Leigh Beck Baptist Church: War - Flood - Survival

'The First Hundred Years'

1939 and the commencement of the Second World War. Canvey was bombed and people were killed.  According to Vera Jones, she said they would stand and watch as the VI and V2 Doodlebugs came down on the Island. As so often in times of crisis, love rises to the surface and people are geared into action. Community spirit is fostered or even re-born.  And so it was during the time of war on this Island and especially in Leigh Beck Baptist Church. The members of the Fellowship wanted to do something, anything. Rosa Webb, the Christian Endeavour Leader encouraged them all to knit ‘woollen comforts’ to send to the Forces and they also raised 21/6d at a Carol Service to send out to the soldiers.  Retiring collections at Services were in aid of the soldiers. Several girls from the Girls Life Brigade joined the war services.

Apart from the members really doing their best to help, these years didn’t seem to interrupt much of the life of the Church. Evening Services were held earlier, especially in the wintertime. Most of the evening mid-week meetings were held during the day time due to the ‘black out’ Church membership at this time was 64

Crises of any great enormity can bring out the worst in some people, but the majority rise to the challenge. ‘Loving our neighbour as ourselves’ and following the command of Jesus to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ became a reality. Canvey Island along with Leigh Beck Baptist Church did just that.

Permission had been given to Winter Garden Mission to be used as a Rest Centre in case of damage done to local resident’s homes during the war. There was a little war damage sustained to the front of the Leigh Beck Church, but in the years to follow £85 was granted by the Government for repair work.

Towards the end of the war the Church found themselves in a financial position to be able to support a full time Pastor. The Deacons and members had faithfully carried on the work all these years without a leader, so great excitement followed.

1946 Girls Life Brigade

In October 1945 the Rev. Laney was called to be the Pastor. Once again many discussions followed as to where he would be able to live.   It was suggested to sell both manses (the one in Woodville Road and the bungalow behind the Church) and then to build a new manse. Eventually the bungalow in Woodville Road was sold but it was still difficult to sell the bungalow behind the Church.

A new manse was to be built on the land at the side of the church, which was already owned by them. It was to be a house and was to face Baardwyk Avenue. Mr Stevenson a builder from Benfleet won the tender for the work.

The Rev. Laney commenced his Pastorate in July 1946 but unfortunately he became very ill and passed away on May 25th 1947. The manse was still in the process of being built. The Church was greatly shocked and upset at losing a Pastor such as Rev. Laney – a Pastor they had waited for such a long time. The building of the manse slowed down, as there was no hurry now to get it finished. It was duly completed by the end of 1947 and early in 1948 another Pastor had been ‘called’ to the Church. This was the Rev. Hodgson.

The Deacons at this point of time were Mr A.Stevens, Mr Collins, Mr Kingsley, Mr Durman, Mr Starke, Mr Lewin, Mrs Stevens, Mr Webb and Mr O Stevens.

This photo was taken in the late 1940’s and was either a Mother’s Fellowship or Sunday School Party

Now in a new era of the life of Leigh Beck Baptist Church, the Rev. Hodgson got to grips with the work and seemed to settle down without any problems. Membership increased to 77.  A Safe was purchased and with this the Church was able to apply for a license to conduct weddings without the presence of a Registrar from the appropriate authorities.

An extract from a letter from Brenda Watts (nee Flaherty) follows:

  • ‘I moved to Canvey with my family in 1946 when I was eight years old and joined the girls Life Brigade straight away.  Mrs Kingsley was Captain and Miss Hall and Miss Webb were Lieutenants. I enjoyed all the different activities – the badge work, the competitions, the displays and the camps to Brighton, Birchington, Hove and the Isle of Wight.  I have many happy memories of the time spent in the 1st Canvey Company and have used the knowledge gained there in the two Companies I have worked in since leaving Canvey……..I also became a member of the Sunday School and remember how we all looked forward to practising our hymns and chorus’ for the anniversary each year.  Mr Kingsley would put us through our paces and keep going until we were word and tune perfect. Mrs Lewin and Miss VeraHodgson were two of my teachers in Sunday School but in my teens I went to help Mrs Nash with the very young children.  I was baptised in 1955 and we moved from the Island in 1957.  Canvey Baptist Church will always hold a very special place in my memory because it is where I spent much of my childhood and where I made lifelong friends.’

Rev.& Mrs G Hodgson taken March 1954

Youth meetings of all types seemed to increase in number and with this increase, came the need of another hall for youth activities to take place in. 1948 set the scene for the birth of the now known ‘Youth Hall’

Pastor Hodgson was definitely a ‘people’s pastor. He excelled in pastoral care and visits. Church Rules were greatly amended during this time for the sole purpose of benefit of the Lord’s work.

As the children’s work flourished in 1951 a much-needed Youth Hall was erected by the side of the Church. The Hall was sponsored by Mr F Hardy, a deacon, and built by Mr RS Collins. The same year, a fire did extensive damage to the main building. Fortunately the new Youth Hall was undamaged and the Church services continued in the Hall until repairs to the main building was completed. Early in the 1950’s there was a polio scare in this part of the country and the children’s work had to be closed while the youth hall floor was scrubbed and the whole building cleaned.

Mothers Fellowship (1953)

During the late 1940’s early 1950’s we have evidence of two meetings for young mothers having taken place. One was the Cradle Roll, which was started by Kay Stevens. (Aubrey Steven’s wife) This was in the summer of 1945. The other was The Little White Ribboners run by Doris Flaherty. This was the children’s section of the National British Women’s Total Abstinence Union (N.B.W.T.A.U.) a worldwide union.  It was decided to combine both the Cradle Roll Meeting and the Little White Ribboners and call it the Mothers Fellowship, with the shared leadership of Kay Stevens and Doris Flaherty. Later the Cradle Roll section came under the Leadership of Grace Budley, the older daughter of Dick Collins, a former Superintendent of the Sunday School. As the children grew up, this meeting became the Women’s Tuesday Group.  There was also a Women’s Meeting held on a Wednesday afternoon run by Florrie Barrett.

Sunday School party 1951

During 1949 the Life Boys Team was reformed, this time under the leadership of Mrs E Barrett. This was followed by the Boys Brigade under the captaincy of Mr W Kingsley.

It was about this time that a Mrs Nash held the infant Sunday School in the home of a lady named ‘Blossom’, who lived in a bungalow in Baardwyk Road. The bungalow was named as the ‘Settlement’.

In 1952 Col. HP Fielder offered a choice of 3 sites for building, one in Long Road, one in Approach Road, and a third in Furtherwick Road. It was felt however, that the church was fully committed at the time, and after discussion with Mr Fielder, the church decided not to undertake any further project at this point of time.

The idea of a new church was not allowed to die. It was clearly seen that the work was well founded at Leigh Beck, and apart from the small Anglican Mission Church of St Anne’s and the Whittier Hall (of the Society of Friends), it was the only place of worship in a rapidly developing area. Finally it was decided that any new project would best be kept to this area. A decision was made that The Baptist Mission at Winter Gardens situated in a developing area at the other end of the Island, can, when the time comes be expanded to serve there. In the meantime Mr & Mrs Lewin gallantly carried on a valuable work under sometimes difficult conditions at Winter Gardens Mission.

At this point it is interesting to read an article written by Robert Barrett:

  • ‘How would you like our Church today (2003) to be heated by large black smoky stoves which had to be lit by the caretaker and kept stoked with coke? In the wintertime the congregation gathered around each of the 3 stoves to keep warm.
  • In the wet weather, ‘welly boots’, was the order of the day, as most of our Church was corrugated iron and it could be quite noisy in a real downpour. You could not creep into Church late as the creaky floorboards gave you away.
  • If there were a small number of people in the congregation, the shutters were pulled down to shut off the annex at the front of the Church.  Our Church was always packed on Parade Mornings with many Boys Brigade and Girls Life Brigade members.   The shutters remained up on these mornings.
  • Our music was supplied by a pump organ, and I spent many a Sunday Service pumping the handle up and down to get the air into the organ for our organist to play the hymns, as she found the foot pedals hard work. We usually worked in pairs as it was wearing on the arms.’ 

The Flood

The Manse in Baardyk Road during The floods of 1953

On the night of January 31st, 1953, Canvey Island was inundated by flood. A high tide with gale force winds caused a breach of the sea walls, which surround the land (most of the island is below sea level). Much loss of property and almost 60 deaths by drowning added up to a ghastly and disastrous event. Canvey, together with other areas along the East Coast was declared a disaster area and the whole nation contributed to a fund to help the sufferers. Everyone began to pull together. As the night wore on and dawn broke, the Emergency Services, members of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Essex Riverboard, the Gas, Electricity and Telephone Services, the Salvation Army, the churches and many other organisations began to realise the scale of the emergency and to deal with the immense human and practical tasks that had to be faced. The task of providing temporary accommodation, blankets, food and clothes, as well as giving special support and care for those who had lost loved ones, was tackled with compassion.

Operation King Canute, a response designed by RAF planners to deal with breaches in sea walls, was activated. Some 500 Air Force and Army personnel from Essex, Suffolk and other South Eastern counties were assembled to help dig, excavate and fill sandbags and so mend the breaches.

Memories of how people rallied together during the Second World War, especially during the Blitz, were still fresh then. The church and the Manse did not suffer much damage fortunately. And the church is particularly proud of the part played by its pastor Rev. Hodgson during this tragic period. His example and work amongst the flood victims ranks with that of many other workers and the ministers of the Southend area, as an inspiration to all and will long be remembered by many.

Below we give a brief report given to us by Rev Hodgson’s daughter, who very kindly agreed to write the following:

  • Rev Hodgson commenced his ministry in 1948.  There was no Church Hall so all activities had to be held in the Church. He soon saw the need for a hall, which was built, alongside the Church. Shortly after the opening the vestries caught fire and the Church was out of action. Thus the new hall became allpurpose.  Praise the Lord that there was a hall to use!
  • Music consisted of a choir led by Mr Wally Kingsley assisted by his wife Marjorie who was a very proficient pianist. Marjorie and Wally served the Church well. They both led the Brigades and Wally was also a Deacon, I believe. To enhance the music an American Organ was introduced and I became the organist eventually – pumping away furiously on the foot pedals to gain as much sound as possible!! I recall playing for a Wedding one time and as I was playing ‘The Heavens are telling’ a thunderstorm broke out!!
  • In 1953 we had the Canvey floods and the hall was brought into immediate use as folk were rescued and brought in for a hot cuppa. The army used the hall as a rest centre for the troops who were engaged in repairs to the sea walls. My father was out helping to rescue folk from their flooded homes, sometimes finding folk sitting on the cooker to avoid falling into their flooded homes. Dad wore his Baptismal robe (which included waders). I dread to think what might have happened if he had fallen in as he negotiated the flimsy sea wall, as he couldn’t swim!! He apparently made news in an International paper regarding all this.
  • Another amusing observation was seeing a sideman taking up the offering in his carpet slippers! He used to wear his wellies when walking to church when the rain-soaked unmade roads were almost non-negotiable.
  • We spent very happy years at Canvey and we wish everyone many blessing in the future as you seek to serve the Lord.   

Vera Mee (nee Hodgson)

Strangely enough after the flood, Canvey seemed to acquire a new life. With the rebuilding, in steel and concrete of the sea walls, a new confidence was restored. Housing estates began to spring up, and a new era of prosperity began for the Island. Lighting roads, sewers and parks seemed to appear almost overnight. Caravan Parks and a holiday camp, bought new trade to the Island, and many new inhabitants too.

Rev.Hodgson and his wife (centre front)

Another letter we have just received from John Hodgson Rev. Hodgson’s son reads as follows:

  • ‘My parents enjoyed a very happy ministry at Canvey Baptist between 1948 and 1954.  Much of that time I took part in activities including Choir, Sunday School, Young People’s Fellowship and Boys Brigade.
  • Although certain memories fade as the years pass on, I do recall helping set up the 10th Southend Company of the Boys Brigade under Wally Kingsley’s talented leadership. These talents extended in other ways being a fine singer and leader of the Church choir.
  • The Church endured fire and flood. No sooner had the new hall been completed when fire severely damaged the main Church building. Worship transferred to the new hall until restoration had been completed.
  • My memory of the Canvey floods commenced with being disturbed at 1.00 am on that dreadful night in 1953 by what appeared to be a drunken man shouting and waving his arms in Baardwyk Avenue. It was then that I saw him point down the road as the sea was rapidly advancing up Baardwyk. The same man turned out to be Mr Mason, a County Councillor and Deacon of Leigh Beck Baptist.
  • May I extend to you and the members of Canvey Baptist congratulations and God’s blessing in the years to come,

      Yours sincerely,   John Hodgson.

During this period, the Baptist Church continued to grow and maintained a faithful witness and Saturday November 28th 1953 an Anniversary Celebration was held to mark ‘Fifty Years of Grace’ and Rev. Philips (past Pastor) was invited to speak.

Christian Endeavour continued to play a great part in the life of the Church. This was run by Mr Lewin to start with and then Mrs Kingsley took over. Sometimes Mrs Kinglsey used to hold the Christian Endeavour in her house at times. They would discuss the bible and topical subjects.

A well-versed choir was still in operation and was at this time being conducted by Mr Kingsley. Very Jones(a present member of the church) states that herself, Rosa Webb, Mr Lewin, Mr Mason, MissLane were amongst the Choir members and they used to practice during the week and sing at the church each Sunday. The choir used to join in with the Salvation Army choir for special occasions.

The Church Baptistery was in urgent need of repair during this particular time. It was repaired with red quarry tiles to the floor and the walls rendered. Steps were renewed in brick.

It must be noted that Mr Collins who appeared to be a very faithful servant to the Church passed away during 1953. Mr Collins had been a Deacon and Sunday School Superintendent at the Church for many years.

The Rev. Hodgson announced his ‘call’ to Shirley Baptist Church, Southampton as Associate Pastor and left at the end of March 1954. A farewell tea was organised for March 27th.  Following the Rev. Hodgson’s departure, the Rev. Chilvers from Leigh Road acted as Moderator.

During this time of interregnum, as seems to be the usual practice, work was carried out on the manse. New flooring was laid to flooring, as it had been indicated that the concrete flooring was so cold. The flooring consisted of wood block.

Several ministers came with a view, but did not accept the Pastorate until in 1955 Rev. Alan Hayward was ‘called’ and commenced his ministry in 1956 but unfortunately he left to return back to his old home in January 1959

During 1958 a further offer of a site in Thorney Bay Road by Col. HP Fielder.  In view of the very recent floods, and a serious fire, the church was not in a financial position to accept and again, Col. Fielder’s generous offer had to be reluctantly refused.

The membership of the Church had now reached 118 (22 of which were members at Winter Gardens Mission). The Sunday School Superintendent was Mr E.Barrett, leader of the youth work was Mr Kingsley. During this period of time, the youth work seemed to be progressing very well, with several groups doing likewise, such as Boys Brigade, Girls Life Brigade, Life boys. Young People’s Fellowship and Sunday School.  The life of the whole church indeed seemed to be flourishing very well. Great Excitement took place in the Church when a legacy enabled the Church to purchase a new electric organ and new carpets for the platform.

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