South Benfleet High Street through time

An ancient settlement

While researching my article on Benfleet Institute, (which occupied land at the top of the High Street next to the Church), I turned up a copy indenture in the ‘Matson Papers’ summarizing historical transactions for plots of land beside the Churchyard.

The Indenture is dated 19th December 1850. It sets out the following transactions: ‘Robert Laver and his wife Mary … … assigning to [George] Wood two Messuages or tenements adjoining together situate near the Church in South Benfleet, late ‘Bickneys’; and a tenement commonly called ‘The Pyehouses’ …… also a piece of land sixteen and a half square feet formerly gardens and grounds of a Messuage in the occupation of John Cowper, from whom it was purchased by Simeon Daines, together with a cottage since built on the said piece of ground by the said Simeon Daines, and formerly in the occupation of Edward Whatten or his undertenants, since of Edey (Widow) and now of James Byass & Widow Haylock.’

A further copy Conveyance dated 22nd February 1879 states that the Lavers defaulted, and the land sold for £95 to James Wilson [formerly an Innkeeper of Leigh]. The sale consisted of ‘two Messuages adjoining together near the Church at South Benfleet, called ‘Bickneys’ (formerly one tenement called ‘The Pyehouses’), also the tenement built on the gardens/grounds sixteen and a half feet square, all this premises now in the occupation of John J. Goldstone and James Pilgrim.’

On 1st May 1892, James Wilson sells the parcel of land to the Benfleet Institute.  It is now described as, ‘for £60, four cottages standing at the corner of Benfleet Churchyard, viz., two buildings – formerly one called ‘The Pyehouses’, and one sixteen and a half square feet of land and cottage (apparently two cottages at this date).’

In Priestley’s, ‘History of Benfleet’, Book Two, Modern Times, he states (p.120) that, ‘when good schooling was the exception rather than the rule, people tended to spell words as they were pronounced’. To illustrate the point, Priestly reproduces a portion of the Church Overseers Accounts, which refer to the burying of a drowned man as, ‘the burring Dranded Man’. If you say ‘Pyehouses’ in a thick Essex dialect, it gives you – ‘Poorhouses’. My theory is backed up by an entry in St. Mary’s Vestry Minutes of October 14th 1846 (quoted by Priestley, ibid. p.164) where, ‘in order to make a new chief entrance to the Churchyard, part of the yard adjoining this poorhouse was to be disposed of.’ Priestley goes on to quote from the 1841 Census, saying the house was occupied by James Smith, his four children and two women lodgers. I turned up this particular Census – with the ease that modern technology brings. The page which covers South Street and the High Street (now ‘The Close’, but seemingly ‘South Street’ was also used for the lower part of the High Street), indeed lists, ‘Workhouse, James Smith, aged 50, Agricultural Labourer, Benjamin, aged 13, ditto, William aged 10, ditto, Mary Ann, aged 6, Ralph aged 8. Also Mary Ann Pratt, aged 40+ and Mary Ann Galy, aged 50+. One wonders what had befallen this family. Priestley (p.164) notes that, ‘Although the South Benfleet and Thundersley Workhouse had been built in 1799, and in 1835 all local paupers from the two parishes were taken into The Union House in Billericay … as late as 1841 we have mention of the workhouses or poorhouses existing in South Benfleet … one in the High Street near the Church, one in Endway’.

It would be interesting if we were able to fill in the gaps between the Hoy and Helmet Public House and Church Corner.  Priestley mentions on page 20 of his ‘History of Benfleet, Book Two, Modern Times’, some Wills, which are a valuable source of property names and occupants. In 1522, Stephen Attwood left his son James, a house and land called ‘Cobbetts’. ‘Cobbetts’ was ‘somewhere near the Church’, but we do not know the exact location. Stephen Attwood also left ‘to Jane my daughter, the [unnamed] house at the cross openying into the churchyarde’. Priestley thinks it may have been the site later occupied by the Village Institute or Knightleys. Attwood bequeathed to his daughter Agnes, ‘a house called ‘Skynners’ against the Church House’. Priestley believed the Rector’s residence was at that date within what is now the churchyard opposite the gardens of the Anchor Public House.  To Margery, another daughter, Stephen left ‘a house called ‘Campys’ lying in South Street’ (now the Close). Does anyone now living in Close, have ‘Campys’ as a name in their historical Deeds? The Other properties mentioned (ibid., page 21) in Wills are that of John Attwood, who in 1519 left his son John ‘his house by the waterway’; to his son James, ‘a house called ‘Dekyns’ and a Pytell (a pightle or small croft) belonging to the same’. Also, ‘another house in South Syde’, Priestley explains as being, ‘probably near the Hoy on the same side of the road’. A ‘Cutlers House’ adjoining to the Churchyard is mentioned in John Letton’s Will of 1563 (Priestley, ibid., page 21).

British History Online reproduces a book published by HMSO in 1923, ‘An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex’, and in Volume 4, South East, pages 136-139, we find the following, (which of course also mentions the Hoy and the Anchor):

Secular Monuments 2-9, which are said to be 17th century unless otherwise stated, timber framed and plastered or weather-boarded with tiled roofs. Some have original chimney stacks and exposed ceiling beams. In poor condition.

(4) cottage, two tenements, East of Anchor Inn – Poor.

(5) cottage, three tenements, 200 yards East of (4), built circa 16th century with a cross-wing at the West end.

(6) cottage, 150 yards, South South West of the Church.

(7) House, 30 yards South of (6), is of T-shaped plan with the cross-wing at the North end, and is of early 17th century date, or possibly earlier; there are modern additions at the West end of the cross-wing’.

Could (5) possibly have been ‘Cobbetts’, or ‘Skynners’? We will probably never know. Could (4) be the survivor in the postcard? [picture 6]. The other pictures I have put up to show the type of small cottage built in Benfleet from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, – they were tiny.

So we are building up a picture of a substantial settlement in Tudor times, which grew up where the boats came in, probably along the lines of Blakeney in North Norfolk – among them two Inns – The Hoy and The Anchor. It is likely some were small businesses catering for the travellers, for example, Cutlers, and Victuallers, and possibly the Smithy, which Priestley states, (ibid., page 90) ‘went back at least 300 years’. The Parish owned the Smithy, and the land on which it was built. I have confirmation in the words of Edward Roberts, who was the Vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, South Benfleet from 1704-1719. In his Memoranda on the Parish Registers [The Matson Papers], he states that, ‘the Blacksmith’s Shop was owned by the Parish’. He recounts the history of the tenants:

‘It was let in 1684 to John Carter at £1 a year: tenant doing the repairs’. [Matson Papers, Minute from the Vestry Book of March 31st 1684]. I quote it below, with its original spelling and no punctuation:

‘Memorandum. There was an Agreement made between ye Parish of South Benfleet and John Carter of ye same Blacksmith as forthwith ye said John Carter having occupied a Blacksmith Shop belonging to ye said Parish ever since ye feast of St. Michael last past [Editor’s note: 29th September], and there being halfe a years rent due to ye Parish amounting to fifteen shillings ye Parish have agreed to allow ye said John Carter ye said fifteen shillings and ye said John Carter did then Covenant with Parish to doe all repairs belonging to ye said shop and to pay yearly and every yeare during his occupying ye said shopp ye sum of twenty shillings of lawfull mony of England unto ye Overseer of Ye Poore of ye said Parish uppon Easter Munday ye first payment to be made uppon Easter Munday next come twelve months. In Witness thereof ye Officers of ye Parish and ye said John Carter have set their hands ye day and year above written.

John Carter                                                                                               Samull Hamend, Vicar

Cornelius Patterson Churchwarden

Marines Reneld Overseer for Ye Poore

Edward Roberts continues:

‘It was let in 1690 to James Purcas at £1 a year, tenant doing repairs. It was let in 1711 to Gilbert Heath at 30/-, tenant doing repairs. It was let in 1731 to Adam Hammond (who lived until 1776) at £2.6.8. Overseers to do repairs.

The site of the shop was probably ‘as it is now’ (Rev. Roberts, vicar in 1704-1719, writes in the eighteenth century). He mentions a token coin of Charles II time being found on the site, inscribed, ‘William Thompson, the Blacksmiths Arms South Benfleet in Essex, His Halfpenny’. [The Matson Papers]. Where was the Blacksmith’s Arms – could it have been the original name of the Hoy? The trade token is now in the British Museum, and not on display.

I have a document [Apprentice Paper: The Matson Papers] which states that poor lads were often apprenticed to the Smith (the Smithy being owned by the Parish). Various local tradesmen (Cordwainers, Tailors, Farmers etc) gave an apprenticeship to the poor of the village. In the days before benefits, this seemed to work pretty well. On the 2nd May 1826, an Apprentice Indenture was given by William Freeman of South Benfleet, Blacksmith, to James Thorrington, aged 15 years, ‘until age of 21’.

There was obviously a small settlement in what is now the High Street, long before Tudor times, as Priestley states in his ‘History of Benfleet : Book 1, Early Days, page 8) where he describes ‘the entrance to the creek … … where centuries later, men will build a railway station and run a road underneath its two platforms’. He describes the area, – ‘no sea wall, nothing between the houses and the incoming tides’. ‘The land gradually slopes down to the shore … … a few boats drawn up on the ‘hard’ which was manmade with gravel over generations’.

Priestley goes on to say, ‘every few hours the small craft are floated by the tide, which sometimes rises high enough to flood or even sweep away the frail thatched cottages and hovels near the creek’. He mentions that the Inn at the foot of the slope was used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the Blessed St. Thomas at Canterbury as they awaited the ferry across the river’.

Priestley describes the scene standing with your back to the creek, which at that time continued past the Hoy, (see line drawing, picture 1 below). Quoting from Priestley, Book One (page 8 ). ‘A rough path veers to the right up the hill, and is lined with cottages, built haphazardly here and there. [pictures 3 and 10 give some idea of the jumble of buildings behind the Hoy Public House]. This short street which leads up the hill to the village green is called Church Street, for directly behind the left-hand cottage gardens, or tofts, as they are called, may be seen the square tower of the old church’.  The steep brushwood covered ground behind the cottages on the left-hand side, which is now the churchyard, formed the Danes fortified Camp in 894 A.D. as is well documented. Priestley mentions, (page 10, ibid.) that a ditch ran both sides of the street, as he discovered in the Manor Rolls for 1415 a certain Thomas Hey was fined 2d for not cleaning out his part of the ditch.

Considering the fragile nature of the early buildings, which were on the edge of saltings and prone to flooding, it is doubtful any trace remains. Obviously, any archeological digs would be hampered by subsequent building, and the close proximity of the churchyard. I am sure there is more to be revealed in some cache of ancient documents laying in some dusty archive, particularly for the circa 15th/16th century Hoy Inn, (or Blacksmiths Arms?) but that remains to be discovered.


Possible Plan of South Benfleet 600 years ago, drawn by Mr. Will H. Maile of Benfleet Historical Society
H.E. Priestley
Part of Apprenticeship Indenture, showing James Thorrington, aged 15, apprenticed to William Freeman, Blacksmith
The Matson Papers
Etching of South Benfleet by Henry Martin Luyken Crown Cottage can be seen clearly in front of The Crown
Benfleet Community Archive
Church Creek,South Benfleet with old cottages and tithe barn (Hall Farm)
George William Hackshaw
Knightleys by the New Zealand artist Herbert Ivan Babbage
Benfleet Community Archive
Twin cottages by Saint Mary's church, London Road, South Benfleet
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
The Village Square, South Benfleet
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
South Benfleet High Street. Attwell's shop is in the cottage on the left, The Hoy and the Blacksmith's Shop are on the right.
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
The cottage 'Sleepy Hollow' in the Endway, South Benfleet
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
South Benfleet High Street, The Hoy is in the background
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive

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