The following article, written by Ailsa Tibbenham, appeared in a 1973 edition of the Benfleet & District Historical Society magazine. The Tibbenham family were members of the Society for many years. Ailsa and her husband George were also bell ringers for St. Mary’s Church.
Just about fifty years have passed since my parents retired and bought a bungalow situated at about a stones throw from the Church, at the corner of what was then known as Church Road. This was in actual fact a muddy lane lined on the east side with large elm trees, joining up with Green Road in a northerly direction and curving round in front of our house to join the footpath to Bowers Gifford, passing the Cricket Field on the right.
At that time Benfleet was a small rural community, with a population of about 7000. We had no mains drainage, no electricity or gas and oil was used for lighting and cooking. Every house had its cesspool, which was emptied at regular intervals by a man known locally as Sweet Lavender, who came round at night with a cart.
In front of our house was a stile with steps up and over, leading to a triangular field known as Town Meadow, with towpath on the south side and a hedge and a ditch on the other, where there are now Council houses. To get to the Church one had to cross a bridge and another stile and on Sundays we used to keep our lamps behind the big tomb stone by the Church Tower and it was quite pretty to see the lights coming out, one by one, as folk went home in various directions after Evensong. On a dark night hundreds of glow worms sparkled around the stile and bridge, but sometimes it was a major feat to get across the meadow to the opposite stile, because it was very difficult to avoid stray cattle in the pitch blackness.
In those days Benfleet, Hadleigh and Thundersley were three separate villages, controlled by one Council. Benfleet was lucky, in that it had a railway station with a good service of trains to London and Southend. It was possible to get to London by cheap day return for 2/3d and to Southend for 6d.
In the old days the station had only one entrance which opened on to the Benfleet side. Canvey passengers had to cross the railway, either by bridge, or level crossing, before catching the ferry or walking across the stepping stones to their conveyances awaiting them on the opposite side of the Creek.
Leaving the station on the right was a very old house with a shop in front, owned by Shiner & Holmes where one could buy almost anything. Previously the ‘Old House’ had been occupied by the Lawrence family. The house was thought to have been a Hunting Lodge in Tudor times, the front having been added later in Georgian days. Nelson is reputed to have stayed there while visiting his ships in the Estuary.
The Old House, was alas, demolished in 1972 to make way for an entrance to the car park. Just past the shop was a small turning to the right which led into ‘The Street’ or as it is now called, ‘The Close’. On the left stood the ‘Appleton Dower House’ now the Conservative Club. This was taken over by two old gentlemen named Brown and Core, who also owned the house in Green Road which is now the headquarters of the W.R.V.S. Every summer they would have parties of boys from the East End of London to stay for a week or so with them in Green Road. They invited us in to the old Dower House and showed us their old wall paintings, which they reckoned were about 250 years old.
In the olden days the ‘Close’ used to be the main street, with several weather-boarded cottages opening out onto it with their back gardens facing the saltings by Church Creek. After the arrival of the railway the road from Station to the Anchor was more widely used. Beyond the Dower House on the road from the station were several old weather-boarded cottages. In one, on the right hand side called ‘Vine Cottage’ lived Mr & Mrs Nunn. He was a local coalman and she was well known as the Village Barber. Right across the road were some more old cottages, one of which was reputed to have been built on the foundations of a boat. When we first came Mrs Killingback lived in one, while her son Fred, who was for many years ticket collector at the Station, lived not far away in Fleet Road.
The garages at the Crown were not built in the 1920s and one had to pass under some arches to get to the Crown forecourt. Just opposite was the old slip-way where vessels used to unload and beyond this was the Hoy garden, with its dovecote housing many pure white doves, then came the Blacksmith’s shop run by Mr Thorogood. The church steps turned off to the left and the road ran sharply uphill with shops on either side, with the Church Institute at the top on the left hand side, opposite Tuffields Grocery Shop. Here all the villagers met for whist drives, socials and church fetes.
Next to this came Mrs Knightley’s picturesque old shop standing sideways on to the roadway. From here the path ran left on a level with the church wall, with a wooden hand-rail on the right to keep pedestrians from falling into the road. It ran down to the ordinary road level when it crossed the stream past Hall Farm Cottage and two very old thatched barns, the first being the tithe barn. Behind these where the present Wesleyan Chapel stands, was some open land on which stood a very big elm tree, under which the fortune-teller used to sit when the Fair came in August. It was about the size of the one in the corner of the Churchyard and was reckoned by Mr Cooper to have been one of the marker boundaries of the Danish Camp.
Green Road was a sea of mud and I well remember the day when Tom Groves, M.P. of one of the London Boroughs, moved to a bungalow in Hall Farm Road and his furniture van got firmly stuck in the mud down Green Road and everything had to be carried the rest of the way.
Talking of the Tithe Barn, reminds me that in those days every villager had to pay his tithe. The Church authorities had a very ingenious plan for their collection. A certain householder, in our case Mr Fisher, was made responsible for the collection from a certain number of householders in his vicinity. This method continued until Doreen Wallace, the writer and various Suffolk farmers campaigned, and got, a bill through Parliament abolishing tithes. We therefore paid a sum to the Church Authorities and redeemed ours.
From the Church, in an easterly direction ran the Endway (now Essex Way). Starting from the Anchor came the Post Office and lending library, run by Miss J Lawrence. Here one heard all the latest village news and just beyond, standing at the roadside were five tall elm trees, behind which were some little cottages known as Five Elm Cottages. The lane continued past the Anchor Meadow, which in Summer was knee-high with buttercups and at Whitsuntide was the venue of the Village Fete. Further along on the left-hand side was a lovely little cottage known to us as ‘Sleepy Hollow”. At the end of the lane where Norwood Drive now stands, was a large bungalow and kennels, after this the Endway petered out and a path went past a small pond, across the fields up to the Water Tower, while another footpath ran straight to Poynetts.
Retracing our steps and coming back on the south side of the Endway, were several old cottages, some villas and then Suttons Farm and the old Methodist Chapel. Turning to the right up School Lane was the old church school, now part of the car park and beyond were the ‘Downs”. The only house I remember, on what is now St. Mary’s Road, was the big house called ‘Brecon’ , which stood on its own.
Dropping down what is now Station Road, one came to the level crossing and footbridge, across the line to the yacht club, which was very convenient for the station. A regatta was held each summer and later a swimming club was formed with its headquarters on one of the landing craft moored in West Creek.
To get to Canvey one had either to wait until low tide and cross by the stepping stones, or to splash across in a car or at high tide to take the ferry which cost 2d a journey.
Just at that time Doctors were extolling the virtues of the Southend mud and many of their patients came down and bought houseboats. Consequently the creeks, to name Church Creek but one, became very crowded with these craft. I remember after a severe gale and high spring tide, one of these huge boats was dashed against the sea wall and made a great hole in the bank by Town Meadow, After high tides and heavy rain it was quite usual for the High Street near the Station and the High Road on the north side of the Church, to be flooded. Now, of course, the underpass road runs where Church Creek used to be, so no longer can any vessel sail up to the village.
It was possible to go out fishing with one of the shrimp boats moored in the Creek, going out on one tide and coming back on another. The small boys used to catch eels by taking their mother’s old stiff broom, plunging it down into the mud, leaving it for a time and then pulling it up with small eels attached. It was possible to walk along the river bank under the railway bridge in a westerly direction, until one came to a thick coppice rather higher than the saltings. Hidden in among the bushes were the dynamite caves where powder used to be stored in Napoleonic times and afterwards until the first world war. Further on towards Bowers Gifford and across the railway line by ‘Ragged Cottage’ there used to be another golf links, in addition to Boyce Hill.
Benfleet always was a very friendly little village and had its share of of characters. Mr Walter Bingham comes to my mind as one of the more notable of these. He had a greengrocery business in the shop where the Chinese restaurant now stands. He was a dedicated historian and spent hours delving among the records to find much of what we now know of the early history of Benfleet. He was chairman of the open space. He formed a footpaths committee and members went round every so often to see that the paths were cleared and that each ‘right of way’ was observed.
Mr Edwards and Mr Layzell were the ferrymen before the advent of the Bridge across the Creek and I remember Sir Charles Nicholson’s daughter, Barbara, taking Mr Edwards as a model for her painting of St Christopher on the chancel screen in St. Mary’s Church.
Mr Holdsworth was the Vicar, followed later by the Rev. Ralph Gardner who stayed for many years. His sermons were a joy to listen to. His verger, Mr Sidebotham was a great character and young Christopher Gardiner used to follow him around like ‘Mary’s little lamb’. His friend and colleague, Mr Quilter, manned the old signal box by the level crossing and for over fifty years worked for St. Mary’s Church, being clock-winder, a member of the choir and bell-ringer until his death a few years ago. The two of them and several more were devotees of County Cricket, and they used to take the train to Southend armed with sandwiches and there they would stay all day watching the results being switched up on to an electric score-board. This was before the days of wireless and television.
Mr Land was landlord of the Anchor at that time and was confined to a wheel-chair and could always be seen around with a lamb attached to it. Another colourful old character was Miss Overmark who expressed herself in no uncertain terms. She was very prominent in the Wesleyan Chapel and in the rate-payers newly formed association. Whenever anyone applied fir a licence to sell liquor Miss Overmark was there to oppose it. No small boys ever took liberties with her, but under her brusque manner she was very warm hearted and generous as many an old inhabitant will testify.
Our doctor at that time was Dr Christmas and later Dr Wilks who used to come on his round on horse-back and always wore a monocle. At Christmas time folk used to take their turkeys in baking tins down to Mr Brooker, the baker, who put them in his bakehouse oven and cooked then for 2d.
Life in Benfleet ran along on much the same lines until the second world war, when England was threatened with invasion. Then it was sealed off and no one was allowed to enter it from outside without a permit, but after the war the population increased at an alarming rate until it became a commuter town.
The W.I. was started in 1922 and has just recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee and in the summer of the early twenties, strains of Jerusalem could be heard floating over the village from their open air meeting in Mrs Butcher’s garden.
In January 1953 Benfleet was flooded and the water covered the saltings and fields up to the foot of Hadleigh Castle on the east side and up to the back of Hall Farm Road, Brook Road and all the fields to Bowers Gifford on the west side.
People were evacuated from Canvey and were taken to temporary homes in Benfleet. This was the real beginning of the W.R.V.S. in Benfleet. It flourished under the capable leadership of Mrs Priestley, Mrs Maile and their willing band of helpers.
Now Benfleet is no longer a village, the trees have practically disappeared and their place on the sky-line has been taken over by bricks and mortar and concrete.
Long since have the nightingales and doves departed from the ‘Hoy’ garden, and no more shall we see the kingfishers dipping and diving over the Church Creek, but for me and I am sure for many of the older folk, it has left some wonderful memories of village life as it used to be.