Crossing Benfleet Creek

Ferry and Causeway

This photo is from a¬†photo album that Ken Smith bought at an auction. It is dated 1920’s. The photo was very faded but I have brought out more of the detail and also grey scaled it which shows it off better. What a great picture!

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  • What’s in a picture?
    This marvellous new picture is more than a snapshot in time.

    It’s the 1920s. Canvey Island has caught the imagination of people in cramped and unhealthy London tenements to escape to their own little plots: “Come to Canvey and breathe the fresh and healthy ozone.” There was even a hotel named after that ozone, quite a turn-around from earlier times, when the ague lurked in the marshes of the estuary and people died of it as reported by Daniel Defoe. Now Canvey means excitement, adventure and discovery – the Good Life. The steam train we see steaming away at the foot of the Downs in the distance will bring them and take them back. It’s at that exciting time after WWI, when the horseless carriage joined the traffic. Slow, belching fumes and still looking like the coaches they were to replace, the motorcars had to make do with the poor state of the roads.

    This was especially so on the road to the island. The small wheels and low chassis of the cars were no match to the coaches and high-wheeled traps pulled by horses. When the tide returns the horse can cross the causeway far longer and later than cars. There were reports of horses having to pull out cars from the rising tide. Equally there was a time when people could cross at the stepping-stones, but as the tide rose, that became impossible and it would be a while before the water was deep enough for the ferrymen to operate. As for the mud that was deposited with every tide and made road and stones slippery…

    In August 1923 ‘all-day queues’ were reported, there were so many people trying to leave the island. There were entrepreneur ferrymen who tried to muscle in on the brisk ferry trade, who were successfully fought off by the regulars.

    But still the people came. And this faded image conjures up that transition so marvellously. Let’s take a closer look at this microcosm of human endeavour. Starting from foreground right, where fingerprints have messed up the images of two motor vehicles (in fact, fingerprints cover much of the image). Traffic is at a standstill. The driver of the car extreme left has stepped out from his vehicle. To their right, the coachman on his high seat turns around in conversation with the passenger in his plush upholstered coach.

    People are waiting to cross over the mud to the concrete walkway on the left, the fashionable lady in her straw bonnet, her clothes slung over her arm and the man in his dark suit next to her, while the coachman handles a large hold-all. Another well-dressed couple are waiting in the space between the cars and the traps, while to our left, on the raised concrete path, a lady squats down to help an elderly gentleman up to her level. Another person, likely a young one can just be seen standing next to her. But the horses are pointing away from the island, so is it perhaps the other way around and they are all waiting to join the traps and leave the island? The elderly gentleman preparing to help the lady get down? And the young lady in the straw bonnet anxiously waiting for them to join her? At high tide they would step into the ferryboats from that concrete path.

    There are more coaches and traps waiting to cross over to the island, while on the Benfleet side of the creek a ferryman near the landside ferryman’s hut already seems to have passengers in his boat, though the water may not be deep enough yet. A colleague stands by more boats to the right on the edge of the water. On the very left of the picture someone in a light-coloured top has just moved into the camera view, luckily not obscuring a great deal.

    The mud-covered hard road will probably not be wide enough for two lanes of transport, so patience is the order of the day, while the tide rises.

    No wonder islanders declared a holiday when the first bridge was finally opened on 21 May 1931, now 82 years ago.

    By Robert Hallmann (24/05/2013)

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