A Brief History of Canvey Island
Canvey Island lies off the South East coast of Essex in the Thames Estuary. It is a unique place with an interesting and diverse history much of which can be attributed to its relationship with the changing water levels of the River Thames and the fact that the whole of the Island is below sea level.
Archaeological evidence tells us that the Island was inhabited as early as the late Iron Age, about 2,000 years ago, but that for most of its recorded history, Canvey Island was offshore pasture, largely given over to sheep. It was also a site for salt harvesting, cultivation of shellfish and fishing and cereal production from Roman to mediaeval times with market opportunities for surplus produce in places such as Chelmsford in Roman times and of course, London.
The Dutch Influence
The Island became home to around 200 Dutch immigrants in the early 17th century, who it is reported ‘sought refuge from the Duke of Alba, the butcher of Flanders’. Two tiny Dutch cottages are preserved on the Island from this period of the Island’s history one is still inhabited at ‘Canvey Village’ the other is preserved as a museum. The Island’s links with the Dutch were strengthened further following an agreement in 1623 between a local landowner and a Dutch water engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to maintain the sea walls in exchange for a third of his land. Dutch workers also received payment in land.
Twentieth Century Canvey
At the start of the 20th century, the population of Canvey numbered about 300 people. At about that time, Canvey was heavily promoted as a holiday destination, primarily for Londoner’s, to escape the smog of the big city. A speculative developer, Frederick Hester, had grand plans for the Island. He developed the ‘Winter Gardens’ which he predicted would be no less than 6 miles of glass houses containing exotic plants, fishponds and fountains. He auctioned plots of land on the Island on which permanent or holiday homes were developed. He was responsible for naming many of the streets which are still in existence today, giving them Dutch names. Unfortunately, Hester’s plans were curtailed by a higher than usual spring tide in 1904 which caused partial flooding, a fact that did not impress some potential investors. His plans for a pier and a tramway, which were by that time well underway, floundered and ultimately Hester had to sell up.
By the end of the First World War the population had reached 1,795 and the people still kept coming. A new bus service started up in 1919 and was part of the reason the plots began to sell again. Crossing the creek posed a problem for animals and large vehicles, however, and cows and horses were sometimes swept away and vehicles abandoned to the incoming tide. In 1931, the Colvin Bridge which crossed from Canvey to South Benfleet was built. Funded by Canvey Urban District Council and the Ministry of Transport, it cost £20,000 to complete. This was demolished in 1973 and a replacement bridge which is still used today was built alongside. A second road on to the Island was opened in 1972, the A130, which connects the Island at Waterside Farm to Sadlers Farm roundabout and the A13 and includes a bridge across East Haven Creek. Estimated costs for the works were nearing £3 million.
Since the 1930’s, the west side of the Island at Hole Haven has been developed for use as oil refineries, and oil and gas storage which has met with a great deal of public opposition. In more recent times, some of the land previously used for this purpose has been ‘reclaimed’ and is currently being developed as a nature reserve.
Thames Gateway and the regeneration of Canvey Island
The population of the Island has grown significantly since the turn of the Century to a little over 40,000 (almost 16,000 homes). The Island is now largely urbanised and residents value highly the remaining green spaces on the Island.
In recent times, Canvey has been earmarked for significant regeneration within the proposals for Thames Gateway and many improvements in local amenities, facilities and infrastructure are expected as a result of this. The first phase of a seafront regeneration programme was delivered in the spring of 2008.
Proposals for future housing development on the Island, in line with Government guidelines, have been released via the Castle Point Borough Council’s Local Development Framework documents and these have increased some people’s resolve to campaign for a third road access for Canvey.
The Island lies below sea level and its relationship with the surrounding sea, whilst rich in bounties, has also brought its share of tragedy. The devastating floods of 1953 saw 58 people on the Island lose their lives. The whole Island was evacuated. A memorial to the people who lost their lives that day can be found in Canvey Library. Since then significant investment has been put into raising the height of Canvey’s 14 miles of sea walls both immediately after the floods and again in 1975 when the wall was raised by a further two metres.