formed into a separate civil and ecclesiastical parish he became Vicar. Mr Hayes soon made plans for enlarging and re-roofing the little church, but as land for extending the site was difficult to obtain it was decided to erect a new church in the old churchyard about 20 feet further back from the road. The porch, five windows, and some of the furniture of the old building were used for the new church, which was consecrated by Bishop Claughton of Rochester on November 9th, 1875, and dedicated to St Katherine.

The interior of St Katherine’s 1946

In essentials, the church of 1875 has remained unaltered until the present time. It is constructed of timber, is cruciform in plan, and consists of a chancel with aisles, transepts, an aisleless nave, a large vestry-room on the north side of the nave, and a small south porch. The north chancel aisle, which was originally used as a vestry, was converted into a Lady Chapel in 1911, while the south chancel aisle, which was seated with chairs in 1875, is now occupied by the organ, brought here from Great Waltham in 1878. The chancel and nave are under one continuous roof but are divided by a wooden screen having tracery of 14th century character and surmounted by a cross. There are also wooden screens between the chancel and its aisles; all the screens are ornamented with coloured designs.

The chancel retains the tiled floor placed there in 1875, but the wooden flooring of the nave was renewed in 1910 and in the same year the north side of the nave was panelled and the panelling on the south side altered to ‘a more ecclesiastical style’. The pulpit and choir-stalls are of black wood with gold-leaf decoration, and the carved finials of the stalls bear gilded emblems. At the west end of the building is a plain octagonal font with a wooden cover.

There are many stained-glass windows, of which five in the east wall of the chapel were brought here from the former building where they had been placed in 1862. A window in the Lady Chapel, in which the characteristics of 14th century glass are imitated, commemorates Mary Ann Norton (d1893) two windows in the south transept have inscriptions beneath them which read ‘An offering from the Communicants at the early Celebrations, 1887 to 1890’, and ‘An offering from the Confirmees of this parish, 1873 to 1887’. On the north side of the nave is a memorial window to the Reverend Henry Hayes, the first Vicar, and further west, one which displays the figure of St Katherine. On the south wall of the nave a window commemorates Jonathan Wood (d1860) and his wife Anne, and the north most window in the west wall records the baptism of John Joseph Walmsley in 1876.

Marble tablet commemorating the men lost in the 1914-18 war. Now hanging in St Nicholas Church

Apart from these windows the church contains but few memorials of which perhaps the most interesting, because the most unusual, is a framed sampler memory of Edward Robinson, boatswain, who was drowned off Gravesend in 1884. A brass on the south wall of the chancel to the Reverend Henry Hayes was erected by his window, and a marble tablet on the north wall of the nave bears the names of the 19 men from the parish who fell in the War of 1914-8. A stone tablet, erected in 1912 ‘in glad commemoration of our 200th anniversary,’ is to be seen on the south wall of the nave.

The exterior of the church presents few evidences of age-as, within recent years, the timber walls have been covered with cement and a new roof erected. The open turret, which contains a bell and is surmounted by a slender spirelet, rises at the intersection of the chancel and the nave. On the spirelet, and all the gables, are iron finial crosses.

St Anne’s Church. It has now been rebuilt

At Anne’s Church
In 1900 the resident population of Canvey did not exceed 300, but building development at the east end of the island early in the 20th century necessitated the provision of church accommodation in that area, and a site at Leigh Beck having been given by Mr A M Clark in memory of his parents, a Mission Church was built there under the supervision of Mr L Wood of Grays. On the 5th November, 1910, the church was opened for worship, the Bishop of Barking (Thomas Stevens) performing the ceremony. It was subsequently decided that the building should be dedicated to St Anne.

The church, which is constructed of ferro-concrete, consists of chancel and nave under one continuous roof, and a north aisle with a vestry at its eastern end. The bell, which hangs in a small turret above the western entrance, was placed there in 1911 to commemorate the Coronation of King George V, this fact being recorded on a brass plate affixed to the south wall of the nave. Three painted panels which originally formed the reredos now hang on the west wall, and nearby is a small stone bowl on a wooden stand which serves as a font.

In the sanctuary is a simple wooden memorial containing the names of 14 men who gave their lives in the War of 1914-8; on the south side of the chancel are memorials to William Budd, Churchwarden (d1917), and to R J H Monteith, lay reader (d1913); and on the west wall is an oak-framed tablet commemorating Ebenezer Joseph Mather, founder of the Royal National Mission to Deep-sea Fishermen, who died in 1927.


The population of Canvey, which was only 583 in 1911, had grown to 3,532 twenty years later, and is now (1947) over 9,000. In 1926 the parish was converted into an Urban District with a Council of nine members (raised to twelve in 1939), and in 1931 Canvey was linked to South Benfleet by a bridge across Hadleigh Ray.

The Parish Registers show entries of Baptisms from 1813, of Burials from 1819, and of Marriages from 1861.

All the churches on the island, except St Katherine’s are modern buildings.


Vicars of Canvey Island
1881       Henry Hayes
1901       Watson Haggar
1909       Joseph Romanus Brown
1919       Edwin Green
1927       Reginald Arthur John Chute
1928       Edward Bonamy Dobree
1936       Hubert Arthur Stanley Pink
1938       Allan Whittaker Swallow
1945       Arthur James Mortimer

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