Wildfowl and Zeppelins
the story of wildfowling on Canvey Island
“There be many men in London who count Benfleet station as the entrance to paradise.” The author of these immortal words, one J. Runciman, was referring to Canvey’s popularity with wildfowlers at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries – before a bridge to the mainland and any substantial housing development. Even he had to temper his enthusiasm by admitting that “in winter, truly, the marshes are bleak and inhospitable.” However, “the sportsmen have good times when the weather is frosty. A man who is not greedy, and who will be content with a very moderate bag, can hardly find a better place for exciting sport within these northern saltings (northern as in north bank of the Thames).
“Sometimes a redshank starts up, whistling desperately, and goes off downwind until the charge stops him; the ringed plovers cower low in the ditch, and shoot along under the bank with steady level flight, until they are forced to sweep out over the grass and give the gunner a chance. At the fall of the evening the wild note of the curlew sounds with piercing cadence.” The wildness, coupled with its proximity to London, is why Canvey proved so attractive to the shooting fraternity. “The heaviest bags were those achieved with a punt gun,” a weapon that Runciman frowns upon…“there is something murderous and commercial about the duck gun”…when “an hours wander with a small gun… the more artistic form of sport.” He obviously didn’t rely on it for a living.
But what of the people who lived there? “A wild and forbidding place is Canvey Island…the island has a peculiar population; but in the villages of Canvey, Knightswick, Panhole and Lovis there is a scant population of people who have their own ways, their own traditions, and their own methods of regarding a stranger. They are singularly hospitable, for the free-handed sportsman find the island a happy hunting ground and the people expect and give kindness.”
Local knowledge was as ever important – no health and safety team to watch over you ! “On the Fobbing side of the island the ditches are very deep, and the sides soft and treacherous. Once a bird is shot there it is very difficult to recover it. All the dogs kept on the island have a singularly business-like air, but no one would care to let a valuable dog follow his game down these steep gluey ramparts.” A miscalculation on the mud and you could suffer the fate of one poor wildfowler in 1924 who died. To the east, however , the saltings stretch far towards Canvey Point; and it is not only safe, but absolutely pleasant to walk over them before the tide creeps through the rough herbage.
Runciman’s contention that “hardly a shore-bird known in the British Isles fails to visit Canvey” is borne out by the naturalist C. J. Cornish writing around the same time (1902), who noted that “there are few land-birds on Canvey Island, because there are few trees…the shore-birds are numerous and increasing, for the Essex County Council strictly protects all the eggs and birds during the breeding season…plovers, redshanks, terns, ducks, especially the wild mallards are increasing. Out at sea the ducks were this year as numerous as in the old days before breechloaders and railways.”
Railing at the demise of the good old days is a common theme with later generations in all walks of life. Wildfowlers are no different. The author James Wentworth Day, “remembers that nearly every fisherman carried an old muzzle-loader, while the boom of punt guns rolled in muffled echoes up the coast in the dim light of winter mornings. Big bags of fowl, both duck and geese, were got on Benfleet Creek and at Deadman’s Bay…” Spoilt he believed by the “tripper’s bungalow colony, a nest of huts, shacks small houses, cheap dance halls, cinemas and (heaven forbid !) young men in flannels.” The exception to the decline in numbers came in the “hard winter of 1928 which brought fowl to our shores in numbers probably unprecedented since 1895…Brent geese were in the Thames in thousands” and fellow author J.C.M. Nichols reported seeing from Canvey Point “blankets of mallard, teal, widgeon,waders,scoters and brent geese. These vast numbers were repeated in the great frost of February 1947.”
Mind you if one observer, shooting on the Leigh marshes, is anything to go by, the wildfowl were in little danger from the shooters …… “The curlew…rose in an immense mob, and separating into battalions, passed over the sea-wall of the island opposite at about 600 feet to the tune of a continual barrage of shots! I fear that many guns are badly strained every week-end on Canvey island, whereby the preservation of bird life is definitely assured!”
However no resume of wildfowling on Canvey would be complete without mentioning Charles Stamp, a professional fowler. “In summer he fishes. Winkles and whitebait, flounders and eels, mullet and bass, codling and rokers come to his nets and lines. In winter he shoots for a living. Wigeon and brent geese, mallard and teal,curlew and ox-birds (stints), green plover and golden fall to his punt gun or are slain by his handguns. He can build a boat, paint a ship, skipper a barge, sail a yacht, caulk a deck, or tar a boatshed better than most men .”
It is to Charlie that Day goes on that first visit to Canvey on a bitterly cold November night in 1924. Having taken the ferry from Benfleet to Canvey, he and his fellow passengers were met by “a group of decrepit motor vehicles. Never had he seen such amazing mechanical freaks as the buses which used to carry one over the island in those days. Now (1949) there is a fairly good service of comparatively modern cars and small buses, but then one found converted Ford baker’s vans turned into buses, with wire netting for windows and springs that had died years before. The chicken wire had a dual purpose. First to blow out the petrol fumes which almost choked the passengers inside. Second as the bus rolled and bucked like a bronco over the potholes of the island roads, the chicken wire made sure the passengers were not chucked out. How those drivers drove! ” I suspect that none of these vehicles survived to become exhibits at the transport museum.
Day describes Charlie as “ a short, broad, brown visaged individual with dark brown hawk-like eyes and a buccaneering air … thirty three or so, with gold earrings, moustached, and an air of mingled quietness and you-be damnedness…he ought, however, to have been born a century or more earlier, for no more ideal buccaneeror man-o’-warsman ever stepped than Charles Stamp, the professional wildfowler of Canvey Island.” Certainly in Susan White’s “Five Generations ” it was noted that “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, Charles was said to be a smuggler.”
Charlie is described as living in a “remarkably comfortable and scrupulously clean little house of ships timbers, where his wife put one up at most moderate charges. It lay right under the sea wall only a yard or two from the saltings. I have shot curlew from the doorstep and seen barnacle geese within one hundred yards of it.” Perhaps the houseboat mentioned came at a later stage before he eventually moved to the mainland.
On this first acquaintance Charlie reassured Day that despite the “bungalows for a mile or more, full of the ragtag and bobtail of London in summer, once outside the sea wall there’s plenty of fowl. Brent geese in hundreds, widgeon – ah great packs of ‘em in winter. And plenty of them old curlew with a tidy few mallard chance times. What with that and a bit of inshore fishin and winkling on the mud I don’t fare too bad.”
“What was the biggest bag you’ve ever had?” asks Day. “A Zeppelin!” said he laconically. “Come oover Southend in the 1914 war, went up tew London, dropped her owd bombs, and then I reckon she got hit, for she come back over Canvey Point right low. I laid out on Leigh Marsh with me big owd double eight-bore charged with swan shot, and this old airship, she come oover me no more’n a gunshot high. So I let her have tew barrels right in the under-carriage where the bloody jerries was. I reckoned that ‘ud warm some of their backsides for ‘em! Didn’t do me no good though. One of our officers come down from Leigh next morning’ and give me a rare flea in me ear. Towd me as how Jerries might ha’ dropped a bomb on Southend out of revenge, jest because I shot at ’em. Well, says I, yew soldier chaps hev got bigger guns than me; why didn’t yew shoot her down? Then she’d never ha’ come back to bomb nobody no more” According to Charlie, the Zeppelin eventually came down in the North Sea.
As he lay in his bed that night, James Wentworth Day enjoyed the sounds of his prey…“the long, lovely, fluting call of curlew on wing, the bubbling cry of curlew feeding on the mud, and the hoarse clamour of curlew springing suddenly in alarm, The weep and wail of peewits. The delicate whistle, so delicate that it is a threnody of sound, of grey plover. And under and over these distinguishable cries and undertone of piping, thin and high, of whistle and clamour of redshank, and of gulls quarrelling. Of ox-birds flighting up and down the tide-edge in headlong wisps. Once the harsh Fraa-ank! of a heron disturbed from his wading by the lights of a steamer, and, most magical of all, the monotonous, repeated cronking of brent geese.” Hours later sitting on a muddy bank waiting for dawn, he again revels in the “pathetic peep-peep of ox-birds, the fluid whistle of an oyster catcher and the mewing of widgeon.”
They had punted to their shooting positions with Stamp instructing Day “Git you out here…thass no more’nankle deep. Git up the mud under that there cant, set on this here bit of board, an’ kip yar hid down. That don’t matter if yew git a wet arse. You’ll git an owd goose as well if yew kip low, for they mostly fly over here afore that git right light…Don’t yew shoot low to east‘ard, cos if yew dew yew’ll shoot us. And if yew do, we’ll shoot back. An’ there’s tew on us. Yew’ll git the wust on it !”
Dawn slowly revealed “a grey, glimmering creek in front, frost-whitened saltings behind.And not a bird within range ”…so as impatient fowlers have always done, Day got up and started off down the mud to the shrinking channel of the ebbing creek. Coming to a muddy headland, he cautiously peeped over and for a moment saw nothing. “Then like a snake a black beak and head, a long neck, rose up…A white chin-strap showed. A brent goose. Silently I tucked the butt into the shoulder, rose, took aim, and pulled the trigger. The goose collapsed,dead as mutton. And in a welter of wings, a frenzy of cronkings half a score of heavy, dark bodies lumbered, thrashing spray, from the creek bed. The farthest bird was no more than twenty yards away. And the left barrel cut him down.”
“The sky was alive with wings and the skirl and clamour of frightened fowl. I reloaded like mad. A bunch of widgeon went over like rockets and were missed handsomely with both barrels…But, let truth be told , after that first easy right and left – my first brent geese and who shall forget such a moment – no more birds fell save a widgeon.” The reaction from Stamp was mixed… “Yew hain’t done so bad, but yew oughter ha’ drowned yar bloody self! I thought I told you to n sot tight on that bit of board- not goo a-creepin’ off on the mud on yar own. There was an eytalian chap drowned hisself in this here crick only a year agoo cos he wouldn’t sit tight when he was towd to. Still, yew hain’t done so bad.”
That is the first of many memories of winter dawns and shivering eves …snatched on the mudflats of Canvey, not to mention one foray in a Leigh Bawley across the water. “We went there as pirates, for all good wildfowlers are pirates at heart. And we behaved as pirates. We stalked those Kentish marshes, crawled through the whispering reeds up the sides of their broad, glimmering fleets of water, and shot banging, great marsh hares with mallard and pochard, and once a mighty shot from the eight-bore into a stand of green plover which cleaned up sixteen of them. And there were partridges, too-poached… I can still see the marsh shepherd with his two collie dogs and the marsh farmer, full of mighty, windy oaths, coming for us like greyhounds whilst we legged it for the sea wall, the punt, and the safety of the bawley lying offshore. They kin run! They kin run and bawl their bloody hids off was the comment. But the ——on’t kitch us. There’s ony one plank across the main dyke atween us and them and I drawed it up this side, so they can either swim or stutter. And stutter they did! The blasphemous echoes floated futilely on the offshore wind.”
Essex 1 Kent 0
References cited :
Rivers of Great Britain: the Thames from source to sea…chapter 12 entitled Gravesend to the Nore by J. Runciman. 1891
Naturalist on the Thames by C.J. Cornish. 1902
Coastal Adventure by James Wentworth Day. 1949
Modern Fowler by James Wentworth Day. 1949
History of Canvey Island: five generations by Susan White. 1994
Essex Countryside articles by James Wentworth Day. March 1980 and January 1981
Gun on saltings and stubble by Noel M. Sedgwick. 1949
This information is drawn from the sources above and I appreciate that this is only a part of the history of Canvey wildfowling. Please feel free to draw to my attention any additional sources, written or otherwise. In particular I would love to hear from any relatives of Charles Stamp. While we have Day’s vivid description, it would be wonderful to have a photograph. I can be contacted by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (01268 757588 ).