Catch 22

Houseboats and the local Council in the period 1920 - 1960

Cartoon by Coxon
Canadian houseboats
Sans Souci
Houseboat on fire
" relatively cheap "
From the Jackie Barnes Collection

The Benfleet Urban District Council, in common with other local authorities, viewed houseboats as a problem. One councillor was quoted as calling the houseboat owners “Water Gypsies”, but to be fair it wasn’t only councillors who held that view…..ordinary folk instructed their children to avoid playing with houseboat children.

Among the many warnings Barry Newman remembers being given by his worried mother was “Whatever you do, don’t play with those houseboat children, you’ll get a disease” In 1967 Barry married Jacky Green, brought up on houseboat “Veronica”,  and Barry has never caught that disease!

Councils vs The Houseboats

From the mid 1930s onwards there is evidence that the Council wanted to rid themselves of this “nuisance”. After the second world war a special houseboat committee was set up on the 28th April 1948, whose terms of reference made clear their twin objectives of removing all craft including houseboats from council land and then all remaining craft in the District.

What caused the Council to adopt this hostile attitude is not clear. To be fair the issues of pollution caused by houseboat users emptying night soil into the Creek were valid. By 1949 there was clear evidence that these discharges constituted a threat to anyone bathing in the Creek….. an activity hitherto enjoyed by many. I suspect since boatbuilding began there have been houseboats in safe locations like Benfleet Creek, although the earliest reference found so far has been to William Edward Wigfull around the first world war period. However a newspaper cartoon published in 1922 reveals that something was amiss.

Whether it was a matter of non-conformity or the avoidance of paying rates by some, which got under Benfleet Council’s skin I do not know. However other local authorities took the same line. Southend Corporation had a bill passed in Parliament which resulted in many craft re-locating to Benfleet and Canvey, thus exacerbating the “problem”. The Ratings Officer reported that there were 112 craft, of which 85 were houseboats. 12 craft had relocated from Leigh, of which 3 were houseboats and the rest mostly landing craft awaiting conversion to houseboats.

It is understandable  that houseboats proliferated after the second world war, as they were a relatively cheap way of getting a roof over your head at a time when housing stock, due to German bombing, was in a poor state and materials were scarce.  MTBs and landing craft vied with Thames barges as the platform for living accommodation.   

Notices to Quit

This account begins in December 1935 when notices to quit were served by the Council in respect of 30 houseboats and other craft moored to the council’s land. Acting on legal advice previously received, it was decided to take proceedings against the owners of two specific houseboats named “Dolsis” and “Rendezvous” The case was heard in the Chancery Court Division of the High Court on 8th June 1937.

The Council was largely successful and instructions were issued against the remaining houseboat owners. However in September 1938 the council’s solicitor suggested that in view of the international situation it would be better to postpone further action. The Council disagreed, but nothing happened until after the war.

The Council House Boat Committee

In April 1948 the Council set up a special committee on houseboats, whose terms of reference included quantifying the “problem” and otaining expert opinion on health issues.

The special committe went further than the terms of reference when in the inaugural meeting they agreed the “next steps to be taken” :-

Clause 2 – The removal of those houseboats and other craft now moored to the Council’s land.
Clause 3 – Concerted action to secure removal of the remaining houseboats and other craft in the district.   

The sanitary inspector took 12 water samples from various locations and at different stages of the tide. Locations that proved there was a health risk attached to bathing in the creek –  a popular activity at the time. The Council acted promptly and put up warning notices and  drew attention to the danger in the local press, by contacting head teachers, the swimming club and 3 ratepayers  associations.

One problem that the Council faced in achieving its aims was the number of official bodies involved, for example The Port of London Authority, The Port Health Authority, British Railways, Transport Commission, Essex Rivers Catchment Board, not to mention the neighbouring local authorities such as Southend and Canvey Island, Although most of the time there was a large degree of consensus, There were differences as illustrated by the British Transport Commission’s policy on houseboats :-

“You may take it that the commission’s policy regarding houseboats has not changed and the commission’s licensee is under covenant not to permit any further mooring. I feel however, that provided the problem of trespassing can be solved, the use of the saltings as mud berths for boats and yachts not permanently occupied is desirable. It is noticeable that where houseboats have been removed erosion has substantially increased.”

These differences came to a head at a meeting at Guildhall House convened by the Corporation of London regarding their draft byelaws to control houseboats. The byelaws covered 3 main discussion points:-

1) Supply of water within a reasonable distance (agreed to be 440 yards)
2) Disposal of night soil
3) Disposal of household refuse

At the outset of the discussions the “representatives of Benfleet, Billericay and Canvey Island maintained that assistance in this direction merely perpetuated the nuisance and stated emphatically that they did not want the houseboats in the creek in their respective districts under any circumstances.”

Catch 22

An approach by the Houseboat Owners Association in May 1949 to ask about the collection of sewerage and refuse plus a separate approach to the sanitory inspector for stand pipes, elicited  a grudging “yes” to the refuse, but “no” to water provision and sewerage collection.

There is no doubt that houseboats have a life expectancy far less than a bricks and mortar building, as water, especially salt water, has a detrimental effect on most materials. So in addition to the pollution problem already highlighted the Council had safety concerns, which provided another justification for not renewing consents to moor.

In 1956 the Catch 22 situation continued whereby the renewal of consents to moor were refused for 5 boathouses including the Veronica. The grounds for Veronica’s refusal was typical :-

“Lack of suitable facilities for the disposal of night soil and waste water, lack of an adequate supply of water within a reasonable distance, lack of adequate means of escape in the event of fire,” and the cruellist cut of all…”unsightly appearance”.

Consent to moor was also refused for Hill View (West Creek), Tea Boat (Church Creek), Stella Maris and Millie (East Creek). However the following had their consents renewed for a further year – Emma Jane, Blake, Haven, Lowestoft, Hi-de-hi, Jewel, Lydia, Nisene, Geojean, Sans Souci, Patsy Ann, Smugglers, Bill Busty and Amy (West Creek); Bendigo and Manane (East Creek).

In 1957 consents to moor were refused to Severn (Ferry Road), Margot, Jenny Lee, Commando, Margaret, Bettaglen, Invader, Lets Pretend and Paniche (East Creek ); The Zen, Winmoor, Herald, Della, Wee Peg, and the Nook (Church Creek). All on the grounds of disrepair of hull and superstructure. When the condemned houseboats were not removed or demolished by their  owners, the council would do so and then seek to recover their costs from the owners

Notices to demolish were issued in 1958 to the owners of Idono, Invader, Lets Pretend, Margot, May Paniche, Paula P, Phyllis, Jenny Lee, Frogmore, Mendip and Whylaway (East Creek).

To some families this represented  the loss of their home and the Council was obliged to find alternative accommodation…for others it was  the loss of a holiday home, an acquatic version of the Plotlands scene. Either way the memories, when you talk to those now on dry land, are universally positive. The power to grant a mooring is now in the hands of the Port of London Authority via its local agent, the Yacht Club.

The Current Situation

There are still a few left and the criteria for paying the rates or not is still the same as when we started this account, that is to say, if the houseboat can move under its own steam it is not liable ….if it is immobile then it is liable. There  is a humorous account in Hugh Falkus’s book “Stolen Years” of how his father and others conspired to hoodwink the rating officer in regard to a friend’s houseboat.

In February 1959 the public health inspector reported that the cost of providing a water supply to serve the houseboats of West Creek, together with the provision of 2 water closets and a cesspool was estimated to be in the region of £750. The estimated cost of the water supply itself would be about £500.

Decided – “that no action to tackle the matter for the time-being”

That was the closest the Council got to being pro-active and welcoming, but to be fair I am sure they had genuine concerns regarding health and safety, as well as the visual appearance of that valuable local asset … the Creek. Houseboats can be attractive and well equipped with all the necessary facilities as witnessed by the modern Canadian example shown here.

Perhaps their policy is best summed up by the surname of the Clerk to the Council in 1948 :-

D. Grudgings


Have you got memories of living in or visiting houseboats in the Benfleet creeks – if so, we would love to hear from you. Either email us  or leave your contact details with Benfleet Library.  For an example of similar houseboat memories, I recommend Carol Edwards’s book* on the houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, available to borrow from Benfleet Library.

*   ” The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea” , published in 2009 (ISBN  :  978-0-9562201-0-3 ¬)

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