The Fabulous Mr Hester

Canvey News and Benfleet Recorder 1964.

The following article was published in the Canvey News and Benfleet Recorder in 1964.
Herbert Frank Hester, b1885, was the youngest son of Frederick Hester and his first wife Sybil. Frederick’s eldest son Frederick WB Hester, b1876, died in 1911. Frederick snr and Herbert were on Wallasea Island in 1911. On Herberts enlistment papers dated 1914 he stated he was a carpenter and lived at Small Gains Farm, Canvey Island as did his father Frederick. Herbert married Hilda in 1935 at Gt Clacton and are registered here in 1939. Herbert died soon after this article was written in 1964.

Frederick Hester

Amazing, Hitherto Unknown Unpublished Details of Canvey’s Developer Have Been Discovered by Keith Bartels in this exclusive story.

There cannot be too many people who remember the times when Canvey had its very own mono-rail service, a flourishing export market to Londons’ Covent Garden, and an extremely real problem with smugglers.

But in a quiet little house off the main road of Witham, be­tween Chelmsford and Colchester, lives a man who remembers these things, and a lot others, very well. He is 80 years old Mr. Herbert Frank Hester, whose father, Mr. Frederick Hester was the Island’s first developer over 60 years ago.

Mr. Herbert Hester, who left school in Southend at the age of 12, can clearly remember the mono-rail service which his father inaugurated in the very early part of this century. When the found­ations for this unique mode of transport had been laid down, a single track ran across Canvey to Leigh Beck. The carriage could seat twenty four people, twelve down each side of a central gang­way, and a driver. For several years the mono-rail was operated, with Dutchman Mr. Myron Of Winter Gardens at the front as driver. The carriage was drawn by a pony, “Usually a black and white one,” says Mr. Hester “but sometimes a grey took over.”

Shipments of Vegetables

Inside Hester’s Wintergardens Palace.

Winter Gardens indeed lived up to its name in those days with shipments of vegetables going to Covent Garden at least three times a week. In huge green­houses, situated in the heart of Winter Gardens, tomato plants seven or eight feet high were to be found, together with peaches grapes and cucumbers. Hundreds of boxes of these fruits and veget­ables were sent, first by cart, then by train, to London. The “export” market to Covent Garden, as well as being backed by the green­houses, had such things as hot water pipes with a large furnace and over 100 men behind them. In charge were gardeners Mr. Townsend and Mr. Lester.

Started in Southend

The late Mr. Frederick Hester, who died about 25 years ago at the age of 67, was a great builder. His business started in Southend, in a tiny barn behind the Kursaal, where all the building materials were made. In Southend, around the vicinity of what is now the High Street, Mr. Hester bought a plot of land about 80 feet square. On this he built a bungalow with four rooms, and used this as a show house. It was such a success, that it started Mr. Hester on a huge building campaign, and soon he had constructed bungalows and houses at Eastwood, Cold Norton, Benfleet, Rayleigh, Pitsea, Laindon and Southend. Soon Mr. Hes­ter had a flourishing building business, with over 12 cart horses to take loads from place to place.

But Mr. Hester’s activities did not stay confined to Southend. He bought a gravel pit near Grays, Essex, which he worked for over nine months. The main method of transporting the ballast from the pit to the surface was by horse-drawn trolley. The horse pulled a rope round a huge pulley, which in turn hauled the ballast trucks up to the surface.

Moved to Canvey

Smallgains Corner & Farm

Still in the first decade of this I century, Mr. Hester and his son moved to Canvey, where they re­mained for 15 years. There was plenty of scope for property building and development, and Mr. Hester realised this. Mr. Hester’s achievements at making Canvey a holiday island included the successful operation of the mono-rail, and a water supply piped by a wind-driven pump. He commissioned a Mr. Augustus A. Daly to compile a Canvey guide, and, on notices displayed at Rail­way Stations between Benfleet and Fenchurch Street, he advertised a free ticket “for a meal and a square deal.” Mr. Hester says there were 93 estates on Canvey from 1900 onwards and there was great scope for building.

Augustus A. Daly’s promotional book ‘A History of Canvey Island’

However in those days, things were a bit rougher (in every sense of the word) than they are today, and the sale of a plot of land was not just a matter of a signature and a sum of money.

Mr. Hester can remember a court case which lasted a year, in­volving his father and a local far­mer. He said that apparently Mr. Hester impounded twenty of this farmer’s cows because he allowed them to trespass on Mr. Hester’s land. One dark night, the farmer, together with several people “broke into an enclosure in which Mr. Hester had impounded the cattle and freed them. This was equival­ent to theft.” After a lengthy court case, the farmer was fined £25 for breach of pound.

More trouble came when Mr. Hester bought three large pon­toons. Each had a capacity of over 300 tons, and they were berthed at the saltings, off Canvey Point.

Mr. Hester wanted some boat-houses built, so his son (Mr. Her­bert Hester) got cracking and very soon constructed a very fine boathouse.

The Morning After

The morning after the building had been completed. Mr. Hester was stopped in the street by a friend who asked him if he had seen the fire the previous night. “What fire?” asked Mr. Hester. “Why the one at the Point” re­plied the friend.

Mr. Hester hurried down to the Point and found his new boat-house, together with a pontoon, raised to the ground by the fire.

And to this day, Mr. Herbert Hester blames smugglers. He said at his home: “Several times in a week steamers would stop in the Estuary and be met by small boats from Canvey. I think smugglers saw the pontoons there, and were­n’t too happy about it.”

Times were Hard

Times were indeed hard, but Mr. Hester says he enjoyed every moment he lived on Canvey. He says he never really wanted to leave the Island as it was “such a nice place” — although he car­ried a hefty knuckle duster with him.

As he handled the weapon, which would make any delin­quent’s “knuckle duster” look like a baby’s toy, he said: “I was never without this in my younger days. I never went looking for trouble, but you always had to be ready. I have seen some blood on this knuckle duster in my time.”

Although this may give rather a harsh picture of the Hester family, there are some more tender mom­ents, such as the time when Mr. Hester’s father had a large num­ber of tools stolen from a farm he owned on the mainland. He called in a firm of private detec­tives, and very soon knew who the culprit was. A gipsy, known as “Fiddler Bill”. When the de­tectives brought “Fiddler Bill” to Mr. Hester, the gypsy promised to return everything he had taken. He claimed he had only stolen because his wife and six children were starving. So, what did Mr. Hester do? He gave the gypsy some money for his wife, and a job on the farm.

Exhibition Piece

Swedish Bungalow

One of the many things that Mr. Hester did was to build an eight sided bungalow, which was sent to Earls Court as an exhibi­tion piece. Also, the Hester family lived for years in a Swedish bun­galow, erected by Swiss workers.

Mr. Hester, now 80 years of age, lives with his wife in Maldon Road, Witham. They have lived there for 20 years, but Mr. Hester does not like it as much as Can­vey. After leaving the Island, around 1920, Mr. Hester went to live in Clacton, and came back to Canvey in 1940 for a brief visit — and a drink in what was then the “Red Cow.”  Just after 1940 he and his wife, moved to Witham, and have remained there ever since.

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