This memoir was written in 1994, and came to light recently, in a box of papers donated to the Benfleet Community Archive by the late Norman Chisman’s family.
My early recollections are very vague. I was born on the 8th March 1924, and remember attending the Sunday School at the Methodist Chapel in the Endway (now Essex Way) on the corner of School Lane. My mother (Ada) told me that as a baby I was left on the steps in my pram whilst she attended the services. I slept through the sermons!
I can just recall with the aid of an old photograph, a birthday party in the garden ‘Francisian’. Grosvenor Road, with chairs and tables on loan from the church.
At first, I gather, we had a very small bungalow near the old village, until a house was built in Grosvenor Road, to be named ‘Francisian’. It was built by the firm of Iverson & Morgan. I recall that later I was to be given a ride on the pillion of Mr. Iverson’s motor bike, a very special treat.
While at ‘Francisian’ my parents provided accommodation for a young teacher, in what was a relatively large house. Alice Thomas, a young lady from Wales, was the first to stay with us whilst teaching the infants at Benfleet National School in School Lane, a car park now. Consequently I had no qualms at being taken to school for the first time at the age of four or five. When that school closed in 1931, I moved to the school in London Road [Ed. now, the High Road] at the other end of the village, travelling at first on foot, progressing to a scooter and then a bike. My education continued there until the age of eleven years. Though quite happy at school, I wasn’t studious. I enjoyed the woodworking classes in a prefabricated building in the playground, and remember one year when the school put on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, I was the beast, of course! Rose Clark, whose father owned the fish shop, was ‘beauty’, much to my delight. In the following school photograph Rose is 4th from the left, back row. I am second from the right in the next row.
My mother would get me to have a meal at this shop once a week, this was a 4d piece and 2d of chips or 6d and 3 pennyworth, I can’t be sure now, in newspaper with plenty of vinegar! Sweets were usually had from a small shop nearly opposite the school where there was a goodly array of farthing items available, tiger nuts and liquorice stick were among my favourites.
When St. Mary’s Road became available for development, father, (Arthur), being a Thames Waterman Pilot, decided it would suit him well to be able to watch for his ships to arrive into the Thames from the house, so we moved on 17th January 1934 from ‘Francisian’ just a few yards further up the road into ‘Laurentia’, the centre of three similar detatched properties adjacent to the pathway to the Downs. The view across Canvey Island was great, and Dad would sit in the conservatory with his binoculars, patiently waiting for a sight of his ship, then off by train to Stepney Station. The easy access to the Downs suited a young boy well. One drawback with the site became apparent one morning when we discovered that the last few yards at the bottom of the garden had subsided some three feet.
What of life in Benfleet during the 1930s? The postcards and photographs I have, and Norman Chisman’s book ‘Benfleet Bygones’ published in 1991 help to bring many aspects to mind. The Endway, now Essex Way, stopped at Brown’s fields where there was a very good toboggan hill during the winter snows, and I seem to remember some plums in an orchard up that way! Starting at The Anchor public house adjoining and travelling east, we came to the Fire Station on the left, with the Methodist Church almost opposite. When the fire engine was required, a maroon rocket was sent up from the Anchor yard, calling the volunteer brigade into action. During the summer holidays it also brought out us boys in a rush to see where the action was, we could generally keep up with the fire engine on our bikes. The call was frequently to a fire on the Downs caused by sparks from a passing train, in which case it was all hands to work, with leafy branches beating out the flames; great fun, but beware of angry adders!
Continuing along Endway, we came to Anchor Field, the site of an annual Fair. My mother wasn’t keen on that so my visits were somewhat curtailed. The fairs always seemed to be held in fine weather, but then I can recollect few occasions in which bad weather was involved.
There was only one other property on that side of the road, a small weather-boarded cottage, ‘Sleepy Hollow Cottage’. Further along on the other side of the road there were a mixture of old cottages. Beyond Grosvenor Road, there were weather-boarded houses, some of which still remain. One, on the corner of Highcliff Road, was the home of ‘Shoey’ Sheppard, whose little cobblers shop was down near the Creek; Daisy Blackmore, his daughter, was a friend of the family, and continued to live there all her life. She died in May of this year, 1994.
My parents never indulged in holidays as a family, but once the parents of my friend, Burgo Cock, took me with them to Ventnor, Isle of Wight.
My summers were spent mainly on Benfleet Creek, a quiet spot on the way to Leigh where I had a home made canoe tied up. A day spent swimming, mud sliding or canoeing was all I asked for. I recall taking a bottle of water, sausages and bread and a small frying pan to sustain me for the day, nothing fancy like crisps or fizz! To reach this spot entailed a walk through the spinney at the end of St. Marys Road, across a couple of fields, cross the railway – still steam then, of course – another field then the sea wall and our patch. My uncle, Jimmy Thurgood, the husband of my mother’s elder sister, was bridgeman on the new Canvey Island bridge, and would report that “Laurie was seen today drifting by in his canoe reading a comic”. Which reminds me that I had the two bladed paddle made for me at the Dauntless Boatyard, just on the Island opposite the bridge house. Of course, prior to the bridge we crossed by stepping stones or ferry.
Other snippets which come to mind: Being given the money to go and buy, on a Saturday, three whipped cream walnuts from the shop by the War Memorial. Playing with our clockwork train sets in the attic room over Tuffield’s shop, or with Maurice Searson in the living room behind the shoe shop in the High Road. Attending the opening of the new Methodist Church in the High Road opposite Vicarage Hill on 8th April 1931. In the photograph with bunting, I am to be seen along with Burgo Cock and Peter Cox just in front of the car. The second photograph, in front of the church doors, shows Mr. Arthur Cox opening the door with the Revd. Gerald Lansley facing toward him. It was in this church that I was received into membership of the Methodist Church by the Revd. E. Ralph Bates on 22nd May 1938.
There was an occasion when we visited St. Marys Vicarage at the top of Vicarage Hill, and purchased two Horse Chestnut saplings from a number the Vicar had grown in his garden, one was planted in front of ‘Laurentia’, the other in the garden of ‘Ronoby’ in Elmshurst Avenue, where Jimmy and Gertie Thurgood lived for many years, neither have been permitted to reach great maturity.
The Remembrance Services at the Memorial was a true and respected act of remembrance. In those days when a funeral cortege passed by, one stopped and removed ones hat in respect!
Having failed my eleven plus exam and therefore a place at Southend High School, I was packed off to Clark’s College in Southend, situated in Victoria Road by the tram depot. As I recollect the trams ran in on one side and out of the other, long gone I expect.
My memories of those school days are largely the cricket in Prittlewell Park and swimming in Westcliff Baths. I was in my element there and frequently went again after school for a swim before going home with a bottle of Tizer and a large ginger biscuit to sustain me. To get to school I travelled on the L.M.S. steam train with a season ticket. I was refused this ticket once when I asked for one to Southend-on-Mud. The walk to Benfleet station was across the field at the end of St. Marys Road, crossing School Lane by the entrance to the Downs, then down a gravel lane (Station Road) arriving at the station.
At Southend, it was but a short run through some side roads, names not known now, passing a very convenient sweet shop at one point; they had a machine outside that dispensed two Woodbines and two matches for 2d, very handy for my illicit smoking! I threw the dreadful habit in the 1980s. Quite often I would travel home during the dinner break, the trains ran on time and were reliable, it could be managed providing I got a move on. On other occasions, I would go to Garons at Victoria Circus for a school-boys lunch, usually tomato soup and fish and chips.
While at Clark’s, I palled up with the Zanchi boys – Peter and Paul. I am sure it was Paul and I who would walk out by the Pier when the tide was out looking for coins the sand artist had missed, then one day we found that by singing ‘dittys’ we were thrown pennies, there was no stopping us then. I remember we made 1/6d each one day, a princely sum in those days. We must have looked a couple of urchins to the holiday makers walking the Pier. The Zanchis had a sausage and mash etc. shop on Pier Hill at the time.
Apart from the occasional cold, treated with a home made concoction of turnip and sugar syrup! the only illness I had was Whooping Cough, and after a few days in bed, I was carted off to the end of Southend Pier for the day. No more whooping Cough when we came back powerful stuff that Southend air.
The summer holiday of 1938 couldn’t come fast enough for me. I left school. I was fourteen and ready for work, so I thought. Father was a Thames Waterman Pilot, engaged with the movement of ships in the river and docks, mainly in and around the West India and Millwall Group. I was destined to follow suit, and did so until 1989. Whilst my father had commuted to and from work by train, it was agreed that we should move nearer for convenience and in August of 1938 we left Benfleet for Wanstead, and a new chapter of my life began.