Heritage: Canvey - four creative characters and a concrete cafe
PUBLISHED: 15:00 24 August 2019
In the fourth in our series of days out ideas, Prof Ged Martin reckons there’s more to Canvey Island than candy floss
If you've snobbish friends, tell them you're visiting one of Britain's architectural gems. Don't mention Canvey Island.
As seaside resorts go, there's a big gap between Cannes and Canvey, but Havering's Thames estuary neighbour is an interesting place. Four creative characters helped shape its history.
In the Middle Ages, Canvey was a series of muddy humps, rich sheep pastures often engulfed by tides. Canvey was split among nine mainland parishes, stretching from Southend to Laindon, each having its own grazing land.
To beat the sea, hire a Dutchman. In 1622, local landowners commissioned Joas Croppenburg to build the dykes that created modern Canvey Island.
Settled by families from Holland, Canvey remained Dutch-speaking until around 1700. Two Dutch cottages survive.
The Reverend Henry Hayes arrived in 1873, the first resident clergyman in 200 years. His background was unusual. He'd spent his early years in a workhouse, where his parents and two sisters died. He was then adopted by Susan Chambers, wife of an Islington carpenter.
Somehow he managed to study at London University and enter the Church - a remarkable achievement for those days.
Henry Hayes united Canvey into a single parish and fought the islanders' battles with mainland authorities. He built a school and rebuilt the church, inserting a memorial window in Susan's memory.
Canvey's 300 people were a wild lot. Henry Hayes found them stuffing themselves on oranges: a ship carrying fruit had been wrecked in the Thames. The congregation listened resentfully to his sermon denouncing illicit salvaging as theft. Their pockets bulged suspiciously.
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Henry Hayes died in 1900, just when entrepreneur Frederick Hester arrived. He laid out "streets" (mostly just grass and mud), sold cheap building plots and encouraged Londoners to erect ramshackle homes.
Hester's ambitious scheme for a holiday resort included a monorail from Benfleet Station, a Venetian canal and a vast complex of greenhouses to create indoor "winter gardens".
His grandiose project failed, but he created a miniature town at the east end of the island. Population rose to almost 1,800 by 1921, and passed 11,000 thirty years later.
Canvey was accessible only by ferry from Benfleet at high tide, and by stepping stones at low tide. Construction of a bridge was delayed until 1931, because the Port of London Authority insisted on a 60-foot span that could be opened for barges to sail through.
Some failed to realise that the bridge made Canvey part of England. In 1936, a Mr Hipgrave from Loughton gave his wife driving lessons on the island, although she had neither a licence nor insurance.
When prosecuted, he pleaded that he'd thought the law didn't apply on Canvey. Southend's magistrates scoffed at the idea that Canvey "was a sort of Garden of Eden," and fined them both.
The bridge encouraged further development. Enter Canvey hero number four, Ove Arup, a Tyneside architect-engineer of Scandinavian parentage.
Arup was one of the first people to use concrete as a building material. In 1932 he built Canvey's seafront Labworth Café, in the stark modern art deco style. It has a two-storey circular core with single-storey wings, all peppered with large windows.
Ove Arup later built the giant concrete shells of the Sydney Opera House, which many experts feared would topple over. Australia's noblest building has its technical origins on Canvey Island.
Sadly, most concrete buildings lack the clean elegance of the Labworth Café.
Battered by the sea over the centuries, Croppenburg's walls shrank and cracked. They were rebuilt after serious flooding in 1897. One author hopefully described Canvey's new sea defences as "practically invulnerable".
Tragically, an usually high tide engulfed much of the island in 1953. The floods picked out the bumps of the old Canvey, but Hester's frontier town was inundated, drowning 58 people. The sea walls were later raised three feet, giving grandstand views over the Thames estuary. With one of England's finest buildings - Canvey is worth a visit.