Those fields behind St. Katherine’s, with the open view right across to the Benfleet Downs, were to disappear some years later, and Winter Gardens, with the further remote area of “Sixty’Acres”, was to be swallowed up by a vast new housing development curving round in an enormous crescent towards the centre of the Island, to add another 11,000 to the population of Canvey. But during our first years it was nothing unusual for my gravedigger, “Wally” Blackmore, to call at the Vicarage with a gift of mushrooms which he had picked early that morning from the field behind the churchyard. Very occasionally he would bring us a rabbit – we never really knew how he came by it. Wally was a good gravedigger; he had only one fault, – he could never keep a straight line! But he worked like a trojan; the heavy Essex clay made it very hard going, and after rainy weather, when he was digging graves, he had to spend half the time baling out water. With such a large population, a good proportion of whom were senior citizens, a great deal of my time was spent in taking funerals and visiting the bereaved. During my last years on Canvey I was taking an average of 90 burials a year, plus 100 cremations (mostly at Southend Crematorium). There were hundreds and hundreds of graves in the churchyard, arranged in sections, and, in the case of a re-opening, it was, of course, most important to pick the right grave. The former local blacksmith, agent on the Island for a mainland firm of funeral directors, who knew our churchyard like the back of his hand, told me that I must guard a certain little note-book in my possession with my life, as it contained a record of the numbers and positions of all the old graves. In my nearly seventeen years on Canvey Island, there was just one occasion when a wrong grave was opened. It only came to light after the service in church; as we approached the grave there was a horrified exclamation from the mourners, “It’s the wrong one!” The correct one was immediately adjacent. The people went for a little ride round in their cars while the gravedigger hurriedly rectified the error. I felt terrible over the slip-up, but the mourners were extremely nice and understanding, and did all they could to put me at my ease.
One night I was preparing for bed when a message came, to the effect that the churchyard had been invaded, – by a crowd of females, who were trampling over the graves and causing havoc. They were, I hasten to add, four-footed females, and they had wandered from an adjacent field into the churchyard through a gate which someone had left open. The cows belonged to my Churchwarden, Bill Cass, who was a farmer, and when I reached the scene he and his son were already trying to coax them back, into the field. But not before many grave mounds had been flattened and flowers trampled under-hoof or eaten. Some of the beasts were very stubborn and would go in any direction but the one intended by Bill Cass. It must have made a weird spectacle to see the farmer and his son chasing three or four cows round and round the gravestones in the moonlight. In fact, some time later, someone solemnly told me that, passing by St.Katherine1s in a car late one night, she had seen an orgy of Black Magic or Devil Worship going on in my churchyard!
My most unusual burial was not in Canvey churchyard nor in any churchyard or cemetery; it took place in the middle of the Thames. A respected founder member of one of the Island’s Yacht Clubs had died, and the will contained his wish to be buried in the River, off Canvey Island. Another member of the Yacht Club put his luxury cabin cruiser at our disposal, and, one Saturday afternoon, the vessel, piloted by its owner, with the widow, a little group of relatives and friends, and myself, in my robes, aboard, set out from the Club’s landing stage. Halfway across to Kent we stopped, and the cremated remains of the founder member were scattered on the water while I spoke the words of committal, with a suitable short Bible reading, some sentences from a psalm, and one or two appropriate prayers. A wreath was cast on the river where the ashes had been scattered, we circled round once or twice and then commenced the journey back towards Canvey Island. I was standing near the owner of the launch. Suddenly he turned to me. “Would you like, to take over the controls, Padre?” he asked. I needed no second invitation. He briefly, explained the controls, and I found myself piloting the large cabin cruiser across the waters of the Thames estuary. I know it sounds a strange thing to say, but I have never enjoyed a funeral so much! Now and again the owner would give me directions: “You see those two orange buoys? Steer between them, and then keep on a straight course towards that skyscraper block on the Leigh cliffs”. “Now veer a few degrees to the left.”Why didn’t he say “to port”, thought I, “I know I’m a landlubber, but I do know that “port” is the nautical term for “left”. As we approached the narrow creek leading to the Yacht Club landing stage, the owner of the cabin cruiser took back the controls, – steering a vessel over the open waters is one thing; manoeuvring it through a winding creek between umpteen other vessels and bringing it to rest without wrecking the landing stage is quite another. And a cabin cruiser is rather an expensive toy. But I did enjoy playing with it, even on such a solemn occasion!
I have spoken about the most unusual funeral I have ever conducted, – in the middle of the Thames. I have had my moments, also, when launching couples on the seas of matrimony. There was, for example, the occasion when the nervous bridegroom, about to make his vows, fainted on the spot; and,a moment later, his best man followed suit! Then there was the young bride, under age, whose widowed father, after having given his written consent, changed his mind at the eleventh hour. She was the last of his family left at home and he suddenly realised there would be no one to get his meals, ready and look after the house. On the day before the wedding he told her ‘he would not’ allow her to go through, with it; if she defied him and went ahead he would come to the church and make a scene. “It’s no use your seeing him, Vicar, – he’s very obstinate and, when he’s had a few drinks, he gets very violent.” I mentioned it that evening to our local bobby, who said, “Oh, I know old So and so; I’ll go round to his house in the morning and have a word with him.” In the afternoon the bride duly arrived at St. Katherine’s – with her father! He marched her up the aisle to the chancel arch, where I was waiting, deposited her beside the bridegroom, then turned on his heels and marched down the aisle and out of the church! The poor girl went as white as a sheet. A brother-in-law promptly came out from his pew and took the father’s place by her side, and the service commenced. When I came to the words, “Therefore if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter for ever hold his peace”. I was very apprehensive lest the father, lurking in the porch and waiting for this moment, should pop his head round the door and, in loud tones, register his disapproval. But nothing happened, he had made off down the road and none of the wedding party saw him again that day. He kept out of their way and, I believe, drowned his sorrows in drink! Afterwards, he became reconciled to the situation, and made things up with his daughter and new son-in-law. The good girl continued to do a lot for her father.
Most professional photographers know their job well and are sensitive as to what is and what is not acceptable, and seemly when taking photographs during a marriage service; almost invariably they will ask the clergyman what is permitted. But occasionally there is the “black sheep” who strays beyond the bounds of propriety. A new photographer set up his business on the Island, a rather unkempt-looking individual, with long, untidy hair and a straggly beard, – nothing unusual, of course, in these days. What was unusual was his behaviour during, a wedding at St. Katherine’s. It was, I think, his first wedding engagement as a photographer, on the Island. The first half of the service was completed, and the couple were kneeling at the altar-rail for the prayers. As I was saying one of these prayers this photographer made his way from the back of the little church, pushed past the bridesmaids, who were standing in the aisle, walked quickly between the choir-stalls, and, before I could stop him, climbed over one end of the communion-rail into the sanctuary and took a flashlight photograph, then climbed out again! Needless to say, I told him exactly what I thought of him afterwards. He did not last long as a photographer on Canvey.
No account of life on Canvey Island would be complete without a mention of Joe Overs. Joe was employed by Jackson’s Photo Service, a leading photographic firm on the Island, and was considered by many to be the finest photographer in the area. He took infinite pains over his work and would spend ages arranging a group of people, or perhaps the folds of a bride’s wedding gown, exactly as he wanted them. Folk would sometimes get impatient and call out, “Oh, come, Joe; we haven’t got all day!” and the assembled company would raise their voices in the well-known chorus, “Why are we waiting” to the tune “Adeste fideles”. Very few of those folk, I believe, were aware that the Joe who was trying their patience in the interests of good photography, was, in fact, “The Right Reverend Joseph Overs”, – a Bishop! He was a bishop of a small independent Catholic Church, not in communion with Rome, whose clergy had to earn their living by pursuing a secular occupation. When I first went to the Island he was simply a priest; his sphere of ministry lay somewhere on the mainland. Then the area bishop died and Joe was elected as his successor, and was duly consecrated in their “cathedral” at Clapton, in East London. He once showed me his splendid episcopal vestments and, in fact, lent them to me on one occasion when I needed to dress someone up as a bishop for a, “Pageant Service” I was putting on. But, seeing Joe taking wedding photos outside our parish church, or standing on a chair in a hall asking the long rows of diners to look towards the camera, you would never guess that he was a priest, let alone a bishop. The only clue to his episcopal status were his purple tie and purple socks! Bishop Joe lived in “digs” on Canvey Island, and I used to visit him from time to time. His great joy, on my visits, was to let me hear, on a venerable gramophone, some of his favourite records, of fair-ground organs, and vintage music-hall songs. He had a great sense of humour, and I shall never forget the sound of his loud, hearty guffaw. After some years Joe gave up his photographic job, and left the Island. When I last heard of him he was serving as a cook on board a merchant vessel. How he fitted this in with his episcopal duties I have no idea. It could be, of course, that the little independent Catholic Communion to which he belonged “folded up”. At any rate, it seems that Joe went from “See” to “Sea”.
We had not been on the Island very long before we had an addition to the family – in the form of a black labrador retriever puppy, whom we christened “Rex”. We acquired him from Mrs. Cass, my Churchwarden’s wife, and he was intended for our young daughter, Judy, who was keen to have a dog. But when it came to looking after him, I am afraid Judy’s keenness did not quite match up to the occasion, – it fell mostly to Mum and Dad. Rex was a dear dog, with a lovely temperament, and we grew very fond of him. At home he was gentle and placid, but when he was out for a walk, he revealed one failing of which we were never able to cure him; he seemed to think that no other dog had a right to be breathing the same air, and we dare not let him off the lead, for he wanted to fight every dog within sight. Now and again he would slip out of the house and disappear up the road and round the corner, and cause us many anxious moments or hours. There was one Sunday when he also caused us a certain amount of embarrassment. The then Bishop of Colchester (Dudley Narborough) had conducted a Confirmation at St. Katherine’s – our daughter Judy was confirmed on this occasion, and so, also, much to the Bishop’s delight, was a dear old lady of ninety-three. Afterwards, the Bishop came to the Vicarage to tea. Rex, earlier that afternoon, had slipped out and disappeared. Tea was in the dining-room, the low cilled windows of which looked out on to the front garden. Halfway through the meal, the wanderer returned, trotting through the front gate with something in his mouth. As he came nearer to the window, it was obvious what he was carrying, – the remains of a chicken! In less than two wags of a dog’s tail the front lawn was strewn with chicken feathers. We were never quite sure whether or not the Bishop spotted this exhibition of juvenile delinquency on the part of the only other member of the vicarage household who wore a dog-collar. We were never quite sure, either, where the chicken came from.
Rex lived to the age of thirteen, a dear, faithful, affectionate and lovable friend. He had lost the sight of one eye through, we think,running into a piece of wire in the long rough grass behind the old Vicarage; towards the end, the sight of his other eye was beginning to fail, he was becoming rheumaticky in his back legs, and a growth developed where his tail joined his hindquarters. This growth kept bursting, and in the end the vet advised us that the kindest thing would be for the poor old chap to be put to sleep. When this took place Joan and I were so upset that we vowed never to have another dog, for we felt we could not bear to go through such a sad parting again. I suppose we are both rather sentimental and emotional, but we do not apologise for this, and we did love Rex very dearly. Is there a heaven for pets? Cold reason and orthodox theology would doubtless say “No”. I wonder. It would be wonderful to feel that one day, just as Rex used to greet us, whenever we returned home, with his eager expression and his wagging tail, so, when each of us, in our turn, reaches our eternal Home, Rex will be there, by the side of our Lord, to greet us. A sentimental fancy? Perhaps so.
When I was invited by the Bishop to accept the living of Canvey Island one thing that caused Joan and me some anxiety was the educational prospect for Judy and David. What would the schooling on the Island be like? We need not have worried. We lived in the “catchment area” for the Long Road County Primary School, and we found the educational standard to be at least as high, if not higher, than, that obtaining at the time at Leytonstone. Judy went into the Juniors, and David into the Infants’ Department. The School was very fortunate in its Headmaster, Mr. Ernest Benson, a wonderful Head indeed, and equally fortunate in its teaching staff. In one of those coincidences which sometimes happen in life, I discovered that Mr. Benson had once stood in front of me at the chancel steps of St.Andrew’s, Leytonstone, as the best man at a wedding. The married couple, to whose elder son I became a godfather, moved up to Dacklington, near Nuneaton, where they have lived for years now, and we still keep in touch with them.
After our first three or four years on Canvey a new chapter was to commence in the life of the Parish Church. This must be the cue for the start of a fresh chapter in this book.
My copy of the Guide, “Captivating Canvey”, is dated 1930 and is actually the fourth edition. It was issued under the auspices of the Canvey Island Chamber of Trade, and was written by their Hon. Secretary Mr. Bertram A. McCave. It is an absorbingly interesting publication. I never knew Mr. McCave, but during my time on Canvey his son, Mr. Fred. B. McCave, was the proprietor and editor of the Island’s own weekly newspaper, The Canvey News. Its modern successor, The Islander, is still brought out under the capable leadership of Fred. Both Fred and his mother, the late Mrs, Helvetia V. McCave, were a real part of the Island. Mrs. McCave it was who devised the alliterative title of the Guide, and after the death of her husband she continued to be responsible for the annual appearance of “Captivating Canvey”‘. Mrs. McCave also had a talent for writing verse; many were the poems, praising the beauty and charm of Canvey, or celebrating local events, grave and gay, which flowed from her pen. There must be something about Canvey Island that inspires poetry, for there is at least one other inhabitant who, from time to time, is moved by the poetic muse, Mrs. Phyllis Owens, a member of the Parish Church, who took my wife’s place as Mothers Union Enrolling Member when we left the Island. Her charming little poems often graced the pages of the parish magazine. Peter, her husband, is a chiropodist, so we could say that while he is attending to people’s feet in a prosaic, pedestrian way, Phyllis might be trimming the poetic metric feet of her verses. A corny joke, indeed! But that is not the “sole” reason for calling this paragraph a “footnote”!