On the death of Mr. Cook in 1859 my father was offered and accepted the living of South Benfleet with Canvey. He was an Oxford man and a keen follower of the Oxford Movement.
Hadleigh Church at that time was a shock to him. The Clerk used the font as a convenient receptacle for brushes and dusters. This gentleman felt it his duty to keep order among the lads who attended church, and on one occasion a resounding smack was heard and an indignant voice which exclaimed “It worn’t me”, and the Clerk’s loud reply “Yes ‘twore, yes ‘twore”. On wet days the women wore clogs over their boots and took them off in Church and deposited them, with their dripping gamps, on the Chancel steps.
In these days, Canvey was part of the Parish. Previously the responsibility for Canvey Church was divided among nine “mainland” Parishes, with the proviso that 26 services a year should be held. This was meant to allow for at least a fortnightly service, but the journey was so difficult and the Clergy so lax that the services were all arranged in the summer. This practice was, of course, stopped by my father. Once he was visiting a sick Carter on the Island and the man said, “I be main bad, sir. Many’s the time when I’ve seen that there Chapel of yours full to the roof with casks of spirits”.
My father started a weekly service on the Island. Sometimes the tide was too high for the horse and gig to cross, and a boat had to be used. Gladwyn the Ferryman would take his passengers pick-a-back when the tide was out. On one occasion he carried the Bishop over in this way. Mrs. Ellis of the Farm once attended some function on the Island wearing her best silk gown and velvet mantle, and, returning was seated on the back of the dog cart when she was jerked out and deposited on her back in the mud!
The Canvey Chapel of our time had neither Chancel nor Vestry; there was a small corner where Mr. Hill, the clerk, pulled the bell and my father vested. The font was the discarded one from Benfleet. The building was of wood, with outside shutters to guard the windows from the violent storms – quite a convenient place for smugglers.
The population was small and scattered. There were two Inns, one the famous “Lobster Smack”, which used to be a rendezvous for bare-fisted prize fighters. The principal land owner was a Mr. Hilton: he trained race horses there, one of which, to the pride of the Parishioners, won the Derby. The people were surprised and annoyed when my father refused to have the bells rung on that occasion.
Once, when Mr. Hilton paid a surprise visit where there was a girl at home who he would certainly have thought should be out ‘in service’, her mother made her hide in the copper until he had gone.
A number of Canvey folk attended Sunday morning services at Benfleet, among whom were Mr. Hilton’s agent, Mr. Stower and his two daughters.
A PARSON’S WORK
A Parson’s work in the fifties was fairly varied, especially in the country. He needed a certain amount of Legal and Medical knowledge. When I was visiting Benfleet in 1906, a woman ran out of a garden, saying she must speak to me, for she had never forgotten how my father saved the life of her youngest brother. Finding the child absent from school, he went to see what was wrong, and found the little lad choking, and almost at the last gasp with diphtheria. He saw that there was not a moment to be lost and blew down the child’s throat and dispersed the membrane. But for his prompt action, the child must have died.
THE LOCAL DOCTOR
The Doctor of our days was one Dr. Byass who lived at Rayleigh, and worked Rayleigh, Hadleigh, Pitsea, Thundersley, Benfleet and Canvey, driving himself in a high dog-cart, – no suave bedside manner, but a heart of gold and loved by all.
He wore an old-fashioned ‘beaver’ hat. One dark night he was driving home, dead-tired, going up Bread and Cheese Hill, his reins loose in his hands, letting his horse take its own pace; he began to nod, his head went lower and lower and he was half-way into the land of dreams when he was whisked back into full consciousness by his hat falling off.
He was alert in a moment, and found that the cause was a rope fastened from tree to tree across the road just calculated to catch his throat and throw him backwards. He would have been at the mercy of the black-guards who had evidently planned to rob him, but he whipped up his horse and was soon out of their reach.
I can also remember a bad epidemic of smallpox which became so alarming that when it was known that several were down with it at Boyce Hill Farm, all provisions for the unfortunate people were left at the Vicarage for us to deliver. At the beginning of that outbreak my mother visited one of the cottages in the Endway, felt a little tug at her gown and, looking down, found a small child, a piteous sight, the smallpox full out on him, his poor little head swollen to twice its normal size. Having heard my mother’s voice he had crawled out of bed to get to her.
Isolation hospitals and trained nurses had not come into being, and my parents never shrank from tending the sick.
FIRST TASK – RESTORATION OF THE CHURCH
One of the first tasks my father set himself was the restoration of the Church, which was in a bad state of disrepair. The floor of the nave was lowered to show the bases of the fine pillars which had been quite covered, and this had the effect of raising the Chancel. He had the whole Church reseated with the then fashionable pitch-pine, a tiny pipe organ placed in the Chancel, an East window to the memory of the Revd. J.A. Cooke was set up, but the gem was the restoration of the lovely wooden Porch which had been allowed to fall into a terrible state of decay.
There was a good deal of opposition to this as the Parish generally thought it a great waste of money to try to repair it when a nice brick one would cost so much less, and be less draughty. I am sorry that the old oak entrance door, firmly studded with black nails, which was there in 1906, has disappeared. Another ghastly curiosity I remember in my father’s time was what was said to be the skin of one of the Danish pirates who had been flayed when they invaded Benfleet, and threw up their earthworks in a corner of the present churchyard. What tradition asserted to be his skin was nailed to the church door.
The Vicarage pew stood on the North side of the Chancel; on the South side sat the Bakers of Hadleigh House and the Nash family. We had each Sunday morning, the full service of Choral Mattins, Litany and Post-Communion, with a sermon of half an hour. It was said of a neighbouring Parish that once the Parson said to a labourer, “Well John, I’m pleased to see you come to Church so regularly; it’s a blessed day of rest for you”. “Ah, that be so”, was the reply, “for while you be in that there pulpit, I just puts me legs up an’ shuts me eyes and thinks of nothin’.”
After the restoration of the Church a mixed choir sat in the Chancel. Surplices were not worn. I remember the four Wiseman boys, brothers of the late Mr. Lawrence of the Post Office, sitting in the Chancel, Miss France and some other young women. Miss Freeman was Organist, after her a young lady from Hadleigh held the post, a Miss Plowright a School Teacher and a Mrs. Turner followed.
We used to make a great point of Church decorations. As soon as Advent Sunday was turned my mother, with a band of devoted workers, used to assemble in the Vestry and sew yards and yards of evergreen leaves which were wound round the pillars – and very handsome they were. Laurel leaves were the foundation and berried holy. The school children used to wander in to ‘feed’ the workers with leaves, which was one of my privileges.
Being an only child I used to do everything that was possible with my parents; Mrs Brown’s little daughter, very young, made effective wreaths at home of threaded holly leaves which she twined about the organ. Then there were wire or wooden frames of Christian emblems covered with yellow or red everlasting flowers in parts of the Church. We were taught to take the task of decorating very seriously as a real offering of praise and thanks-giving to God and to be accounted a privilege to take part in the work.
SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS
As soon as I was old enough I was encouraged to have a class in the Sunday School in holiday time. What dear, lovable children they were, and how nice they looked with rosy faces fresh from vigorous washing with yellow soap. The boys in clean smocks or nice clean blue fisherman’s jerseys, plus the liberal application of a strong-smelling pomatum to plaster down their hair. I have never since come across anything like that aroma which pervaded the Sunday School, – pomatum, corduroy, peppermint, onions and lollipops.
FOOD AND OTHER NECESSITIES
I remember one rather fat boy being called to order by my mother for whispering during service and his being quite sure of her sympathy when he explained, “But please, mum, we be going to have pork dumplings for dinner”.
I cannot bring myself to think that the Labourer’s lot was so unhappy. Wages, judged by modern standards were low, so were rents; luxuries such as tea and coffee were dear, but necessities cheap. Their own grown vegetables, cured bacon – everyone kept one or two pigs – home-made bread from their own gleaned flour, fresh fish which could be bought for next to nothing. At gleaning time no one was allowed in the fields until the Church bell was rung, and all must leave off by the same signal. Bedding was cheap, clean and comfortable. When threshing time came those who had no feather bed, took the bed casings to the nearest barn where the farmers filled them with the oat flyte, clean and soft. There was a curious superstition that if, in stuffing a feather bed, you mixed pigeon or game birds’ feathers with geese or fowl’s and anyone lying thereon was dying, they could not find release for their souls till such bedding was removed.
Eggs and honey of their own, cheap milk and butter, unlimited supplies of periwinkles to be had for the picking on Canvey, apples and all sorts of fruit stocked in their gardens, and home rendered lard, made good and wholesome diet. Certainly there were no luxuries to spend money on. Southend was not a shopping centre. Early to bed and early to rise was their motto. The oil era had not begun, and the cottages were content with candles, mainly tallow dip, rubbed on the chest as a cure for colds! Rush-lights, too, were used and home made. Our entertainments included well patronised Penny Readings.
One reads and hears a good deal nowadays of the inhumanity of child labour, and what a shocking thing it was for farmers to employ little lads of eight to scare away the birds. But I wonder what in the majority of cases was the boy’s point of view. Had the choice been given to him, would he have taken the road to school to puzzle over the intricacies of the three R’s, submitting to the needful discipline of keeping quiet and learning to concentrate, or would he have chosen the getting up and going out with father, his lunch done up in a red handkerchief and the chance of making a noise to his heart’s content with his own shouts and the wooden rattle, and getting plastered with mud with the reward of some pence at the weekend?
There was a clothing club with a bonus of a penny in the shilling, but rather differently run to those in the neighbouring villages, for instead of giving the women order on some local tradesmen or getting consignments of Draper from London, the money plus the bonus was handed over to spend on whatever she liked. My father’s contention was that she who had the thrift to save ought to be trusted to spend.
The big treat of the year for the young folk of the village was the Sunday School treat, generally held on St. James’ Day. It was a combined Garden Party and Village Fete when we entertained our Clerical friends and the Gentry from the surrounding Villages. Early in the afternoon members of the Sunday School assembled for a service in the Church, then walked up to the Vicarage bringing their own mugs with them, were seated on the grass, and the adult guests waited on them. When appetites were satisfied they were left to their own devices, and the grown-ups had a sit-down tea. Races and scrambles for nuts and lollipops were held. Fathers, mothers and big brothers and sisters came in the evening. There was the big excitement of climbing the greasy pole with a ham at the top securely fastened, also there were bags containing nuts and sweets which, slit open at the end, fell on the crowd below and were scrambled for. Sometimes instead of the expected sweets, a shower of flour descended. Sack races and games followed.