The little Parish Church of St. Katherine, built in 1875,- a weather-boarded building, but coated with plaster on the outside,- was altogether delightful, with its painted wooden screen, its small English -type altar and dorsal curtains, its stained-glass, and its pews, – the last-mentioned all higgledy-piggledy because of the unevenness of the floor.
But because of its small size, – at the monthly youth parade service many of the cubs had to sit on the floor, – its bad condition, and its distance from the main centre of population, it had been felt for many years that St. Katherine’s should be replaced by a new and larger church nearer to the centre of the Island. And this, indeed, is what happened in 1960. A large plot of ground, big enough to accommodate a new church, parish hall, and vicarage, had been acquired in Long Road, at a corner of the new Walthamstow-Dagenham Housing Estate. The architect, Mr. Stanley Bragg,F.R.I.B.A., had been commissioned to design the new church. His design was modern, yet in some ways traditional; Work on it was soon started. It was exciting to see the new parish church taking shape. And the shape is that of a huge ridge tent, with a pre-cast concrete framework, and a steep roof, the lines of which are continued down to the ground by buttresses on either side of the structure. The triangular spaces thus formed at each end of the church are filled with diagonally set glass. At the west end, over the entrance-hall choir- vestry, and toilets, a gallery accommodates the organ and choir, though the choir now normally sits downstairs in front of the congregation. At the east end the sanctuary is flanked by the clergy vestry on one side and the churchwardens’ vestry on the other.
When it came to furnishing the church, we were very fortunate. The altar was the gift of St.Luke’s, Prittlewell, the Bishop’s chair and a companion chair were brought down from St.Katherine’s, and, placed on either side of the sanctuary, fitted in surprisingly well with the modern architecture. The font, likewise, came from the old church. Of the two modern clergy stalls, one was the gift of the churches of Walthamstow, – appropriate because of the “overspill” population from my birthplace who had come to live on the new estate, – and the other stall was the gift of a Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence on the Island, in memory of their daughter, – the Lawrences also came from Walthamstow. The organ for the new church was “third-hand”, – we could not afford a new one. It was a two-manual pipe organ, and came from Chalkwell Park Methodist Church who, in turn, had purchased it from a cinema. The total cost of buying it and having it re-built and adapted to fit into the gallery of our new church was only just over £300. It has done sterling service in the church ever- since. The choir pews in the gallery, which had to be extra long, came from the Parish Church of Weeley, near Great Clacton. Joan and I made the journey to Weeley to inspect the pews. The vicar and his wife entertained us to lunch, and we came home with pockets stuffed full of conkers for the children, from Weeley vicarage garden.
When it came to seating of the congregation, rightly or wrongly we chose to have pews rather than chairs. Chairs are more versatile and can be easily moved and re-arranged. But it was felt that sometimes they tend to move too easily, especially the chair in front of you when you go to kneel down and when they move they can make a scraping or squeaking noise, which is not conducive to worship. I was told of some second-hand pews being offered for sale in the “Methodist Recorder”; they were in a Methodist Chapel at Croydon which was closing down. Our people’s warden and I went over to Croydon to see if they would do. We found that they were of just about the right seating capacity, and were mostly in excellent condition. So we decided there and then to “snap them up”. On the way home the churchwarden said that he and his family would like to buy them for the church. I never knew how much he paid for them, but it was a most generous gesture on the part of Arthur Bishop and his family. When the pews arrived the new church was not completed so they had to be stored in a barn belonging to the other churchwarden, Bill Cass. So it was a nice thought that both churchwardens had a share in providing the pews, the one in actually acquiring them, and the other in keeping them safely until they were needed. Then we put them in the hands of Mr.Salter, a master craftsman in wood, at Rochford. Some of the pews were twelve, feet long, and some six feet. We needed them all to be thirteen feet long.The craftsman performed this miracle, made a couple of completely new pews to make up for the old wood he had to scrap, and then painted all the pews according to the architect’s colour scheme, – charcoal blue for the backs and sides and cherry red for the seats and back rests. The result was most pleasing, and when they were installed in the church they toned in well with the blue ceiling and the white walls.
What was the new Parish Church to be called? To name it “St. Katherine’s” would be confusing, for it was not planned to demolish the old St. Katherine’s, which would continue for a time to be used for funerals. We decided that it should be dedicated in the name of “St. Nicholas”. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, and Canvey Island stands by the busiest river in the world, he is also a saint greatly beloved of the Dutch people, and Canvey had great Dutch associations and St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, and the Island fairly teems with children. So what more appropriate name for the new Parish Church of this island parish?
The Church was consecrated on 10th December 1960, within the Octave of St. Nicholas Day (6th December) by the Bishop of Chelmsford, The Right Reverend Sherard Falkner Allison. After the homeliness and cosiness of little old St.Katherine’s, it took a little while to get used to the much larger modern church but, on the whole, the people took to it very well, and I felt that, from the beginning, the building had an atmosphere of worship. There were one or two features of the design that, with experience of actually using the church, we thought to be rather unfortunate. One was the great triangular east window of white glass which tended to dazzle the early morning worshippers, on a sunny day. We seriously thought (well, perhaps not “seriously”) of issuing the congregation with tinted spectacles! The other thing was that the choir, segregated in the west gallery, felt isolated and cut off from the main body of worshippers. I believe that has now been remedied and the choir is seated downstairs in front of the congregation. So the organist sits in solitary state all by himself up in the gallery.
The architect had planned a car-park on one side of the new church, and when it was made we thought, “That’s not going to be much good, -it’s like Brighton beach!” To our great delight the first victim to get his car stuck on the pebbles was the architect himself – he had to be towed off the area. Actually he had been testing it, as he himself was dubious about it, but he had not expected it to be quite such a car trap. Later, a working party of men from the parish replaced “Brighton beach” by a concrete and tarmac car-park.
By present-day standards it sounds amazing to record that the cost of our new Parish Church was between £17,000 and £18,000. But in 1960, although very reasonable indeed, it was still a very large sum of money. Even with grants, loans, and one most generous donation running into four figures, the parish still had to raise a large proportion of the cost. To this end we had held Christmas Bazaars, Summer Fetes, and Flag Days. These were most enjoyable events. I remember particularly one Bazaar which took the form of a “Chinese Market”. All the stallholders were dressed in Chinese costumes, and the Bazaar was to be opened by a hitherto unknown member of the Chinese Embassy, a certain Mr. Ah Foo Ling. Mr. Foo Ling, attired in Chinese national costume, arrived in a special chauffeur-driven car, was escorted into the Village Hall, and, in rather halting English, made a gracious speech which was well received by the assembled company. People were intrigued by his long drooping moustache, which waggled as he spoke; one could have taken it for a false moustache, – and one would have been quite right. It was a false moustache, and Mr. “Ah Foo Ling” was, indeed fooling the people, for he was none other than Arthur Bishop, the People’s Warden. So well did he disguise his voice that nobody, save one or two who were in the know, recognised him until he started to go round the stalls.
The first Summer Fete was held in the field behind the Vicarage, and it included a Baby Show, presided over by Nurse Morgan, a redoubtable figure who was senior District Nurse on the Island. What she didn’t know about Baby Shows was not worth knowing. The Show was a very popular event, and I had never seen so many bouncing babies in all my life. As the years went by on Canvey I was to see – and hold – more and more of these flourishing offspring, and by 1972 the number of infant baptisms had reached about 260 a year. From time to time I had been interested in the movement for baptismal reform, and was quite impressed by the arguments for it. But I had never felt able to embrace it wholeheartedly in the thorough-going application of some of its principles. It seemed to me that to take the tough line with non-churchgoing parents when they applied for the baptism of their children only had the effect of alienating them from the church and from the Gospel. But I did insist on the parents attending a Baptism preparation, which was held once a fortnight in the Parish Church, at which, besides explaining the service, I tried to impress on those present the meaning of Baptism and the importance of taking it seriously, and of following it up through home training (cot-side prayers, etc.), Sunday School, family worship in church, encouragement of their children to go onto Confirmation and communicant life. Very few failed to attend these baptism reparations, and if they did it was usually because of illness, or the husband’s shift work and the inability to find a babysitter. As for the Baptisms themselves, sheer numbers made it necessary to hold them normally as a separate service on a Sunday afternoon; often the church would be crammed full, with the parents, godparents, relatives and friends of six, seven or eight baptism parties. The traditional font was situated at the back of the church, but for these Sunday afternoon Baptisms I used to place a movable font at the front of the church, so that each Baptism could be seen by the whole congregation. Occasionally I would arrange for a Baptism to take place at Junior Church on a Sunday morning, or during Evensong.
But to get back to “Summer Fetes”. The field behind the Vicarage – part of the Vicarage glebe – was sold to Canvey Urban District Council for development, so subsequent fetes were held in the grounds of the William Read County Primary School, opposite the site of the new Parish Church, in Long Road. The Headmaster was very helpful and co-operative; so, too, was old Ted Andrews. Ted ran an amusement arcade and fun-fair just off the Eastern Esplanade, and he used to lend us some of his side-shows for our Church Fete, such as roll – a -penny, hoop-la, children’s swings, and a donkey for donkey-rides. He was what is traditionally called “a rough diamond”, with a heart of gold.
When St. Nicholas’ was built, something was to happen which brought an end to the holding of fetes, bazaars and flag-days for church funds. We launched a “ship” – its name was “Christian Stewardship”. It was brought home to us that our present income, including that from special annual efforts, was totally inadequate for meeting the demands that we’re going to be made on us. There was not only the repayment of loans made to us towards meeting the cost of the new church; the costs of maintaining and running this new church would be far, far beyond our present means. We had heard impressive stories of the marvellous difference that the adoption of Christian Stewardship had made, not only to the finances, but to the very life and spiritual wellbeing of many parishes. We decided to consider it seriously.
But we had also, heard adverse reports of the high-pressure methods adopted by certain commercial organisations specialising in stewardship campaigns. So we resolved to ask the Diocese for their help in running a diocesan sponsored campaign. I will not go into all the details of planning and organising one of these campaigns, except to say that, after a preliminary meeting in St.Katherine’s (the old church) with Diocesan Christian Stewardship Director, Commander David Townsend, this was before the new church was built – a Stewardship Committee was formed, teams of visitors and hostesses were recruited and trained, a “master-list” was compiled of parishioners who had any connection with the church, definite dates for the Campaign were fixed, Stewardship brochures were printed, and the main hall of the Secondary Modern School Furtherwick Road (later to be known as the “Furtherwick Park Comprehensive School) was booked for the Parish Supper on Friday, 28th April 1961, at which the fortnight’s campaign was to be launched.
My word, what a Supper that was! To the best of my recollection, about three hundred sat down to it. The catering was in the hands of a firm from near Cambridge, and they “did us proud”. The tables were beautifully set, with spotless white table linen, and decorated with flowers, and candles in silver sconces, and the waiters wore white gloves. The menu was as follows:-
Cream of Chicken and Mushroom Soup
Roast Sirloin of Scotch Beef
with Yorkshire Pudding and Horseradish Sauce
Croquette and Roast Potatoes
Young Carrots tossed in Butter
Biscuits and Cheese
After this sumptuous meal (the softening-up process!) speeches were made by The Venerable W.N. Welch, Archdeacon of Southend (afterwards to become’ Bishop of Bradwell), Peter Hawkins, Chairman of the Stewardship Committee, Ernie Bonsor, Publicity Chairman, Monty Williams, Visitors’ Chairman, and a few words of thanks from myself. The evening was a very happy one; the Christian Stewardship Scheme was explained, the “Visitors” were introduced, and everyone went home with a copy of the well-printed and lavishly illustrated brochure.
During the next fortnight the trained visitors called on all who had attended the Supper, and also on some unable to attend but who had expressed interest. Those who wished to join the Stewardship Scheme signed a promise card. The whole operation was expertly and genially directed by Mr. Shears, the Assistant Director of Christian Stewardship for the Diocese.
On Sunday, 14th May 1961, a great thanksgiving Service was held in St. Nicholas, at which we assembled and met together “to offer to God ourselves, our time, talents and possessions,, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto Him, as striving Stewards of all his bounties.”
So successful was the Campaign, from a financial point of view, that our regular weekly income went up from about £9 to £40, – more than a fourfold increase. Admittedly, after a year or so, this figure tended to fall as one and another dropped out of the scheme, and it was necessary to hold renewal campaigns, but, even so, the exercise was abundantly worthwhile, and the results confounded those few who had been critical of the whole idea and had said it wouldn’t work.
One of the principles of Christian Stewardship is that of direct giving, and the elimination of “commercial” efforts such as bazaars and fetes. This is all very well, but our church people missed these events – they enjoyed working for them, with all the exercise of skills and talents which they entailed, and the fellowship created by working together. So we decided to continue the annual bazaar, but to run it in aid of overseas missions or some other cause, instead of for our own church funds. This was a compromise with stewardship principles, and would doubtless be frowned upon by “purists”, but I still believe it was justified.
Meanwhile plans were set afoot for the provision of a new vicarage on the site earmarked near the new Parish Church. This, of course, was going to be far more convenient for me, for it would save countless journeys up and down the Long Road to and from the old vicarage. I well remember one such journey; it was on New Year’s Eve, 1962, when I had arranged for a Watch Night Service at St. Nicholas. The weather was wintry and bitterly severe, and the roads were covered with thick, frozen snow and ice. On the way down to St.Nicholas my car was slithering all over the place. However, I got there safely, but after all that, no one else turned up, so I had the Watch Night Service all to myself!
Joan and I had quite a say in the planning – of the new Vicarage, for the architect, Mr. Stanley Bragg, consulted us over many of the details. The result was a lovely, convenient modern house, large enough yet compact, and very well built. The building contractor was a local builder, Charles Hollingbury, who, as a generous gesture to the church, built it at cost price and made no profit from it. It was a four-bedroomed house, with a large through lounge, separate dining- room, kitchen, good-sized study, spacious entrance hall, and brick garage, and the price, astonishing even for those far-off days of 1963, was just under £5,000! The Diocesan Authorities had been very reluctant to accept the tender, for they thought there must be a snag somewhere. They need not have worried, for the builder, following meticulously the architect’s specifications, gave us what must be one of the best built parsonage houses in the Diocese. The old Vicarage, in Haven Road, was pulled down, the site was sold, and three or four new houses were built on the, land.
The next item on the “building agenda” was a new Church Hall, to be erected etween the new Vicarage and the new Parish Church, and taking the place of the old wooden Village Hall opposite St.. Katherine’s. The story of this venture is quite a saga. We entered into a friendly agreement with Charles Hollingbury, the local builder who had built the new Vicarage, whereby we would give him the large plot of land on which the old, temporary Hall stood; on this land he would build a close of houses which he would sell at the current rate, and then he would hand over to us the profits from the sale of these houses, which would thus provide, the money, for our new Church Hall. Then it occurred to us that we ought to obtain permission from the Diocesan authorities to carry out this admirable scheme. The Diocese said, “But the land on which the temporary Hall stands is not yours to give away; it is the site of the old Church School and therefore belongs to the Diocesan Board of Education; you had better get in touch with their chairman, the Archdeacon of West Ham.” We did so, and found, to our astonishment, that Archdeacon John Elijah Elvin was not even aware that the old Church School had been burnt down some years previously. When the School was closed, the building had then been used as, a parish hall until the fire, when, presumably, it had not occurred to anyone to inform the Diocesan Board of Education. That was not all. The Venerable Archdeacon said, “If we had known of the fire, we could have claimed under the insurance policy; instead of which we have been paying our insurance premiums for a building that no longer exists!” The Parochial Church Council had also held a policy covering the building, and had claimed successfully for the loss at the time of the fire. “Well”, said the Archdeacon, “what you received belongs morally to us, the Diocesan Board of Education. But we will not press that point.” How did it come about that the Insurance Company had issued two policies for the same building? The answer is that the Diocesan Board had described it as a school building, while’ the P.C.C. called it a parish hall, and the insurers thought it was two different buildings.
Archdeacon Elvin had a great sense of humour and could see the funny side of the whole business. He was also very generous hearted, and not only let us retain the amount of our fire claim, but also, on behalf of the Diocesan Board of Education, sold the land to us for a purely nominal sum, so that we could hand it over to the local builder for development, the profits of which would pay for our new Church Hall.
A member of our Parochial Church Council, Mr. Laurie Lock-Dingley, who was also Deputy Town Clerk of Canvey Island, was a great help in all the negotiations, and it was he who, with Peter Hawkins, of the Treasurer’s Department, approached the Assistant Engineer and Surveyor of Canvey U.D.C., Mr. R. Foyster, with a view to his designing our new Church Hall. This he agreed to do, giving his services voluntarily, and so, in a remarkably short time, our handsome large new Hall was not only planned but also built, and paid for. And I feel sure that good Archdeacon Elvin went on chuckling for a long time over the nonexistent Church School for which his Department had been paying annual premiums in blissful ignorance.
So now we had the new Church, the new Hall, and the new Vicarage, side by side, in a central position on the Island, and close to one of the largest concentrations of population, – the Walthamstow -‘Dagenham Estate, adjoining the older Canvey Council Estate.