Canvey Island

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Canvey Island


Canvey 060309 1.jpg
Aerial view from the south east of Canvey Island
Grid reference: TQ789829
Area: 7.12 square miles
Population: 37,479
Website: Parish council

Canvey Island is a reclaimed island in the Thames Estuary, in Essex. It is separated from mainland Essex by a network of creeks. Lying only just above sea level it is prone to flooding at exceptional tides, but has nevertheless been inhabited since the Roman invasion of Britain. The island is heavily inhabited, with a population of over 37,000 in 2001.

Canvey is mainly noted for the petrochemical industry based here. The island was the site of the first delivery in the world of liquefied natural gas by container ship, and later became the subject of an influential assessment on the risks to a population living within the vicinity of petrochemical shipping and storage facilities.

The island was mainly agricultural land until the 20th century when it became the fastest growing seaside resort in Britain between 1911 and 1951. The North Sea flood of 1953 devastated the island costing the lives of 58 islanders, and led to the temporary evacuation of the 13,000 residents.[1] Canvey is consequently protected by modern sea defences comprising 15 miles of concrete sea walls.[2]


Canvey Island from the east; showing the flood barrier and bridge at Benfleet Creek.

Canvey Island lies off the south coast of Essex 30 miles east of London, and 15 miles west of Southend-on-Sea. The island is separated from the mainland to the north and west by Benfleet, East Haven and Vange creeks, and faces the Thames Estuary to the east and south. Along with neighbouring Two Tree Island, Lower Horse, and Upper Horse, Canvey is an alluvial island formed from the silt in the River Thames and material entering the estuary on the tides of the North Sea from the coast of Norfolk.[3][4]

An unsuccessful search for coal beneath the island in 1953 revealed that the alluvium rests upon layers of London Clay, Lower London Tertiaries, Chalk, Lower Greensand and Gault Clay, with the basement rocks at a depth of 1,300 feet consisting of hard Old Red Sandstone of Devonian age.[3][5]

The island is extremely flat, lying 10 feet below the mean high water level and consequently is at risk for flooding. Before reclamation, the surrounding area contained a number of islands separated by tidal creeks.[6] Flood defences have been constructed since the Middle Ages, and the first sea wall to completely surround the land was built as part of the island's reclamation in 1622.[7]

The island suffered extensive flooding in 1731, 1736, 1791, 1881, 1897, and substantial loss of life in the North Sea Flood of 1953.[8] As of 2008, the flood defences consisted of a concrete seawall, flood sirens and an internal surface storm water drainage system. The seawall was completed in 1982 and is 15 miles long and surrounds 75% of the island's perimeter terminating with flood barriers spanning Benfleet Creek to the north and East Haven Creek in the west. The drainage system consists of sewers, culverts, natural and artificial dykes and lakes which feed seven pumping stations and gravity sluices that discharge the water into the Thames and creeks. Four of the discharge sites are "high flow" stations capable of discharging 1,056 pints of water a second at any tide level. The levels within the system are managed by a further five "Low flow" pumping stations.[2] The Environment Agency's Thames Estuary 2100 flood defence plan includes Canvey Island as one site for alleviating the flood risks to London and the Thames estuary area. It is proposed that the western side of Canvey be developed as a site which is either temporarily flooded at times of risk, or is transformed into a permanent wetland.[9][10]

The disused Occidental jetty, and reed beds of Canvey Wick

Developments in the 20th century have produced a marked contrast between the environments in the east and west of the island. The eastern half of the island is allocated to residential areas, the main public amenities, and a small holiday camp and seafront, while the western half of the island is mainly farmland, marshes, and industrial areas. The marshes in the west include the 74 acres known as West Canvey marshes acquired by the RSPB in 2007,[11] and the Canvey Wick nature reserve. "Canvey Wick" is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest at the site of the abandoned and incomplete oil refinery. Because the foundations of the 247 acres site were prepared in the 1970s by laying thousands of tons of silt dredged from the Thames; the abandoned and undisturbed area has flourished as a haven for around 1,300 species of wildlife, many of which are endangered or were thought to be extinct; including the shrill carder bee, the emerald damselfly and the weevil hunting wasp. It has been said that the site may exist with one of the highest levels of biodiversity in western Europe.[12][13] Other areas of natural interest include the eight hectares of Canvey Lake Local Nature Reserve owned by Castle Point Borough Council. The lake existed as a means to facilitate the salt-making process during the Roman settlement of the island, and is also thought to have functioned as an oyster bed.[14]

At the eastern point of the island is the 36-acre Canvey Heights Country Park which was reclaimed from the Newlands landfill site that operated there between 1954-89. The park is the highest land elevation on the island and subsequently provides wide views across the creeks, marshes and along the Thames. The environment supports an array of wildfowl such as skylarks, dark-bellied brent geese, and grey plover.[15]


Counus Island

In 1607 the antiquarian William Camden wrote in his work "Brittania" (a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland) that Canvey Island (which he called Island Convennon) was documented in the 2nd century by the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy.[16] In his work Geographia, Ptolemy mentions a headland in the mouth of the Thames to the east of the Trinovantes region called Counus Island. However, the difficulties faced in determining the location of land areas in Ptolemy's ancient work have led modern researchers to question the correlation between Ptolemy's island and contemporary Canvey. It is argued that the Counus Island would have existed much further out to sea (or may even be the Isle of Sheppey[17]), and that the similarity between the names is mere coincidence. Without any suitable island matching Ptolemy's Counus Island, it is also thought that the documented island has been lost or reduced to an insignificant sandbank by subsidence and the constant effects of the sea since Ptolemy's time.[18][19]

John Norden's map of 1594, with the Canvey group of islands

Roman period

Fragments of early marked pottery uncovered from Canvey Point

Canvey has been long inhabited: excavations have unearthed a collection of early artefacts including axes from the Neolithic era,[19] a bracelet from the Bronze Age,[20] and Iron Age pottery.[19] However, the earliest firm evidence of permanent settlement is Roman.

The remains of Roman structures and objects suggests a settlement of Canvey between 50–250 AD.[18][19] The remains point to a community existing with a farmstead, a garrison, a burial ground, and the operation of a large salt-making industry (revealed by the existence of several red hills).[19][21] The discovery of a Roman road found to terminate 100 yards across the creek in neighbouring Benfleet suggests a means may have existed to facilitate the distribution of salt to Chelmsford and Colchester.[19] The recovery of rich items of pottery and glassware of a variety only matched elsewhere by excavations of port facilities suggests the Romans may also have exploited Canvey's location in the Thames for shipping.[19][22]

Anglo-Saxon and Mediæval Canvey

The Saxons introduced sheep, and sheep-farming would dominate the island's industry until the 20th century. The island gained its name from these ancestral English: Caninga ege, meaning "Island of Cana's Folk".[19] The island appears in manorial documents of the later Middle Ages under a variety of names and spellings; Caneveye in 1254, or Canefe, Kaneweye, Kaneveye, and Koneveye.

The Normans changed little. Canvey recorded in the Domesday Book was a land of sheep farming pasture under the control of nine villages and parishes situated in a belt across south inland and coastal Essex.[23] Apart from the meat and wool produced from the sheep, the milk from the ewes was used for cheese-making.[20] The abundance in later centuries would see the cheeses become a commodity taken for sale at the London markets, and at one stage exported by Calais to Europe.[19]

By the 12th century, Essex and subsequently Canvey were in the possession of Henry de Essex who inherited the land from his grandfather, Swein, son of Robert fitz Wymarch.[24] During the reign of Henry II (1154–1189) the land was confiscated from de Essex and redistributed among the King's favoured nobles.[24]

14th to 17th centuries

One of two 17th century octagonal Dutch cottages

During Edward II's]] reign (1307–1327) the land was held by John de Apeton[20] and the first attempts were made at managing the effects of the sea with rudimentary defences,[19][20] but periodical flooding continued to blight the small population of mostly shepherds and their fat-tailed variety of sheep for a further 300 years. William Camden wrote of the island in 1607 that it was so low that it was often quite flooded, except the hills, upon which the sheep have a place of safe refuge.[16] The uniform flatness of Canvey suggests that these hills are likely to be the red hills of the Roman salt making industry, or the early makeshift sea defences constructed by some of the landowners around their farms.

A timber channel, and chalk and ragstone remains of the sea wall of1622

In 1622, Sir Henry Appleton (a descendant of John de Apeton), and Canvey's other landowners instigated a project to reclaim the land and wall the island from the Thames. The scheme was managed by an acquaintance of Appleton's - Joas Croppenburg, a Dutch Haberdasher of Cheapside in London. An agreement was reached in 1623 which stipulated that in return for inning and recovering the island, the landowners would grant a third of the land as payment for the work.[20] A relation of Croppenburg's; the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden present in England at the time of the project on a commission to drain the Great Fen and involved in repairing the seawall at Dagenham has led to speculation that Vermuyden oversaw the project, but proof appears to be vague,[19] nevertheless the work was completed by around 300 Dutchmen skilled in the construction of dykes and other sea defences. The engineers successfully reclaimed 3,600 acres[19] by walling the island with local chalk, limestone and the heavy clay of the marshes, with the main length along the Thames faced with Kentish ragstone.[18][19] A broad drainage ditch was dug inland off the area facing the river while smaller inlets were filled in. Excess water would have collected in the broad ditch and then been discharged into the river by the means of seven sluices (later known as Commissioners Dykes).[18] The completion of the work saw a considerable number of the Dutch engineers take land as payment for their work, and consequently settle on the island.[24] Approximately one-third of Canvey's streets have names of Dutch origin.

Chapman Lighthouse

On the coast of Canvey Island stood the Chapman Lighthouse, briefly described in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness.[25] In 1851 a hexagonal lighthouse was constructed by the engineer James Walker, a consultant lighthouse engineer at Trinity House at the time.[26] This all-iron lighthouse replaced a |lightship which had been moored in the area for the preceding four years. The lighthouse was demolished in 1957 due to its poor condition.


During the Victorian era Canvey was a very modish place to visit and many thought its air to have healing properties. Canvey Island benefited from this and thousands of people flocked to it especially from places like London. A seafront was subsequently developed in the 1930s. Amusements, a cinema, the pioneering Labworth Café, and nightclubs such as the Goldmine and Monico were built. Canvey Island remained a popular holiday and weekend destination until the advent of the cheap foreign package holiday became popular in the 1970s. A synthetic Ice Rink opened in 2012 at Leisure Island Fun Park.

Second World War

During the Second World War the island was a part of the GHQ Line, a line of concrete pillboxes constructed as a part of the British anti-invasion preparations of defence against the expected German invasion. Some of the old pillboxes are still in place. Also, concrete barges were used extensively just off the south coast of the island, partly to act as a sea-barrier and also as a mounting point for anti-aircraft guns; one of which was beached on the east end of the island and remained for many years as a point of interest for visitors and a play area for many generations of the island's children. It has since been demolished by the Island yacht club as it was considered 'a risk to health and safety'.

Along with the Coalhouse Fort at nearby East Tilbury, Thorney bay on the southern coast of the island was the site of a degaussing station built to monitor the effectiveness of the degaussing equipment functioning on board the allied ships passing along the Thames. The structure is the last intact degaussing station on the north side of the river, and was still operating in 1974. Known as the Canvey loop, the building was occupied by the Women's Royal Naval Service and used for monitoring merchant ships.[27][28]

Flood of 1953

The flooded sea front, amusements and residential areas in 1953

On 31 January 1953, a great flood tide swept down the North Sea, a high tide swollen by storm winds, and as the water funnelled into the Thames Estuary Flood it hit the island during the night. Much of the island was inundated and families fled to their attics. It caused the deaths of 58 people. Many of the victims were in the holiday bungalows of the eastern Newlands estate and perished as the water reached ceiling level.

The small village area of the island is approximately two feet above sea level and consequently escaped the effects of the flood. This included the local Red Cow pub which was later renamed the King Canute in reference to the legend of the 11th century King of the Danes and the English commanding the tide to halt with the sea lapping at his feet.

After the flood of 1953, a new seawall was built, which was then replaced with a significantly larger construction in the 1980s.

Petrochemical industry

The petrochemical shipping and storage facilities at Hole Haven

The southern area of the Canvey Island West ward at Hole Haven has predominantly existed as petrochemical site since the first construction of an oil terminal there in 1936.[29] In 1959, as part of a pioneering Anglo-American project designed to asses the viability of transporting liquefied natural gas overseas, a gas terminal with two one thousand ton capacity storage tanks was constructed at the site alongside the oil terminal. The gas terminal built by the British Gas Council was designed to store and distribute imported gas to the whole of Britain by way of the facilities at Thames Haven and the local refinery at Shellhaven in Coryton. The first delivery of 2020 tons arrived on 20 February 1959 from Lake Charles, Louisiana by a specially modified liberty ship Normarti renamed The Methane Pioneer. The success of seven further deliveries over the following 14 months[30] established the international industry for transporting liquefied natural gas by sea,[31] but the discovery of oil and gas in North Sea limited further British development.

Disused Occidental storage tanks

Planning permission was granted in the following years for Occidental Petroleum and the Italian oil company, United Refineries Ltd to develop a site further west for the construction of an oil refinery, but a report in 1975 by the Health and safety executive concluded that the residents of the island faced an unacceptable risk, which led to the permission being revoked. The issue of risk was again highlighted in an attack by the Irish Republican Army in January 1979 on a storage tank at the island's Texaco oil terminal. A bomb was detonated at a tank containing aviation fuel, but failed to ignite and the fuel escaping into a safety moat.[32][33] The Occidental site was abandoned in 1975 leaving a half-built oil refinery, storage tanks, and an unused mile long jetty which cost around £10 million of the approximate total of £60 million spent on the project.[34] However, in the following years the disused and undisturbed site flourished as a haven for wildlife, and in 2003, the final storage tanks were removed in a clean-up operation, and the site was renamed as Canvey Wick and opened as a nature reserve.

In September 1997, the celebrity steeplejack Fred Dibnah was hired by Safeway supermarkets to demolish the unused 450-foot concrete chimney that was part of the abandoned oil refinery. Safeways had planned for the 2,500-ton chimney to be demolished on 18 September in front of a large crowd of invited guests. This would have been the first time Fred Dibnah's demolition technique of pit props and fire (without explosives) had been attempted on a concrete chimney and it was also the tallest chimney he had ever attempted to fell. However the chimney unexpectedly collapsed the previous day whilst Fred and his team were making the final preparations for the controlled demolition, fortunately without injury. The incident is described in detail in various biographies and by Fred himself in his public speaking events afterwards. Fred Dibnah later presented Safeway head office staff with brass paper weights (made from material salvaged from the chimney) stamped "The Great Canvey Island Chimney Disaster 1997".[35]

Pub rock

Canvey Island was an influential destination in the 1970s for artists of Pub rock genre of music[36] such as Graham Parker, Elvis Costello,[37] Eddie and the Hot Rods, Nick Lowe,[38] and The Kursaal Flyers, while also being home to "Canvey Island's finest" band Dr. Feelgood.[39] Although Canvey Island may now be considered unpleasant by its younger generation of internationally known musicians such as Joshua Third (guitarist of The Horrors),[40] the island continues to be a source of inspiration for artists such as British Sea Power who included a song entitled "Canvey Island" on their 2008 album Do You Like Rock Music?


The Labworth Café on the seafront

The Lobster Smack Public House at the south west corner of the island is a Grade II listed building dated to the 17th century. The pub was known to Charles Dickens who mentioned it in Great Expectations.[41] Alongside the pub is a row of wooden Coast guard cottages that date from the late 19th century which are also of grade II listed status.[42][43]

Landmarks from the era of Canvey's development as a seaside resort in the 20th century include the International style Labworth Café built 1932-33 and designed by Ove Arup. The building fell into a state of disrepair in the 1970s and 1980s but was renovated in 1996 and now functions as both a beach bistro and restaurant.

Opened in 1979, the Heritage Centre along Canvey Road is housed in the former St. Katherine's Church, which was built in 1874. Originally timber-framed, the church was rendered over in the 1930s to give it its present appearance; it closed as a place of worship in 1962. It now contains an art and craft centre with a small folk museum.


Canvey Island is connected to the mainland in the north west by two roads with bridges; the A130 (Canvey Way), and the B1014 (Canvey Road). Built in 1972, the A130 (Canvey Way) crosses East Haven Creek to Bowers Gifford and joins the London-Southend A13. The two lanes of the A130 are currently the island's primary access route with 25,000 vehicles using the road and bridge a day.

The B1014 and Canvey Road Bridge (or Canvey Bridge) crosses Benfleet Creek to South Benfleet, and provides access to the railway for London.

The Canvey Road Bridge was built in 1973, and replaced the island's first bridge to the mainland, which dated from 1931. The 299 feet Colvin Bridge (named after the Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Brigadier-General R B Colvin)[44] - operated with a sliding 59 ft central section that retracted for boats passing along Benfleet Creek.[4] Prior to the Colvin Bridge's construction, crossing the creek was achieved by either rowing-boat ferry, or by a gravel causeway or stepping-stones at low tides.[8]


  • Football:
    • Canvey Island FC ("the Gulls")
    • Concord Rangers FC

Amateur participation in sport is popular on the island, with sports such as rugby union, cricket, and martial arts represented by clubs and corresponding facilities. The Castle Point Golf Course is situated on Canvey, and the Waterside Farm Sports Centre provides members of Castle Point district with access to a swimming pool, an athletics track, general purpose sports halls, and a full size artificial surface football pitch. Also home to Canvey Island Swimming Club providing coaching for children ages 4 and upwards from beginners to competitive swimming through to National standard.

Water sport

Water sports are also popular recreational pursuits. Canvey has two sailing clubs in The Island Yacht Club and the Chapman Sands Sailing Club, with Benfleet Yacht Club and slipway also situated on the island at Benfleet Creek in the north. A region between Thorney bay and Labworth beach is designated by the Port of London Authority as an approved windsurfing area.[45] The Canvey Island Swimming Club provides lessons and training and is based at Waterside Farm Leisure Centre.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Canvey Island)


  1. Canvey Island's 13,000 refugees. (1953-02-02). The Guardian, p. 1. Retrieved 2008-07-29.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Canvey Island Drainage scheme 2006". Environment agency. (May Avenue Pumping Station information board).
  3. 3.0 3.1 The Geology of Essex. (2001). Essex RIGS Group. Retrieved 2008-09-17.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hallmann, Robert. (2006). Canvey Island, A History. Phillimore. ISBN 1-86077-436-9.
  5. Geology Site Account: Castle Point District, CANVEY ISLAND, Canvey Island Borehole, TQ82158330. (2008). The Essex Field Club. Retrieved 2008-09-17.
  6. Rippon, Stephen (2011). "The South Essex Marshes:Transformation of a Wetland Landscape". Panorama, The Journal of the Thurrock Local History Society. 50. 
  7. Maps showing successive stages in the reclamation are available at The South Essex Marshes
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dowd, D. M. (2008). Canvey Cyclopaedia. ( Retrieved: 2008-02-24.
  9. Steve Hackwell. (2008-09-15). Is it time to lose land to the sea?. Castle Point Echo. Newsquest.
  10. Steve Hackwell. (2008-09-19). You just can't use Canvey as an experiment with this flood scheme. Castle Point Echo. Newsquest. Retrieved 2008-09-19.
  11. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. (2007-12-13). West Canvey Marshes. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  12. Castree, 2005. (p.2).
  13. Canvey Wick SSSI Designation by English Nature
  14. Canvey Lake. (2008). Greengrid. The Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  15. "From Rubbish Tip to Country Park; Thames Gateway." The Times (London, England) (November 15, 2005): 7. InfoTrac Full Text Newspaper Database. Gale. Essex Libraries. 28 August 2008
  16. 16.0 16.1 William Camden's Britannia, 1586/1607 ({{{1}}})
  17. MacBean, & Johnson. (1773).
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 White. (1994).
  19. 19.00 19.01 19.02 19.03 19.04 19.05 19.06 19.07 19.08 19.09 19.10 19.11 19.12 Yearsley, Ian. (2000). Islands of Essex. Canvey Island. Ian Henry Publications. ISBN 0-86025-509-3.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 Barsby. (1992).
  21. see: The excavation of a Red Hill on Canvey Island. (Rodwell, 1966).
  22. Essex County Council Heritage Conservation. (2008). Romano-British Occupation of South Essex. Retrieved: 2008-03-27.
  23. Darby, (p. 157).
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Bills. (2004).
  25. Joseph Conrad. (1899). The Heart of Darkness. (p. 5). Everyman. ISBN 0-460-87292-3.
  26. Cross-Rudkin & Chrimes 2008, pp. 813–815
  27. Matthew Stanton. (2008-05-05). Wartime museum. Castlepoint Yellow Advertiser. (p. 21).
  28. Canvey's WW2 Degaussing Station. Canvey Island Community archive. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  29. Stratton, 2000. (p. 192).
  30. Center for Energy Economics. (2008). Introduction to LNG: Brief History of LNG. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  31. Long and Gardner, 2004. (p. 293).
  32. The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees) (18 January 1979). Commons Sitting - Bomb incidents. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  33. Sir Bernard Braine. (27 March 1979). Commons Sitting - Liquified gas storage (Canvey Island). Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  34. Canvey: Jetty scheme to prompt island jobs boom?. (1999-09-24). Gazette. Newsquest Media Group. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
  35. "Fred Dibnah Remembered: The life and times of a Great Briton 1938-2004" Keith Langston, Mortons Media Group 2005, ISBN 9 7480954 244262
  36. Birch 2000
  37. The Elvis Costello Home Page. (2008). Don't Look Back: Credits. Retrieved: 2008-02-19.
  38. Andrew Shields and Peter Watts. (2007-08-07). The best of Essex: Culture: Canvey Island pub rock. Timeout. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
  39. The Elvis Costello Home Page. (2008). Liner Notes: Trust. Rhino liner notes. Retrieved: 2008-02-19.
  40. James Medd. (February 18, 2007). The Horrors! The Horrors! Independent on Sunday. Retrieved: 2008-02-19.
  41. Christopher Somerville. (2001-02-05). Essex: Walking on Canvey Island. The Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  42. The Lobster Smack Public House. (2006). Listed Buildings Online. Heritage Gateway. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  43. 2-8 Haven Road. (2006). Listed Buildings Online. Heritage Gateway. Retrieved 2008-08-28.
  44. Brigadier-General Colvin laid the bridge's first pile
  45. Port of London Authority. (2009). Vange Creek information board.
  • English Place-Name Society. (1926). Survey of English Place-names. Cambridge University press.
  • Holland, Julian. (2007). Exploring the Islands of England and Wales. Canvey Island. (p. 88). Frances Lincoln ltd. ISBN 0-7112-2743-8.
  • Kelly's Directory of Essex. (1933). Canvey Island. ( Retrieved: 2008-03-27.
  • Long, Bob and Gardner, Bob. (2004). Guide to Storage Tanks and Equipment. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 1-86058-431-4.
  • MacBean, Alexander & Johnson, Samuel. (1773). A Dictionary of Ancient Geography. CR: Counos, Ptolemy. Pub. G. Robinson [etc.].
  • Pigot's Essex 1832-3 Trade Directory. Canvey Island. ( Retrieved: 2008-03-27.