MEMOIRS OF A BENFLEET CHILD

The Station Master's daughter, Miss Jean W. Dennis, in the 1940s

This story forms part of a bundle of papers dating from the late 1980s and mid 2000s, that the Archive has received, which were sent to the late local historian, Norman Chisman.

My very first recollection of “living by the sea” was at the age of seven, when my father was promoted to a busy station on the London/Southend line.  We were living in Warwickshire at the time, and I remember my parents saying to me that we were going to live by the sea, and when we got there I was to be very careful and not fall into the creek which was very close to our house.  Our family consisted of mother (Marjorie), father (Joseph), my brother Colin and sister Brenda and myself being the youngest.

When we duly moved into the station house at Benfleet, I was quite surprised to find that in fact the creek was right at the bottom of our very long garden – I had been having visions of the creek being right outside our back door and me having to almost jump from door step to pavement to avoid falling in the water! The reality, of course, was nothing like that.

So began our years in Benfleet. We moved there early 1942 I think. The war was in full progress. I attended Benfleet School with my sister, and we walked most days from Benfleet station through the village to the school; sometimes we cut through the churchyard, others we went on the bus from the clocktower.

Our house was built on to the station buildings, so that our front door was right next door to the entrance into the booking hall, and our upstairs rooms were on a level with the platforms.  There was a connecting door from our landing into my father’s office, which in turn led out on to the ‘down’ platform, My playground was of course either the station or the area at the bottom of our garden where boats were pulled up from the creek.

As a family we all attended the Methodist Chapel, Brownies, Guides, and my brother Colin was in the Youth Club, where he met and finally married Dorothy Pickett, who used to live in Queens Road. Her brother Ted emigrated to Australia and is still there. Their crowd from the Youth Club still have a reunion biannually. They were always close-knit and used to go camping together for weekends.

My father, Joseph Dennis, was station master from about 1942 until the end of 1948. When I attended Benfleet School during one summer, we seemed to be constantly in the air raid shelters (round the back of the school), but by the time I went to Southend High, the war was over, and that school had just demolished their own air raid shelters.  Of course, I travelled by train to Southend each day along with the Canvey-ites.  When I went to Benfleet School there was an extra classroom over the road which was called Elim, it was also the library. Perhaps still is?

My father was a member of the Freemasons and went to meetings in Southend. I think he may have gone with a Mr. Mace, who was station master at Leigh, with whom he was very friendly.

I suppose it must have been just at the end of the war that I remember Benfleet station being so busy. Train after train arrived from London, with thousands of passengers going to the seaside, many getting off at Benfleet for Canvey. On the return trip in the evening the platform was so full that my father had to attend to many accidents, as trains drew in from Southend already packed and our platform was full of surging people.  My mother, many a time, took in families for the night who just couldn’t get on the trains bound for London.

On these very busy weekends, we children used to go and stand on the footbridge and watch the queues of traffic trying to get off the island.  They were held back, either by the bridge being opened for boats, or by the level crossing.  I expect there were many extra excursion trains put on then, which all added to the fun for local children. We had never seen traffic like it before, you could see the cars right back along Canvey as you can imagine.

My brother, together with ‘Tig’ (Dennis) Layzell and Charlie Powell, made barrows and would charge (3d I think) for taking peoples’ luggage over the crossing and down to the Canvey buses. This was quite lucrative for them – and kept them out of mischief I suppose. I wonder if Charlie Powell is still around, I know Tig went on to own a fish and chip shop on the High Road, opposite Queens Road, and I think he also ran a taxi service. Outside the station there were taxis, and I knew all the drivers. From time to time my father had to tell them to move from the yard, which really was needed for loading and unloading. They then drew up alongside the line.

The station was always busy in those days. My sister and I shared a bedroom over the booking office. We were always woken up  early by the footsteps of the men coming into the booking office below, on the old wooden floor.  There was a connecting door from our ground floor hallway that led straight into the booking office. It would be most interesting to know if these doors, from the top floor landing and the downstairs hall, still remain. My homework was done in my father’s office, as the fire in there was always burning brightly and warmer than our own.

One day there was an emergency when someone had been taken ill – it must have been the signal man. This was early in the morning, and my father had to go to the signal box with a clerk, and mother and I went into the booking office. In those days, many people bought their tickets daily (they were called Workmans return), and mother had to try and find where the tickets were as there was a huge display either side of the small window, and I took the money.  Everyone knew how much their fare was – we hadn’t a clue! They all then had to dash up the stairs on to the platforms.

In the booking office in those days were two ladies- booking clerks they were called. I was a perfect nuisance to them, and spent many hours either in there or playing on the platforms. I must have been a nuisance to all the porters too – for I was always running around. I can vividly remember Mr. Killingback. He used to stand in the little ticket office on the left, just before you went up on to the platforms. Also, Mr. Cudby, he was a clerk and lived up the Endway, on the left. There was a brook at the end of their garden. Next door to them were the Cuttings, and I was friendly with Celia. We were very friendly with the Cudbys, there were two boys, Philip and David. I think Mr, Layzell worked for my father. He lived with his family up in a house in the coalyard. I remember a fatal accident with one of the shire horses in the coal yard.

During the air raids, we three children were constantly being hustled out of bed, through the connecting door into the booking office and then under the subway. We remained here until the all clear went. One year we seemed to be going down there a lot. Possibly it was when the doodlebugs (as we called them) were going over.

Behind our house stretched what seemed to me like a long yard, with huge covered areas on the left, which were in fact underneath the station buildings, and at the bottom of the yard, through a gate into a garden area, and thence to the creek. Here was another great playground. We learned to swim down here, my brother had a canoe, and I am ashamed to say we used to clamber over all the boats that used to be kept down there.  In our yard under the station buildings, we kept chickens, and one year we had ducks also – mainly for the eggs. In various of these outhouses, several men would come and leave their bikes for the day before catching the trains. No huge car parks then, or even cars!

At that time, we could walk round to the left, under the railway bridge and along the main creek towards the Canvey bridge. There was also a Benfleet Swimming Club which operated from a boat, and I think my father must have been a member, because he would swim from their boat. This was moored alongside the creek towards the Pitsea side.

My father had an allotment alongside the railway. This was reached by going along the platform over the creek (which is now a road), and over the fence on to our allotment, it was on the railway bank.  This was also our way if we were visiting any of the houseboats that were on that side of the creek. We were friendly with a Mrs. Brown who lived in one.

Another place we used to swim was over Canvey bridge, and just on the right hand side, where there was a narrow channel which didn’t have that awful mud on the bottom. We could paddle here quite safely.

One morning when we got up, there was a huge flood. Our back yard was full of water, and as far as the eye could see, was water.  It was a heart-breaking scene – we went on to the platform and could see Canvey marshes all under water and sheep drowning everywhere.  It was an exceptionally high tide.  My father got up the floorboards in our sitting room and found that there was water lying in the foundations. Fortunately, our house had been built up (the back door had three steps up to it). Nevertheless, I remember him monitoring the situation until the waters subsided. At school, we all had to draw pictures of the water-logged scene, and mother kept mine for a long time.

When I went to Benfleet school, we walked up to the Memorial and caught a bus (or walked all the way). One day we were on the top deck of the bus waiting to return after dinner when suddenly we heard a plane firing randomly. Our headmistress was on the bus (a Miss Gale) who told us quickly to lie under the seats. No damage was caused to us, but there must have been some damage somewhere,

If we walked to school, we were allowed to spend our penny bus fare as we wished. This was often spent at Howards Dairies, the first shop in a parade soon after the Methodist Church. We bought peanut butter on a piece of paper and ate it with our fingers.

Among my school friends, was Joan Foster. Her father had a cycle shop quite near to the school – probably long gone. Joan went to the Catholic school (St. Bernards) when she won her scholarship, so we eventually lost touch. Another friend was Angela Plowman (St. Marys Drive), and Margaret Green (the Endway). A Peter Nunn was in my class, his father had a butcher’s shop, again near to the school.  My sister, when she left school, became friendly with Peter Harris. His parents had a small greengrocers that was down the road from the main Church, and on the right hand side. They lived in a bungalow in its own grounds (or so it seemed to me) behind the shop. I was also friends with Peter’s sister, Vivian.

Nearer to home, there was an old chap called Benny, who had a barrow outside the station selling papers. My mother used to take our washing to an old washerwoman called Ethel who lived in the alley way. Gosh, she must have worked hard for her living, her house was always steamy. I often had to take or collect the sheets. Almost opposite our house were a couple of  old tall houses, in one of which lived the Misses Pease. My mother used to send me over with home baking quite often. Another shop we used frequently, was Mr. Shrieve, who was on the corner, he sold us all our groceries and I can remember taking the ration books to him. I used to watch him make up the sugar bags, and weigh out butter and lard etc. He also had a large bacon slicer at the end of his counter. We had to change our ration books up in Thundersley somewhere – my sister and I went on our bikes. They were changed in a sort of village hall, I think.

Then as we walked up the hill towards the Church [Ed. The High Street], we passed a small fish hut on the left, then Mr. Killingback’s house, then the nurses house, then a shellfish stall, Clarks, I think, just before the Hoy & Helmet. On the right hand side of this road was Shiner and Holmes, a small almost kiosk type newsagent, then high up on the wall of The Crown was the air-raid siren.  I think there was another one on the wall of the Tarpots Pub. We visited Argents at the end of the alley way (did this ever have a name, I wonder?) [Ed. Yes, ‘The Close’]. Opposite Argents, was our mother’s hairdresser. Above Argents there was a bakery, a fish shop, something else, and then towards the top was Suggs. Also Knightleys must have been somewhere there. In the alleyway there was a supposedly haunted house – it had a very small doorway. Also there was a large walnut tree in the alleyway.

After the shops, there was a gap and then a small Westminster Bank.  Here, my father went daily with the takings from the station, sometimes I accompanied him. He varied his route – there were three alternatives then. The large field was one route – now a car park. On occasions this field was used for summer gatherings. I can certainly remember being on the field with all the villagers. There used to be a haystack down the bottom end, near to the alleyway entrance.

Various activities were attended at the War Memorial. I am sure one of these would have been the VE celebrations and/or the VJ celebrations.

A favourite family walk was along the Downs. Up the Road opposite our house, through a gate and on to the Downs.  All of us children played up there a lot, but only as a family did we walk as far as Hadleigh Castle. Blackberry picking was often done for jam making. Another walk we did was across the back of Benfleet by going from the down platform over the fence and across to Bowers Gifford Church. A searchlight was in these fields.

Going further afield, we would cycle regularly along the pathways to Canvey, to a place we called Dead Mans Bay. Here, we would picnic regularly during the school holidays. Canvey then was very undeveloped. My ‘lefty’ in the Guides lived on Canvey, in a shop on the right hand side, long before you get to the shops at the end. It is probably very different nowadays. Then, my mother would take us  regularly to Chalkwell for the day. She would produce a picnic, and we loved these days at Chalkwell. Of course, we travelled free on the train. We didn’t go into Southend much, only for real shopping. My mother would give us a treat and take us into Garons where we took tea. I remember it as being a ‘posh’ shop and we had to behave. My school uniform was purchased somewhere in Southend. My brother went to Palmers School in Grays – looking back I can’t think why he didn’t go to Southend Boys High School.

My sister, Brenda, when she left school first of all worked in the Post Office in London and when she was sixteen went into the bank – Midland – also in London.

My brother, Colin, went first into the army, and after being demobbed, to a bank in London, but later went to a solicitors, and is now retired, living in Brentwood. He courted Dorothy Pickett and they married in Benfleet Methodist Church in 1951. I was a bridesmaid, but by this time my father had been promoted and we lived in the Midlands. However, we all went to the wedding, of course, Dennis Layzell was best man. I think Charlie Powell was there; Mrs. Cox was there, but I can’t remember whether Mr. Cox was. Mr. Cox was our Sunday School superintendent all the time we lived there, and I think Mr. Downer was the organist. My brother and his wife remained friendly with Mr. & Mrs. Cox for many years, even when they moved to Horsham.  My Sunday School teachers were Dorothy Pickett (who married my brother), Hilda Seeking and Kate Cole – I think she had a brother, Michael.

As a family, we spent many happy hours in and around the church. I was in the Brownie pack which met in the back room, and sometimes we would practice our camping skills in the area at the back. My sister Brenda was in the Guides. I eventually flew up into the Guides. Colin and Dorothy were well into the Youth Club, which if I remember rightly, was held after the evening service on Sundays. Once a month we (the Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts) had a parade. This started at the Memorial and we marched along the road into the Church. There was always a Leader bearing the flag – it was quite an honour to be the flag bearer! On those Sundays as far as I can recall, we just went into the Sunday School at the rear. There were several classes, small chairs were available for the younger ones.

I was a Missionary Collector, and had a box at home. At the end of the year I got a medal, and the subsequent years I was presented with a bar to place across the ribbon. Also, Sunday School prizes were given out each year.

As a family, I think we all enjoyed living in Benfleet. It was quite a sleepy place then, very little traffic around, and I felt that we seemed to know a lot of people – especially down the station end of the village.

My father got promotion in 1948 and we left during our Christmas holidays to start a new life in the Midlands in 1949. No other place that we have lived has had quite the same effect on me – I suppose these were my formative years. We felt that the industrial midlands were so very different from Benfleet, but eventually got used to it.

Showing the 'down' platform and fenced off garden
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Looking towards footbridge
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Taken From the footbridge showing configuration of the old road
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
The 'up' platform
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
The Methodist Sunday School Group1945/46 Colin Dennis is third from left in the front row
George Faux
The newly completed underpass
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Benfleet Station showing the Station Master's House
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Boats drawn up on the Hard
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Postcard shows beehives and allotments between the Creek and the Railway Line
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
People queuing for the ferry to Canvey Island
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
A flood Tide in Church Creek
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Benfleet Community Archive, Peter Gillard Collection
Benfleet Community Archive, Gilbert Wines
The WW2 landing craft, clubhouse to The Benfleet Swimming Club
Benfleet Community Archive, Peter Gillard Collection
The Close, Jean's 'alleyway', looking towards the Church
Benfleet Community Archive, Tom Scott
The Close, in summertime
Benfleet Community Archive
Benfleet Community Archive, Tom Scott
Benfleet Community Archive, Tom Scott
The Meadow, corner of School Lane, now part of the car park
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Looking down Station Road
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
The Gate to the Downs
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive
Peter Gillard Collection, Benfleet Community Archive

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