Canvey Island is an island in the Thames Estuary and although only approximately five miles by three miles, it has a population of over 50,000. The whole of the island is below sea level, which has obviously been a major influence on its history.
It was inhabited 2,000 years ago and from Roman to medieval times, it was mainly used for sheep pasture, cereal production and the cultivation of shell fish. In the early 17th century, Dutch immigrants settled here and two Dutch cottages remain. One is at ‘Canvey Village’ and the other is preserved as a museum. In 1623 a local landowner gave land to Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch water engineer, in return for him maintaining the sea walls. In the early 1900s, with a population of only 300, Canvey was promoted as a holiday destination for Londoners eager to escape the smog and pollution. A speculative developer, Frederick Hester, auctioned plots of land on the island for permanent or holiday homes to be built. Unfortunately, in 1904, an unusually high spring tide caused flooding which deterred investors. Hester’s venture failed and he had to sell up.
At the end of the First World War, the population had grown to over 1,700. Canvey Island remained mainly inaccessible to large vehicles until 1931, when the Colvin Bridge from Canvey to South Benfleet was built. In 1973, it was replaced by the one in use today. In 1972, a second road was built onto the Island, which included a bridge across East Haven Creek.
The west side of Canvey Island is heavily industrialised with oil refineries and oil and gas storage tanks.
Londoners found Canvey to be attractive and on some bank holidays, in excess of 100,000 people visited. To cater for the richer visitor, a local businessman, Mr. Beaumont, opened a luxury art deco hotel, Hotel Monico, in April 1938 on Shell Beach. This had twenty five bedrooms with sun balconies, a roof garden and claimed to be the finest in Essex. Mr. Beaumont also built the adjoining Casino, which had the largest ballroom in Essex, but has now been demolished. The Hotel Monico is no longer a hotel, but remains as a pub and nightclub.
In 1953, on the night of 31st January, severe flooding resulted in the tragic loss of fifty eight people, many of whom were holidaymakers from East London. The whole Island was evacuated and later, the height of the fourteen mile sea wall was raised and in 1975, it was raised another two metres. The raised concrete sea wall now protects seventy five percent of the perimeter of Canvey Island. The storm which hit Canvey Island, also resulted in flooding along the east coast of England, causing over three hundred deaths. In 2003, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood, a memorial garden was opened in Labworth Park. Labworth Memorial Gardens and Bumblebee Park are now both maintained by Canvey Island Town Council. The Bumblebee Sculpture is symbolic of the rare carder bee, which lives on Canvey Island.
Interest in Canvey was created by the screening of Julien Temple’s film documentary, “Oil City Confidential”, which tells the story of the early childhood on Canvey in the 1950s and 1960s, of members of the legendary rock band, Dr Feelgood. It was screened at the Movie Starr Cinema, Eastern Esplanade, Canvey Island, on 2nd February 2010. The film includes footage of the 1953 floods. Doctor Feelgood performed for the very first time at “Club Astairs”, now above Parkins Palladium on Canvey Island’s Eastern Esplanade.
The sea walls have now been brightened up by painting murals on them. With help from funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund, professional and local community artists have painted subjects which are of importance to Canvey residents. On Concord Beach, the history of Canvey, including the 1953 flood tragedy and the subsequent building of the sea wall, are vividly depicted. Other sections show sea birds likely to be seen around Canvey. The scheme is designed to create pride in the community and create interest from families, schools and businesses.