Mr. Tom Smith Francis Rowe

Builder, and Parish Councillor, reminisces about his working life in South Benfleet from 1896 to circa 1931

The porch, St. Mary's Church Where Tom Rowe replaced the Cill
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
'The Moorings' circa 1965
Benfleet Community Archive
A picture of the 'The Moorings', 1920s? with unmade road
Benfleet Community Archive
Cemetery Corner, showing the horse trough on the bend
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
A Water Pump of the 1920s
Kelly's Directory 1922
St Mary's Church, Benfleet
Benfleet Community Archive

Handwritten reminiscences, by Tom Rowe, have just come to light  among the papers of the late Walter Bingham, who was Local Historian and Vice President of ‘Benfleet & District Historical Society’ in the late 1950s. On his death, it was the passed to the late Norman Chisman, Local Historian and Author, and thence to Benfleet Community Archive.

Tom Rowe was born in Rotherhithe, London, in 1855, and was a Jobbing Carpenter by trade. As he recounts, he and his wife, Susan Helen, came down here in 1896. They lived in the Endway, at ‘The Moorings’, and Tom died on 30th September 1939 at the age of 84 years.

“In the year 1896, I found myself suffering from constant headaches, owing to the fact that I had held for seventeen years, a very onerous job (Prime Cost Clerk) with a large firm of builders and contractors in London.  I found it necessary to make a change, and as at that time my friend Barnes had just acquired Suttons Farm (afterwards to become the Sea View Estate) and there was work to be done, I decided to chance my luck so packed up and came to Benfleet.  Getting to know the Vicar, the Reverend C. F. Box and Sir Charles Nicholson, [Ed. Architect to St. Mary’s Church, Benfleet] my tender was accepted for an addition to the Vicarage, which I carried out successfully. /content/browse-articles/churches/stmarys/benfleet_as_it_was_-_part_iii

I had to satisfy three architects, Sir Charles as architect to the Vicar, the architect to the diocese (then St. Albans), and also the architect to St. Ann’s Bounty, who were making a grant to enable the work to be carried out. I thus became known to the various church authorities and when it was decided to renew the roof of the north aisle of St. Mary’s, my tender was again accepted, to be followed years after by the insertion of heavy flitch beams under the bell cage, which was in danger of falling through to the vestry, and this work enabled the bells to be again rung until some years after, when, owing to the continual leaking of the tower roof, the bell cage became rotten and dangerous and the bells once again became silent [Ed. this was circa 1913; the bells were not to be rung again until 19th November 1949]. Although the top of the tower was stripped, and the walls repaired and partly renewed, it has not been possible to get sufficient money to re-hang the bells, which is much to be deplored.

When I first attended the Services in the Church, the collections were made by the choir boys. The Vicar decided to have Sidesmen and Mr. A. C. Tuffield, Mr. Theodore Attwell and myself, Mr. T.S.F. Rowe were appointed, and held the office for many years. I also served with Mr. G. Land, Senior, as Overseer.

Having in this way become well-known in the Parish, I put my name up for the election of Parish Councillors, and was returned at the head of the poll for this, and at the next election maintained the position.

At this time, Benfleet was without drinking water, the last well (the Hoy) having failed, the Parish Council enlisted the sympathy of Mr. Stride, Manager of the Tilbury and Southend Railway Company. He promised that if we acquired one of the large oil tanks in use on the railway and made it fit to carry drinking water, the Railway Company would not only give us the water available at Stanford-le-Hope, but would also convey the tank by rail, free, to and fro twice a week. This was duly carried out and the water distributed by a horsed butt at a half-penny a bucket.

During this time, the Rochford Board were sinking the well at Hopes Green, and directly there was water available, the Parish Council, by arrangement with the contractor, set up a tank by the roadside and a one-man-power wheel pump over the well, and engaged a man to keep the tank full so that people could draw from it.  After some years, this well began to fail, and could only be pumped a certain number of hours in the twenty-four. The Parish Council had been drawing a very substantial cheque every six months in repayment of capital with interest, and in addition there was the ever-increasing cost of extensions, so that pay as we might, we were still getting deeper in debt. When Rochford said they would sink another well, Benfleet said, “we think not, we propose to unload this white elephant”. There then commenced a series of meetings and journeys to Rochford culminating in a public enquiry at Rochford, attended by experts engaged on each side. I am glad to say Benfleet’s line of evidence and argument prevailed, and it was decided to sell the water undertaking to the Southend Water Company, a transaction never regretted by those who were really conversant with all the facts.

I think it was about this time it was deemed necessary to provide a cemetery for burials the churchyard being full, and after many inspections and much consideration, the present site [Ed. at Cemetery Corner in the high Road] was decided on at a reasonable price. It being in my line, it fell to my lot to examine each offer. I prepared a table showing the area and price of the ground, the situation and means of access, from hard road, the cost of draining, if needed and the extent and cost of fencing. Armed with this analysis of each offer, our task was comparatively easy.

At the time of the Coronation, [Ed. of George V and Mary of Teck, in 1911] Benfleet became in a political ferment at a meeting held to decide what should be done in commemoration. Three Chairmen were howled down, a certain section of the people wanted ‘high jinks’ accompanied by plenty of eating and drinking, while the remainder were in favour of setting up something useful and lasting. Eventually a compromise was patched up. The Conservatives, deciding to set up a clock in the Church tower, had a meeting, at which nearly all those present subscribed a guinea.  From the beginning, the issue was never in doubt, and was easily carried to a successful conclusion.  The other party favoured a ‘spread’, and having a few pounds over, begged a drinking fountain and water trough from the Society, and came to the Parish Council asking to have it set up, taken over and maintained, and although we were warned that our own tradesmen would not use it, owing to the fear of glanders from the Canvey horses, we could not refuse, and the thing has become, and remained, a costly and useless encumbrance.

In addition to the work already mentioned that I have carried out, I would add that at the commencement of the War [Ed. First World War], we had a fierce snow squall which partially unroofed the south side of the nave roof. I was instructed to strip and re-tile and lath the top side of the rafters, so that ultimately the old plaster ceiling inside might be removed, the spaces between rafters plastered, and the roof left open. This taking down and plastering , I carried out many years after for Sir C. A. Nicholson at the time he restored the south aisle.

This lathing and tiling was the most trying job I ever had; the winter provided a succession of fierce gales which ripped our tarpaulins to shreds, smothered everything with snow, and sometimes drove us out altogether. Having completed the south side, we were instructed to follow on with the north side and this we did, being favoured with better weather.

In the year (?) the same procedure was adopted with the chancel roof, so that when circumstances permit, the old ceiling may be taken down, the roof thrown open, exposing the timbering to match the nave. The entire roofing of the Church, lead and tiling is now in first class condition and should last for many years.

One other job, which needed considerable care, was the insertion of a new cill on the east side of the porch. Sir Charles provided for putting this in, in three pieces, the centre piece first to take some of the weight and ensure the safety of the whole. I was most anxious to get it in, in one piece, and accepted the risk of shoring the entire fabric, removing the old rotten cill in its entirety, and putting in the new cill in one piece. This we did and in striking the shoring a week after completion, could discover no perceptible movement.

The foregoing, with the addition of the alteration to the steps and paving of the sanctuary comprise the major jobs I have ben privileged to carry out during about thirty-five years service”.


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