Reflected Glory (Part 2)
Miss Evans, Miss Allbut and that car
On our first evening at Canvey Vicarage the most appropriate prayer we could think of was. “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, Lord”, for owing to some oversight, the house had not been re-connected to the electricity supply. So there we were, sitting round the kitchen table, having our meal by the light of a couple of candles. I think it was the next evening that the Lay Reader, Jack Eales, called to introduce himself to us and to welcome us to Canvey. We entertained him in the lounge by the flickering light of a candle, so could only get a dim idea of what he looked like. It was the same for him, of course. On the third night, as we sat by candlelight in the kitchen, having tea, we saw through the window two shadowy figures approaching across the field, one of them carrying some sort of light. It turned out to be Mr. Bishop, the People’s Warden, and his son-in-law, Tony Peck. They had brought us a lighted “Tilly Lamp”. It was most thoughtful of them, and it certainly gave us a much brighter light than the candles. They told us how to extinguish it. Unfortunately they omitted to tell us how to light it again, so the next night we were back to square one with our two candles. In the meanwhile “Bish” had repeatedly got in touch with the Electricity Board, and in four or five days time we were re-connected with the source of light.
My Institution and Induction to Canvey Island took place at the dear little Parish Church of St. Katherine on the 13th March, 1957, and was conducted by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Sherard Falkner Allison, assisted by the Archdeacon of Southend, Neville Welch (who some years later became the first Bishop Suffragan of Bradwell). Archdeacon Welch proved a great friend to our parish and helped to sort out more than one tricky problem with his wise advice and personal counsel. Bishop Allison, in the course of his address, exhorted the people so to support their new vicar and bring others into the Church’s fellowship that it would be found necessary to build a larger church. This did, indeed, come to pass nearly four years later.
Sunday services at St. Katherine’s were a joy. After the cathedral-like proportions of St. Andrew’s, Leytonstone, and the great musical tradition, – all of which I had thoroughly enjoyed, – there was something very delightful about the homeliness and rustic atmosphere of the little wooden church, and the congregational singing which benefitted so much from the worshippers being close together. After the 8am. Holy Communion, I would have a quick breakfast, and then (until I had passed my driving test) one of the churchwardens would take me down to St Anne’s, Leigh Beck, for the 10 o’clock Service, and the other warden would come and whisk me back for the 11.15 Service at St. Katherine’s. In the little mission church of St.Anne was interested to see an oak-framed tablet on the west wall commemorating Ebenezer Joseph Mather, who was the founder of the Royal National Mission to Deep-sea Fishermen. He died in 1927, and is buried in Canvey Churchyard. During the last few years of his life, Ebenezer Mather lived on the Island; he was a widower until he married the lady who was his nurse. She was still living when I came to Canvey, and sometimes attended St. Anne’s, until she became too frail. As at St.Katherine’s, so, too, at St.Anne’s, the atmosphere was homely and friendly. I must mention two dear, faithful souls in particular whose names will always be associated with St. Anne’s, – Miss Ethel Allbut and Miss Gwen Evans. Ethel, for years, ran the Sunday School” known as “St. Christopher’s”, which was mainly for St.Anne’s children, and met in the W.I. Hall near Canvey’s main shopping area. She also acted as unofficial “sacristan” at St. Anne’s, getting things ready for services, looking after the altar linen, the bread and wine for Communion, and so on. In addition, she was the Captain of the Girl Guides Company. On Canvey we had both Girls’ Life Brigade (later to become the “Girls’ Brigade” – it lost its “Life”), and the Guides and Brownies both organisations provide splendid training for girls, and I was able to observe the excellences of each of them. But this is not the place to discuss their respective merits. Suffice it to say that it was a good thing for girls, who wished to join a uniformed Christian organisation, to have the choice. Miss Gwen Evans was organist at St. Annes a position she had held since the days of the First World War, – she completed fifty years as organist during my time at Canvey, and was given a presentation in the form of a special low bicycle, – which she was never able to ride, for by then her cycling days were virtually over. It was not really the most sensible kind of present, but I suppose it was difficult to think of Gwen apart from her bike, and she herself was reluctant to give in, – until she was knocked off her machine by a group of thoughtless teenagers careering all over the road on their bikes. It was always a wonder to us that Gwen had, apparently, never previously come to grief on her bicycle. She was, quite frankly, – bless her heart, – a real menace on the road; she was the despair of the local policeman. Cycling along Canvey High Street she would suddenly see an acquaintance on the other side of the road, and without giving any signal or looking to see whether any traffic was behind her, she would swerve across to have a chat with her friend. She did not seem to realise that, while it may have been relatively safe to do this kind of thing in 1915, you are a danger to life and limb if you behave like this in conditions of modern traffic.
Gwen Evans, however, was not well known only for her performance on the bicycle and harmonium pedals. She was also well known and well respected for her educational establishment, “Kingsley Hall”, a small preparatory school held in the large house on Central Wall Road, which she shared with her sister and brother. Two of her ex-pupils, one the deputy town clerk of Canvey, and the other in the treasurer’s department and members of St. Katherine’s P.C.C., used to speak of Gwen Evans and her school with affection and gratitude for the splendid early schooling they received at “Kingsley Hall”.
My churchwardens could not be expected to go on forever providing a taxi service for me on Sunday mornings to and from St. Anne’s, Leigh Beck when, as often happened, there was no suitable bus down there, and never one to bring me back, so it was essential for me to become a competent driver as soon as possible. I learnt the hard way! The Morris Eight I had bought for £40 reposed in the stable at the rear of the Vicarage. I had not attempted to drive it, but one day I decided to take my courage – and the steering wheel – in both hands, and propel the car backwards out of the stable. Joan’s parents were visiting us from Benfleet, so I invited them all to climb aboard for a little trip – out of the stable and back again. I started the engine, put it into reverse gear, and held my breath, as I let in the clutch. Out of the stable like a bullet we shot backwards, and – bump – down into a cabbage patch. And I could not coax the wretched thing out of the cabbage patch, so my passengers had to disembark without the enjoyment (?) of the return journey. Somehow or other we eventually got the car back again into, the stable. I spent the next few days practising the art of reversing gently and avoiding the cabbage patch.
It should be explained that this was at the time of the “Suez Crisis”, during which, for some obscure reason which I never quite understood, learner drivers were allowed to drive on the Queen’s highway unaccompanied by a qualified motorist. So, armed with my provisional licence, and with “L” plates fore and aft of my potentially lethal weapon, I decided it was time to have a little gentle practice up and down Haven Road. After skilfully skirting the cabbage patch I went into forward gear and made down the side of the Vicarage for the front gate, and out into the road – smack into the side of a passing car! The car owner, who lived just round the corner, was very understanding. He was off on holiday at the end of the week, but, fortunately, had not planned to take his car. If, for me, there was any mitigating circumstance, it was that, on this old car of mine, the brake pedal and the accelerator were very close together, my shoe was a wide one, and when I put my foot down to stop the car, my shoe depressed both pedals and the accelerator won! So there was no gentle practice up, and down Haven Road that afternoon. Nor for several afternoons, until the damage had been repaired. My next miscalculation occurred, luckily, in the Vicarage grounds. We had bought a nice, new dustbin, which stood by the side door. One day I tried reversing down the side-way from the front drive, when there was a horrible crunching noise. We no longer had a nice new dustbin.
It was the weekend of the annual Canvey Carnival when, on the Saturday morning, I had to take a load of silver cups and other awards to the District Nurse, who was running the Baby Show. I set off with my small son, David, sitting beside me in the front of the car, and Judy in the back with the silver cups, etc. A little way down the Long Road we had to turn right into Thorney Bay Road, and, as the car turned, the door next to David, which was not properly fastened, swung open and the little chap fell out on to the road. Horrified, I jumped out, as also did Judy; fortunately, there was next to no traffic about, neither was David hurt very much – we had been going very slowly, and he only sustained a badly grazed knee. But I picked him up and ran all the way back to the Vicarage with him, – leaving the car unlocked and unattended with all the precious cups and other prizes inside!-David soon recovered, none the worse, save the grazed knee, for his adventure. Judy, I think, was more scared than her little brother. Incidentally, the Baby Show prizes safely reached their destination without any loss.
It must have been that same weekend, but on the Sunday afternoon, that I really achieved my “tour de force”, and on this occasion, ran foul of the law. The climax of the Canvey Carnival was always a united Carnival Service, held in a marquee or in the open air at the carnival ground which, on this occasion, was the “Paddocks” Recreation Ground near the far end of Long Road. After the service we all got into the car, – Joan, myself, Judy, David and my mother (who was staying with us), plus the church’s processional cross and a pile of choir robes. As an inexperienced learner driver, though the Suez Crisis made it temporarily legal, I would not normally have risked driving with such a load, but there was a bus strike, so there seemed no alternative. We came out of the “Paddocks” and I should have turned left to go up Long Road, but I let in the clutch too fiercely, and the car leapt forward towards the other side of the road. I went to steer it round to the left, when we suddenly saw a motor-bike with a pillion passenger coming down the road in the opposite direction. Joan shouted, “Straight across”, hoping to avoid a head-on collision. So I continued towards the far pavement, but it was too late – the motor bike crashed into our side as the front of the car mounted the pavement and crashed into the railings. Of course, the motor cyclist and the girl on the pillion both came off. A crowd gathered round; someone must have phoned for an ambulance, which came very quickly. The pillion girl was uninjured, but shocked; the young motor cyclist had a cut knee and, as it transpired, a broken little finger. None of us in the car was injured, but we felt very shaken. In due time the local constable arrived on the scene and, after questioning the young fellow and myself, told me that he would have to report me for dangerous or careless driving. The motor cyclist found himself in trouble too, for it turned out that he was a learner driver, with no L plates, and riding with a pillion passenger!
A parishioner drove us home in his car, while our Morris Eight, much the worse for wear, was towed off to a local garage for repairs. I vowed that, as soon as possible, I would take a full course of proper driving lessons. So I booked with a local Driving School “The Sherwood School of Motoring”, and my instructor, believe it or not, was “Robin Hood”. Yes, that was his real name. I have no idea what his skill was with a bow and arrow or a long staff, but, my word, he was a wonderful driving instructor, – the kind to inspire confidence. I’m afraid my old Morris Eight, which was not second, but third or fourth-hand, failed to inspire Robin Hood with confidence, and he advised me to get rid of it and find something better. He actually helped me to choose another car, – it was a little beauty, a second-hand Austin “Big-Seven”, in splendid condition. Joan and I became quite fond of it, and almost regarded it as part of the family. When eventually we had to change it we felt quite sad. Anyway, with the expert instruction of Robin Hood, and the co-operation of little “PV5693″, I managed to pass the driving test first time. What a wonderful feeling it is when the Test Examiner tells you that you have passed – you feel like jumping over the moon!
But I have not told you the sequel to my disastrous encounter with the motor cycle on that fateful Carnival Sunday afternoon. A few weeks later the local constable delivered my summons to appear at Southend Police Court. He was considerate enough to bring it to the Vicarage after dark, so that his sad errand should not be seen by curious eyes. I was grateful to him for that. The date of my “invitation to Court” was the same date as our Sunday School Outing to Maldon. So Arthur Bishop, our People’s Churchwarden, who was the Sunday School Superintendent, as well as being a magistrate, phoned the Clerk of the Court and said, “My Vicar has got to appear on Thursday morning on a charge of careless driving, but it’s our Sunday School Outing, so could you please arrange for his case to be the first on the list?”. I don’t suppose the programmes of many Magistrates Courts have been re-arranged because of a Sunday School Outing!
The Thursday morning turned out to be dull and cold and drizzly, which did not do anything to raise my spirits as I entered the Magistrate’s Court. There were two Magistrates on the Bench, a man and a woman. The woman did not appear to take any part in the proceedings. The man, who looked and sounded very disgruntled, seemed to me to cherish a hatred of motorists, – or of parsons, – perhaps he had an aversion to both, – or maybe he was feeling liverish that morning. Anyway, after listening to the Police Constable’s account of the accident, and to my plea of “guilty”, he barked “Fifteen pounds and costs, and licence endorsed”. I was staggered, – it was a heavy fine for those days, especially, I felt, for a first offender, and a learner-driver into the bargain. As I walked out of the courtroom The Canvey constable, standing at the back, said to me, “Gosh! that-was a stiff one!”
After reviving myself with a cup of coffee, I boarded the bus from Southend to Maldon, to join the Sunday School Outing. About halfway to Maldon a wasp crawled up inside my trouser leg and stung me on the knee. “Oh dear, it’s not my’ day”, thought I, – “I’ve been stung twice, – once by the Magistrate and now by a wasp”. To add to it all, it turned out to be the coldest and wettest Sunday School Outing I have ever experienced.
All through my ministry I have been involved in Sunday School Outings. They have mostly been to the seaside, – Clacton-on-Sea, Walton-on-Naze, West Mersey, Sheerness, – or to Maldon on the Black-water Estuary; From Leytonstone-on one occasion we went up to London, spending the morning in Hyde Park, and then walking across the Park and through to Victoria – what a long, tiring trek it was, far longer than it had appeared to me on the map when planning the outing, -where we had booked seats for a conjuring show at a theatre. We just sank gratefully into our seats as the curtain went up. One of the most enjoyable outings, – again from St.Andrew’s, Leystonstone, – was, firstly, a coach ride to Westminster, then a steamer trip down the River to Greenwich, where we had a glorious day in Greenwich Park and the Naval Museum, whose restaurant provided a marvellous tea, after which the steamer took us back to Westminster, where the coaches were waiting to bring us home. From Canvey Island we ventured into Kent twice to Sheerness and once to Gravesend, where the children were very interested to see the statue of the Red Indian Princess, Pocahontas, in the churchyard of the Parish Church, and to learn of her connection with Gravesend. On another occasion we spent the morning on the beach at West Mersea and, after a picnic lunch, went on to the very attractive Stanway Zoo, near Colchester. We nearly always had three double-decker busloads on our Sunday School Outings from Canvey, and it was a major operation, checking the numbers in each bus after each stop, and at the start of the return journey, to make sure no one was left behind. I cannot remember that, we ever succeeded in losing any of the children. There were one or two little horrors we might have been tempted to lose, but we nobly resisted the temptation.
One heard, from time to time, of parishes where Sunday School Outings were dying out, because not enough children wanted to go on them. The reason, ostensibly, was that nearly every family owns a car nowadays, and outings are no longer the novelty or treat that they once were. We did not find this on Canvey Island; our children looked forward keenly to the annual outing, and, for a few weeks beforehand, the numbers attending Sunday School or Junior Church would swell significantly! Many of the parents, too, loved to come on the outing, and we accommodated as many as we could, for it helped to spread the responsibility, and it fostered the family spirit in the Parish.
On the morning of the Outing we would all assemble in church, and after checking the lists of names, and making sure that everyone knew which bus or coach they were to board, and that no one else wanted the toilet before we set off, we would have a prayer for a happy, friendly and safe outing, and. for God’s blessing, and then file out to fill the waiting transport with a fair cross-section of the eager young population of Canvey Island,, armed with bat and ball, spade and pail, bottles of pop, and picnic lunches, many of which would be eaten long before we reached our destination. The unspoken prayer of those of us in charge was that nobody would be sick on the journey. Experience taught us to provide a bucket on each bus, and a plentiful supply of plastic bags, and sheets of paper, – the latter for any necessary mopping-up operations. Fortunately, this kind of emergency did not arise, too often.
St. Katherine’s Sunday School was held in the Village Hall, a temporary structure, with quite a good accommodation, opposite St. Katherine’s Church, and which was originally a canteen for workers on the sea wall after the 1953 flood. It had been acquired by the Church and re-erected on the site of the old Church School, which had been destroyed by fire. One might say that it embodied memories of “fire and flood”.
Mention of the old Village Hall also evokes in my mind a memory of “mire and mud”. A young fellow had been helping with the Sunday School and had rehearsed the children for a Nativity play, which was to be performed on a certain evening. I was to say a word of thanks at the end, and close the evening with prayer. The young producer lived at the far end of the Island with his grandparents, and he asked me if I could possibly go and pick them up in my car, as they very much wanted to see the play, and he would be up at the Hall getting things ready. I duly drove down to “Leigh Beck”, picked up the grandparents, and started back. The little road where they lived was just a narrow concrete, strip with wide verges, on either side. As we went round a corner I failed to take a wide enough curve and went right off the concrete on to the verge which at that point was a muddy morass. The car wheels sank in the soft mud right up to the axles, – and there we were, stuck fast. There was a bungalow close, by, so I went for help. But not all our pushing and shoving could budge the mud-bound vehicle. It was a cold night, and the folk at the bungalow kindly invited the elderly couple and myself inside and gave us a hot drink. The garage which I patronised was closed (as were the other garages on the Island), so I phoned the owner at his home address; -he was out, but his wife said she would send him along to the rescue as soon as he arrived back. He did not arrive back until nearly ten o’clock, so it was nearly half-past ten when, with his breakdown vehicle, he pulled the car out of the mud. Up at the Village Hall, of course, they had all wondered why the Vicar had not turned up for the Nativity Play, and the producer wondered whatever I had done with his grand-parents. The most fitting conclusion to this part of my narrative would seem to be the chorus from the Flanders and Swann “Hippopotamus Song”,- “Mud! Mud! glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. So, follow me, follow, Down to the hollow; And there let us wallow in glorious mud!” – but not if we are expected at a Nativity Play!
The Hall was used, not only by the Sunday School, but also by the Scouts and Cubs, the Girls’ Life Brigade, the Mothers’ Union, and one of the Island’s many Old Age Pensioners’ Clubs. I shall always remember my first visit to this O.A.P. Group. When I entered the Hall the members were all sitting, absolutely quiet and still, with their heads bowed. It looked just like a prayer meeting, and I thought, “What a devout lot they are!” Then I heard a voice, – “Clickety-click: Sixty-six. All the two’s: Twenty-two” (or some such jargon). And it dawned on me: they weren’t praying. They were playing bingo!
In my, early years on Canvey Island we had some most enjoyable parish socials, in the temporary Hall. Those were the days before modern sophistication, and the craze for ear-splitting discos, which even children hardly out of their infant schooldays seem today to prefer to traditional party games. Our socials then were good old-fashioned affairs which the youngsters of those days enjoyed just as much as the older parishioners. Oh yes, we had some of the “pop” music of the day, supplied by the “Dud Newton Trio”, – Dud Newton (who was anything but a ‘dud’): on the piano; “Charlie” on the drums; and a third one who could play the saxophone, the clarinet, and the violin (not all at once, of course). The pianist had been an instrumentalist with the Savoy Hotel Orpheans in the early days of broadcasting, but he was an unassuming, friendly man who entered with obvious enjoyment into the spirit of our simple, rustic-like socials. Except for a little bit of “rock ‘n roll”, and “twist”, our sophistication never got beyond such delights as the St.Bernard Waltz, the Gay Gordons, the Palais Glide, the Hokey-Cokey, and the Conga. If you have ever got yourself involved in the Conga you will know that the serpentine weavings of the long line of participants are liable to lead you to all sorts of unexpected places. At one of our socials the leader led us out of the hall into the night across the rough ground, and very nearly into one of the watery dykes which helped to drain the Island. Oh, blissful, happy days, before the dykes were piped and covered over, and the green fields began to disappear more and more under new concrete roads and housing estates!
But, although a new housing estate, – the “Walthamstow – Dagenham Estate” – was in the course of construction, planned for the “overspill” from those two places, the Island, for the most part, still retained much of its old, rural atmosphere. Beyond the huge churchyard to the rear of St. Katherine’s, there was a public footpath across the fields to “Winter Gardens”, an area of old bungalows which was like a separate, remote village on its own, with its own village shop, – and its special village characters, including a lady who, as “Madame Teller”, used to inveigle victims into her little tent at church fetes and, for a modest fee, tell their fortunes. Then there was a dear, elderly Welsh lady who, in her younger days, had had a beautiful soprano voice, and could still charm you with her vocal magic. Her husband played the cello in the orchestras of ocean-going liners, including the “Queen Mary”, and he was a most accomplished performer. When he retired we would sometimes get together and play duets. At the “Leigh Beck” end of the Island, close to St,. Anne’s, there lived an elderly man who played the violin, and occasionally the three of us would meet at one or other of our homes, and have a musical session of trios, for piano, violin and cello. The only trouble was that the dear violinist would become carried away with enthusiasm, especially in the “runny” bits, and get quicker and quicker, and it was all we two could do to keep up with him or hold him back! But it was great fun, and most enjoyable.
Why was “Winter Gardens” so called? At the beginning of this century a certain Mr. Hester had grandiose plans for Canvey Island. Which included the building of a pier, an electric monorail, a canal as an extension of the existing long lake, with gondolas, a small zoo, and a complex of gardens, with tropical plants, under glass – these last were the “Winter Gardens”. The pier, the canal with gondolas, and the zoo never materialised (though I believe a few animals were kept for a time at the “Winter Gardens”). The monorail was actually built and ran from the site of the Winter Gardens across the Island to Leigh Beck at the eastern end – that explains why, at Leigh Beck, you will find a “Station Road”. But the monorail never became electric -the monorail car was pulled along by a horse, and the venture did not last for long. All Mr. Hester’s wonderful plans came to nought, but the memory of his tropical glass houses is preserved in the name “Winter Gardens”, and even until fairly recently, it was not unusual for people digging in their gardens in that area to come across pieces of broken glass.