The Bridging of Benfleet Creek

A welcome end to some forgotten hazards of early motoring.

Laying the foundations for the first bridge from Benfleet to Canvey Island.

This somewhat faded picture from a London newspaper, published in 1930, shows the early stages in the construction of the first bridge to Canvey Island.  The Downs rise above the railway in the distance, and in the foreground a pile-driver can be seen laying the foundations of what was known originally as Colvin Bridge, opened in May 1931.  As the caption makes clear, the coming of the bridge led to a new era for Canvey Island, which was becoming a popular destination for motorists. In his biographical memoir, my late father Alec Johnson remembered some hazards of motoring to Canvey in the twenties, and the entertainments they could provide.

A trip to Canvey Island was quite an expedition, and involved a passage across Benfleet Creek by ferry boat rowed by two stalwarts whose duties varied with the tides. One was a rather small swarthy man by the name of Cripps.  His partner, in contrast, was Fred Edwards, a huge fellow, bluff, fair-haired of ruddy complexion, with a personality to match.  As I recall he was kept on as keeper when the bridge finally replaced the ferry.

Of course, being tidal, the Creek could be forded at low water by means of a row of stepping stones, a somewhat hazardous undertaking, especially if the tide was just rising and the stones about to be covered. This situation often provided a Sunday evening entertainment if weather and tide served. Canvey offered a trip out for the early motorists as it became popular as a resort, and lacking local knowledge, many a gallant lad left it too late to negotiate the ford in the face of the rising tide.  Fashionable white slacks and correspondent shoes were ruined in the attempt to push a stalled vehicle out.  The locals, sitting on the slopes of The Downs, enjoyed every minute of this free entertainment.

What the unfortunate stranded drivers were unaware of was the fact that the enterprising local steamroller driver was on hand, but out of sight until the stranded motorists were desperate.  He would then appear, like a savior in a cloud of steam, and start to negotiate salvage terms. Of course he couldn’t lose; as the tide remorselessly rose, so did the salvage fee!

The bridge did not entirely end the discomfort of motorists on Sunday evenings.  If the tide was rising through the afternoon, motorists leaving the island would be held up as the bridge opened to allow returning yachts to reach their upstream moorings. The resulting tailbacks remained a notorious feature of summer weekends, well into the 1960s.

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