Before I was invited by Bishop Falkner Allison to accept the living I had only visited Canvey Island once in my life. Joan’s parents had moved to South Benfleet, which is adjacent to the Island, on the mainland, – Benfleet Station, on the Fenchurch Street – Shoebury line, admonishes passengers to “Alight here for Canvey Island”. On a visit to South Benfleet, we decided to have a little trip to Canvey, “to see what it’s like”. So we hopped on to a bus from “Tarpots Corner” to Benfleet Church, walked down the hill and across the level-crossing by the station, and caught the local bus, which took us across Benfleet Creek by the swing bridge, and right across the Island to the sea front. There were only a few scattered farm-houses, cottages and shacks, and acres and acres of open fields. We must have passed St. Katherine’s Church and, just beyond it the old “Red Cow” pub, and the village pump with its thatched roof but I have no recollection of them. Alighting from the bus, we climbed up on to the sea wall. The tide was in, so we could not see whether there was any beach. It was a cold, blustery, drizzly afternoon, and we were not sorry to get back into the bus and make our way home to Benfleet. I said, “Well, I don’t think I want to see Canvey again”. Little did I realise that, one day, it would become my home for nearly seventeen years, and I would come to love it!
In 1953, four years before we came to live there, Canvey Island was inundated by the disastrous floods which caused so much havoc, destruction and suffering along the East Coast of England. The sea wall was breached in several places, and a large area of the Island was flooded. In the lowest-lying parts the water nearly reached the roofs of the bungalows. About sixty people died, most by drowning, others through exposure and shock. The whole tragic and heroic story of the disaster and its aftermath can be read in Miss Hilda Grieves book about the East Coast Floods of 1953.
The sea walls were afterwards strengthened and raised by the addition of a three-feet high ferro-concrete wall, and the sea defences generally improved by the Essex River Board at a cost of over a million pounds. When the work was completed it was said that Canvey was now perfectly safe from the threat of any further flooding, and that, if the Island was flooded it would mean that the whole of London was flooded too. But now, at the time of writing this narrative, -the “Thames Barrier” which is being constructed across the River to save the capital from a possible watery disaster, has rendered those sea wall improvements of the 1950’s useless, for if an exceptionally high tide sweeping up the Thames made it necessary for the “Barrier” to be brought into operation, the pile-up of water downstream towards the river mouth would be so great that it would come surging right over the sea wall, causing a flood possibly far worse even than that of 1953. So now, there is the ugly spectacle of towering steel or iron walls being constructed on top of the existing sea wall which, while making the Island safe, will surely help to give the feeling of a huge concentration camp. But this is part of the price to be paid for safety.
With the improvement of the sea defences after the 1953 flood disaster, the Island quickly recovered and began to develop rapidly. When I came, in 1957, the population was 11,500, and during my nearly seventeen years on Canvey, it increased by 1,000 every year.
It was a dull, cold day, similar to the day of our bus trip of some years before, when Joan and I met the churchwardens and were given a conducted tour of the island parish. As we had been staying with Joan’s parents at Benfleet after Christmas, the wardens arranged to meet us with a car at “Tarpots Corner”, Benfleet. I was wearing a tweed cap and a Harris tweed coat- inherited from my father, and, With my rubicund face, I must have looked a bit of a “rustic”. Oh, gosh, said one churchwarden to the other, “This must be him, – but he looks like’ a country farmer!”.
W e got into the car and were whisked off to the Island. After being shown the Parish Church and the Vicarage, our “Sight-seeing” tour took us to the wildest and least developed areas of the parish, -to the “outback”, where we bumped along unmade roads, full of pot-holes and deep ruts, past quaint little wooden shacks, then into the “High Street” which, though a made-up road, put one in mind of the main street of a wild-west township – it would have caused no surprise if a cowboy had come galloping up the street, dismounted, hitched his horse to a post, and disappeared into one of the primitive wooden stores or gambling saloons. Gambling saloons? – well, yes, if that is the way you like to describe the social clubs which used to be popular on Canyey.
The High Street curved round the tree-lined “Small Gains Corner” -alas, the trees have long-since disappeared, – and became “Point Road”, traversing the Leigh Beck, eastern end of the Island, and leading to “The Point”, from which, on the sea wall, one can look straight along the coast to Southend Pier.
We stopped, along Point Road, outside a smart, modern-looking hostelry, “The Admiral Jellicoe”, where Churchwardens, Mr. Cass and Mr. Bishop, – “Bill” and “Bish”, – treated Joan and me to an excellent lunch. Over the meal they explained that they had thought it only fair to show me the roughest parts of the Island rather than pick out the more attractive areas, so that I should know the worst! Our visit ended with a short call at Bill Cass’s home, “Charfleets Farm”, – he was a farmer,- where we met his wife, who, we were to discover, was leader of St. Katherine’s Infants’ Sunday School, and Captain of the church’s Girls Life Brigade Company, – and what a marvellous captain we found her to be! We did not, on this occasion, go to Mr. Bishop’s home. He, lived at “Oysterfleet Farm”, – the “haunted” house of the old smuggling days. He, however, was not a farmer, but a representative for Desoutter’s Tools. As well as being People’s Warden, he was the scoutmaster (he also became the local District Commissioner), the superintendent of the Junior Sunday School, and a J.P. His wife was Akela of the St.Katherine’s Cubs. Their daughter and son-in-law, who lived with them, helped respectively with the running of the cubs and scouts. But the pleasure of meeting the members of “Bish’s” family was to come later.
That preliminary meeting gave me some small idea of the size of the parish I was taking on, and it was clear to me that it would be well nigh impossible without a car. At Leytonstone a fellow whose garden backed on to ours sold me his old car – a Morris Eight – for £40. When we moved to Canvey Island he brought it down for me and installed it in the old wooden stable at the rear of the Vicarage, which served as a garage. Little did I imagine the adventures I was to have with the old car.
But I must first tell you of our first experiences in our new home. The Vicarage was situated a little way down Haven Road, – a turning on the right from the main road across the Island, a hundred yards beyond St. Katherine’s, and opposite “The King Canute” (as the re-built “Red Cow” had been re-named after the 1953 flood, for it was about there that the flood-water had stopped). Just in Haven Road on the right, nearly opposite the Vicarage, was (and still is) one of the two Dutch cottages, dated 1621. It was inhabited by an old Irish lady, and her family. Before we look at the Vicarage, we’ve just time to walk down to the end of Haven Road. It leads to “Hole Haven”, where, from the sea wall, we look across the wide expanse of Hole Haven creek to the oil refineries over at Thames Haven and Coryton, while round the sea wall, to the left are the landing-stages where the big oil-tankers berth, bringing oil to the London Coastal Oil Wharves and the Regent Oil Storage Depot. Further still along the sea wall there came to be built the Methane Terminal, to which the liquified gas is brought in special huge tankers from North Africa. At the terminal this liquid gas is stored in huge holes in the ground. It is converted into gaseous form by passing it through arrangements of pipes over which ordinary water from the Thames is poured, and it is then piped to various places in the country, right up as far as Yorkshire.
Close under the sea Wall at Hole Haven is a building which was erected long, long before oil-tankers were ever dreamed of, – the “Lobster Smack”, a weather-boarded inn reputed to go back to the days of Good Queen Bess. Indeed, there was a story to the effect that Elizabeth I, after inspecting her troops at Tilbury Fort, sailed down the Thames to Hole Haven Creek, where she reviewed the Fleet; that she then came ashore, had a meal’ at the “Lobster Smack”, afterwards continuing her journey on to the mainland, where she spent the night at Hadleigh Castle. If this was true, it must have been a very uncomfortable night for her, as Hadleigh Castle was already a ruin by the time Elizabeth came to the throne! So this must be just another charming piece of Canvey folklore.
However, it is possible that the “Lobster Smack” is the oldest building on Canvey Island, even though some think it may date from the 17th century rather than from 1563, which has been claimed for it. It was previously known as “The World’s End”, and in mid-Victorian days, it was a favourite venue for prize-fighting. Charles Dickens refers to the “Lobster Smack” and its four-poster beds in “Great Expectations”.
Let us walk back up Haven Road to the Vicarage where, by now, the furniture van has arrived from Leytonstone, and we have to tell the men where to put everything. The timber-framed house, covered with pebble-dashing, was built soon after the Rev. Henry Hayes was appointed as curate-in-charge of Canvey in 1872. In 1881 he became the first Vicar when the Island was formed into a separate civil and ecclesiastical parish. The house was fairly large, and double-fronted. To the left of the hallway was a nice-sized room which became our dining room, and accommodated the billiards-dining table with ease. Behind this room was the kitchen, which gave access to a sort of scullery, and the side-door of the house. In the scullery as you faced the side-door, a door on the left led you down a few steps into the “dairy”, a dark, damp, musty cellar-place, half underground. To the right of the side-door, a short corridor led you past the coal and wood stores and a “loo”, and then another door on the right gave on to the part of the garden outside the kitchen window. Beyond the end wall of the corridor was the stable which served as a garage. The very pleasant lounge was to the right of the front door. It was in the lounge that we had the “rock-‘n-roll” floor. It was like a crown bowling-green, – the highest spot was in the middle, and it went down into the four corners of the room. If you sat too heavily in an armchair, it took you for a ride backwards into the corner. My study was behind the lounge, and the study window looked out across the fields beyond the garden. Similarly, from the landing window, at the rear of the house, there was, in the early days before building development shut it out, a lovely view right over the fields to the sea-wall and one could see the great ships going up and down the Thames. It was a wonderful sight at night-time to see a liner gliding by with all its lights ablaze. In the front of the house, from our bedroom window, above the dining room, you could see, past the trees and the Dutch cottage, the turret of St. Katherine’s, on the far side of the main road. There was a rural atmosphere about it all which we found most refreshing after the built-up area of Leytonstone. How quiet and still and peaceful is everything here, we thought, as we went to bed on the first night of our arrival.
We were in for a rude awakening. No sooner had we settled down than there was a rumbling and a thundering, we were shaken up and down in our bed, and it seemed as if the whole wooden structure of the Vicarage would come tumbling about our ears. We looked at each other, -at least, we would have done if we hadn’t been in the dark, – wondering what this violent and alarming visitation might be. Then it happened again. At last it dawned on us, – it was the noise and vibration of fully-laden tankers, – huge petrol lorries, – coming up Haven Road, past the Vicarage, from the oil storage depots, on their way to the mainland. It took us quite a time to get used to it, and we used to think, “Well, Leytonstone was a built-up area, and part of London, but we didn’t have to put up with oil tankers in Chadwick Road!”. But it wasn’t really as bad as my description makes out; we got used to it and came, in time, hardly to notice it.