Memories of South Benfleet
I grew up in South Benfleet, my family living at first in South View Road, just past the junction with Cumberland Avenue, moving after some years to Karen Close, not far from the railway station and eventually moving to a new house in Hill Road which, off from the top of Thundersley Park Road, was very far from the station.
I went to school at Bowers Gifford primary school which necessitated quite a walk or two disconnected short bus journeys. Sometimes, I would take one of the bus journeys, which I think branched off at Tarpots Corner, and walk the rest of the way although, when we moved to Karen Close, that was a little too far, and from then on I would take the bus. However, on the return journey, I would often walk from Bowers Gifford school to Pound Lane, off the London Road, where my grandparents lived, and spend an hour or two with them, before continuing the journey. My grandmother always had wonderful tales to tell, over tea and a slice or two of home made cake, of the old days and their life in London. My grandfather, bless him, would always walk back to the bus stop with me and see me safely on the bus. People used to walk much more in those days.
Although I remember the buses quite well, there was a number 2 and number 3 which, if I recall correctly were green ‘Eastern National’ buses and a number 1 which I think turned right at Tarpots Corner and went on towards Southend. This was a blue bus which, if my memory serves, I believe was run by ‘Southend Corporation’. There was a sizeable bus garage in Southend at that time. Of course, all the buses had uniformed conductors, with their mechanical ticket machines and the bus fare was never more than a few pence (before decimalisation).
I remember the lovely variety of shops in the town, from which you could source just about everything needed for day to day living. There were greengrocers, butchers, general stores, and the more unusual such as Vic and Yvonne Barnes shop which I remember very well.
As a very small child, I would sometimes run errands to a little shop which was just around the corner from the bottom of South View Road. I don’t remember the name, but I would often be sent there to get a bag of sugar or, more usually, a packet of Senior Service cigarettes for my father. There was no concern about children buying cigarettes in those days as it would never have occurred to anyone that they might smoke them.
When we moved to Karen Close, I would often pick things up from Sugg’s general store. The Post Office was then in the same building as the Anchor pub and, further along in the High Road, there were more shops. From Karen Close, it was a short walk up School Lane to the top where Station Road branched off to the right and, straight ahead, was a large metal gate which opened onto Benfleet Downs. As a young lad, I would spend many happy hours on the ‘downs’. It was my home from home. From the hill, you could look down upon the railway track and the coal yard. Occasionally, there would be some piece of rolling stock or another in the siding, often a guards van, with an oil lamp hanging from the rear.
I remember the steam trains on that line and how, on arrival at Fenchurch Street, they would make the most extraordinary noises as they hissed and let off steam. The sound, smell and sight of what, to a small child seemed like foreboding black monsters, remain firmly embedded in my memory. They seemed like breathing, living beings to me and I was fascinated by them.
Benfleet station had those lovely slatted wooden fences and uniformed ticket collectors so indicative of the times. In those days, there was also a ‘coal round’ whereby a lorry with sacks of coal on board would call around the local streets, enabling householders to buy what they needed directly from the coal merchant. Indeed, much was delivered to the door, including milk, newspapers and the occasional ‘tally man’ selling odds and ends from a suitcase.
In South View Road, we were also blessed with a ‘fresh eggs’ man who would come around selling eggs from his own chickens. I remember him as quite a character.
At the bottom of Station Road, where it joined the High Street, was another little store, run by a lady whose name temporarily escapes me and, a little further along, opposite the station itself was the Station Garage, run by Ron and Rose Dowding, a couple I came to know very well as I went to school with their son. The garage sold Cleveland petrol, a brand long since forgotten and, in those days, it was customary to have a ‘shot of Red X’ administered from something akin to an oversized oil can, which was a petrol additive supposed to improve combustion and overall performance. Ron Dowding also ran an efficient service operation and people could leave their cars for service while they went off on the train and pick them up on return. Rose Dowding would often help with the business, as well as bringing up their two sons. They were a lovely couple who I will always remember. They lived up in St. Mary’s Road.
The station also sported an open bicycle shed and many would cycle to the station, often in their suits and hats, leaving their bicycle clips on the handlebars. I don’t remember any bicycles being chained up, they were just left in a neat row in the open sided shed.
From the corner where St. Mary’s church met the Anchor Inn, Essex Way wound its way up towards the water tower at the top of the hill. From the top, there was an alternate route into Benfleet via Vicarage Hill, a long and winding road that exited into the High Road a little way from the church. There were some interesting houses along there in those days. The church itself was of course a centre, not only for Sunday worship, but for weddings, christenings and of course funerals. Although not superstitious, I always found the churchyard a little spooky, especially after dark. It was something to do with the tombstones, some of the older ones seeming to me like the dead watching over the living. Perhaps most children felt this way, although I never discussed it with anyone. There were one or two ‘pirates graves’ as we used to call them which, I understand, are still there. So called because of the ‘skull and crossbones’ emblem carved into them. For a brief period, as a child, I sung in the church choir, although I never particularly enjoyed doing so. It all seemed a bit strange to me at the time, perhaps because no-one ever really explained it to me.
From the edge of the church yard, on the High Road side, a little alley cut through to Hall Farm Close and Hall Farm Road which, in turn, lead to a grid-work of roads which included Benfleet Park Road, from which Jotmans Lane branched off. I seem to remember that there was a stone horse trough on that corner, or was it further up on the High Road? In any event, as children, we would often walk down Jotmans Lane and, at the end, there was I think a little bridge where the railway ran across, a cattle grid and, beyond that, open land. Somewhere around there was a delightful pond where one could find all manner of newts and other interesting creatures.
There was a great deal to occupy young minds without resorting to television which, in any case, we didn’t have in our household at that time. We did have a radio and I used to like listening to the Ted Ray show which included a character named Sid Mincing which I warmed to and, as a consequence, picked up the nickname of ‘Sid’.
There was also of course Benfleet creek which plays a large part in my childhood memories. I remember the original bridge and fairly narrow road across and over to Canvey Island. We would sometimes walk along the eastward side of the creek where there were a number of houseboats of various designs. There used to be a converted ‘torpedo’ boat which always impressed me and quite a few people lived on houseboats at that time. One of them was caught up in a nasty blaze and I remember walking past the burnt out shell. Actually, it made a big impression upon me and I felt a keen sense of personal tragedy, although I had no idea who the previous occupants were. There was something very sad about the charred wreckage of what had no doubt once been somebody’s dream.
Walking in the other direction from the bridge, the creek wound its way along with mudflats and tussocky grass at the boundaries between the water and land. There was a sort of no-mans land, with the railway running off towards London and a band of what was effectively marshland caught between it and the residential area. I liked that place. Perhaps it helped to instil in me a love of moors and wild spaces which remains with me to this day.
The tidal range was quite distinct and, when the tide was in, many people enjoyed boating on the creek. There was the little yacht club and a Sea Scouts hut which were both quite active. The Dowdings had a sailing boat and I was lucky enough to go out with them once or twice. Of course, the tides also presented a few problems, especially for those living on Canvey Island. Apart from the big flood in the early fifties, there always seemed to be a concern around the possibility of flooding. Later on, when I was at secondary school in Westcliff, I had a friend who lived on Canvey Island and I would occasionally cycle over there. It’s curious that, to me at that time, it seemed like a distinctly different locale, albeit separated by nothing but a small creek. Now, with our modern globalisation, such distinctions seem trivial.
The people that I remember in Benfleet were very different……. Neighbours all seemed to know each other…….
It all seems like yesterday, but England was a very different place then. The people that I remember in Benfleet were very different from those that I now rub shoulders with. Neighbours all seemed to know each other and, even as children, they knew our names and who we were. There was a tangible sense of community which is perhaps rarer now. Everything seemed to work, from rubbish collection (the old corrugated metal bins with lids and those lovely dustcarts with the curved, sliding openings on the side – were they made by Dennis?) to the local buses, milk deliveries (from electric milk carts) and so on.
Every car and lorry on the road was made in England and we had a huge choice. On the streets of South Benfleet, one would have found Rileys, Wolseleys, Austins, Morrises, Rovers, Jaguars, Armstrong Siddeleys, Triumphs, Humbers, Hillmans, Daimlers and more besides.
I also remember working traction engines which would often be involved with road works of various kinds, hence the term ‘steam rollers’. They clanked and puffed their way along, rolling the roads to a beautiful flat finish that seems elusive today.
The distinctive Essex Carriers lorries will stay in my memory as will the green and blue buses.
At Bowers Gifford school, for some obscure reason, I particularly remember the radiators and the rooms where we used to hang our coats, upon rows of hooks, in the winter, as well as the long driveway to the school entrance, up and down which I must have walked a thousand times or more. I remember Tarpots Corner and ‘Bread and Cheese’ hill as it then was and, of course, that little corner of the world around the Anchor and St. Mary’s church which acted as a reference point.
A town among many thousands of English towns that further developed in the post war period. But South Benfleet always seemed to have its own character, distinct from Hadleigh, Leigh-on-Sea, Chalkwell, Westcliff-on-Sea and the much larger Southend.
That little stretch along the side of the Thames Estuary was quite interesting in the 50s and 60s, as it slowly changed and developed. I clearly remember the fishing boats at Leigh, Chalkwell Park as it was and the London Road winding its way through to Southend. No doubt it is all very different now, but the South Benfleet of those times will endure in my memory, as no doubt it will for many others.
There was a time and place
That framed our early days
Though years rush by in haste
Changing many ways
South Benfleet was its name
Down beside the creek
And over time it came
A place for those who seek
A different way of life
With friends from all around
Away from city strife
In the haven there they found
And friendships were what gave
The town its special feel
And that which served to pave
A future true and real
And now the autumn haze
Is gathering around
But we shan’t forget the days
In dear old Benfleet town
19th September 2015
The two photos below are from the author’s collection of slides taken by his father. Julian is not sure, but thinks they may have been taken on Canvey Island at the time of the 1953 floods.
If anybody can supply information about the photos please let us know by adding a comment at the bottom of this page.