The Benfleet Swimming Club
History of the club
After the Second World War a surplus American Landing craft was purchased complete with its marine engine for £50.00 by Alfred and Lillian Raffin. It was taken to Benfleet Creek and beached against the seawall at a point just past the London direction platform of Benfleet raiway station,the widest point of the creek. The marine engine was sold for £50.00,so the purchase price of the craft had been recovered. The bilges were filled with large boulders to prevent the craft from floating. However,at the very highest tides of the year it would just float, but mooring cables held it in place. The whole of the structure was painted silver with the letters “BSC” emblazoned on the Eastern end of the hull.
Lillian Raffin – Club Founder
Lillian Raffin, always known as “Raff”, was a keen swimmer and had an ambition of starting a swimming club in the tidal creek. Initially a substantial wooden Ladies changing room was built at the East end of the craft by a carpenter employed by Alfred, a local builder and one half of the Raffin/Bonsor partnership. During the 1920’s they built the shops known locally as the “Parade”.
The Club House
See pictures of some of the members and the club house.
The Ladies changing area took up about one third of the deck. A second changing room was built at the other end of the deck and became the Men’s changing area. The substance of the club was complete consisting of the two changing areas with an open deck in the middle. A wooden flag pole was slotted into a hole through the deck and the club flag was hoisted when members were present. To access the club fromthe seawall a cut was made through the metal-plated side of the craft allowing entry via a wooden companion way. For security the land side of the deck was filled inwith a wooden fence and gate-like construction. The seaward was provided with a set of wide wooden steps with fitted metal handrails. This took members over the metal craft side and down into the water or creek floor if the tide was low. A line of metal plates joined together with wire ran down to the deepest part of the creek. It provided a firm footing and kept our feet mud free after a swim. I imagine all of this enabling work was completed by Alfred Raffin’s staff.
Two wooden pontoon’s were added one either side of the steps. They were filled with rocks so did not float. The left hand one had a tubular structure to facilitate a springboard for diving. The board could be rolled out and clamped onto the frame enabling the divers to enter the water at the deepest part of the creek.
How The Club was Used
The club flourished during a period spanning the late 1940’s to 1966, about twenty years.People of all ages became members. A small group of elderly ladies, including “Raff”, swam most days of the week from early April to the beginning of November, tides permitting. Weekends were the busiest time providing for those who worked or were at school. At school holiday periods,in particular the Summer break, the Club became a second home to many younger members. Each member had their swim recorded in the log book, some achieved more than a hundred swims in during a year. The last swim of the year was in early November when a hardy group would take to the water. As the water temperature was lower than the air temperature our wet bodies actually felt warm in the autumn air.
The “Long Swim”
Two swimming events took place each year. “The Long Swim” was about a third of a mile and was from the Calvin Bridge, the bridge between Benfleet and Canvey Island. Going with the incoming tide it was a relatively leisurely affair. The other was a mile race, more for the younger membership.This required swimming to and thro across the water to a measured hundred yards point on the Canvey side of the creek. It was quite a tough event given the pull of the tide as one crossed again and again. A “Mile Freestyle” Cup was presented to the Club in 1959 for this event by the Men’s Captain, Walter Hodges. The Cup is still in my possession as the last winner of the event in 1962. A Silver medal was given for second place.
Club a Haven for Children
The Club was a haven for children through the 1950’s and much of the 1960’s. We kept fit and healthy and always had a place to go even if the tide was out. We maintained and painted the landing craft regularly ,all part of the pleasure and pride in the club.
A typical weekend,with a midday high tide, started for we kids before the first trickle of incoming tide had begun. We would arrive on our bikes, which we deposited down the edge of the seawall. We carried food and drink to sustain ourselves through the day. Any maintainance such as re-securing the metal plates, painting, woodwork, raft repair etc. was taken at low tide. A raft had been built by members, as the tide rose it would be towed and pushed across the water to the middle of the creek and anchored. It acted as a swimming and diving platform. Of course we could just go down to the creek floor and wade along the inches deep water to see what we could find. No metal detectors in those days. However it was possible to find metal objects including the occasional coin just by raking around.There was always an assortment of broken and discarded white smokers clay pipes. The rest of the creek bottom was a firm mud and sand mixture,so much fun can be had with mud. I have a couple of photographs showing me covered head to foot in it.
Connection with Benfleet Yacht Club
Some Club Members were also members of the Benfleet Yacht Club and had access to a dinghy. Until 1960 the Yacht Club was situated just east of the entrance to Church Creek, on the area previosly used as a wharf by Leigh Building Supplies. On an early morning ebb tide it is possible to drift all the way down the creek passing Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell to Westcliff Ray, a sand and mud area which is exposed by the low tide. On occcasions we made this journey spending all day out there swimming and playing, of course we had our food and drink to sustain us. We would be joined by people who had walked from the Westcliff shore out to the Ray. As the tide began to rise again thet would depart to the land and we, the last to leave, would catch the tide back to South Benfleet.
Raff and Wally Hodges
Each Club Member was sent a Christmas card jointly by Raff and Wally Hodges (Men’s Captain). Wally was a keen photographer and took most of the Club photographs, they provide a photographic glimpse into Club life. In September 1966 Raff died, she had been the inspiration for the Benfleet Swimming Club, it was her club. She enjoyed swimming all her life and by forming the club encouraged many others to join in the pursuit. She was a people person and loved to be surrounded by folk of all ages. We were always welcomed at her bungalow in Vicarage Hill, with its wrought iron section on the wall that read “Raffs”, sadly it has recently been demolished. We had parties and meetings there. In the winter time I would visit her on a Sunday afternoon with Ros. Harris. We always went halves on the cost of a box of Terrys All Gold chocolates, Raff’s favourite. In turn Raff cooked a batch of scones. We would talk and watch television all afternoon, then walk home.
After Raff’s death the landing craft was given to the Sea Scouts who by now had a wooden building on the side of the creek just behind the Swimming Club. It was the end of an era, for so long it had been a place to swim in the salty water of Benfleet Creek, meet friends of all ages, have fun and enjoy life. They were simple pleasures and happy times.
Benfleet Swimming Club Members
If I have missed anyone out or misspelt names I apologise, I am compiling the list from memory for the period that I was a Club Member, 1958 to1966.
“Raff” Lilian Raffin, Ladies Captain, Club founder
“Wally” Walter Hodges, Men’s Captain
“Andy” Andrew Brookes
Mrs. Carter & Daughter & dogs! Mrs. Carter had a Golden Labrador bitch, Mrs. Carter’s married daughter had one of its offspring, who loved to jump into the water from the diving board as we kids dived in.
“Pat” Patricia Cox
“Ros” Rosalind Harris
Mr. & Mrs. Harris
David & Diana Huggins
Trevor Watts & older brother
Anthony Wilkins & younger sister
Terry & Anthony Wilson
Mr. & Mrs. Wilson
Miss Hilda Yetton & sister