Posts Tagged ‘20th Century’

If Joe and I were alive a century ago we would find ourselves with a 1/3 chance of being dead by this time today; and if not likely within the last six weeks of our lives. One-hundred years ago marked the 1st of July 1916; the First Day of the Battle of The Somme. You can read about the tragic events that lead to the deaths of well over a million young men in plenty of places, but in short boys occasionally as young as 12, who might never have ventured outside of their own village, found themselves far from home in a place that looked, sounded, and smelt like hell itself. Trench warfare was a war of attrition – no fancy tactics, no clever firefights; just two sides squaring up across the fields of France firing upon one another until one side was entirely wiped out. I always feel that history allows us to gain a sense of distance from the atrocities of the past, but an event that saw people living lifestyles similar to our own being shipped off into the meat-grinder cannot be dressed up. This is why I chose to say 36,500 days rather than 100 years; to shorten the distance.

As harsh and inelegant as the First World War was it is an area of history which has always fascinated me. The diabolical experimentation of the weaponry, completely misguided way of combat, and resultant transformation of the landscape into something very dark and alien fascinates me as I think about what it must have been like to have first arrived at the battlefields of the Somme. The romantic lull of Edwardian Britain had been bombarded, and Europe found itself thrown into a passionless conflict caused by a two-sided complex of alliances splitting Europe. Like a board game of Risk gone wrong, millions of people on both sides had to pay the price. To make matters worse, this was a time when previously only single-shot firearms, coupled with bayonets, had been used to fight battles. Harking back to the age-old pitched battles of the Middle Ages and beyond, the two sides lined themselves up to shoot at one another. It was this war which taught us how to firefight using careful manoeuvres – rather than sheer destructive force, in order to gain ground. This of course came at the cost of a generation.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the battlefields of the Somme and Belgium twice. The first was a school trip in 2011, and the second was organised by the Bay Museum, Canvey Island. Whilst the landscape has now returned close to the idyllic French countryside we all imagine, the scars of the destruction are unmistakable. It is hard to realise how the green rolling fields were transformed into acres of mud, blood, and burnt tree stumps by the fighting, but this shows the scale of the destruction. Not a patch was left unharmed. Great gouges from shelling and trenches alike still litter the enormous lawns; such as the massive Lochnagar Crater which clocked in as one of the largest ever non-nuclear man-made explosions. I remember walking the trenches – looking over the top and picturing how the battles took place from the eyes of an individual. We also visited the numerous memorials – each adorned with an unimaginable number of names. The very quantity of memorials is a tribute to just how many we lost. I have included photographs I took of the battlefields in 2011. Of course these aren’t quite as sharp as the images we take nowadays but at least it gives you an insight into the sites of the First World War today.

To put trench warfare in a first-person perspective I recommend the incredible book Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. One of the few novels that I have ever found moving enough to finish, I have read this on two occasions and each time it put me in the very shoes of a soldier and his emotions in the trenches and how it changed their lives. For something a little more interactive I would praise the shooter game Verdun which allows you experience what it was like to fight as one man against the battles of the First World War, taking historical accuracy into account heavily – something rarely seen in the genre.

This Saturday head down to Hadleigh Old Fire Station at 7:30pm to watch the film of the Somme created in 1916 to document what it was like. Admission is free, courtesy of Hadleigh & Thundersley Community Archive in cooperation with the IWM Centenary Partnership. If you can’t make it, head down to the Bay Museum on Canvey any Sunday and handle some Great War artifacts for yourself!

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This article was written in January this year as an overview of Beyond the Point’s coverage of the First World War for the Imperial War Museum’s Centenary Partnership which we are proud to be a part of. In light of remembrance 2015, its now here on Beyond the Point.

I shall begin by introducing our organisation. BeyondthePoint.co.uk is Essex-based and was established by myself (Liam Heatherson) and my friend Joe Mander, in 2011 when we were fourteen years old. Like this site, we created it using WordPress (originally as a blog). We were awarded Best National Community Archive, Website, and Heritage Group of 2012. We use our site to share and document our fascination with local history, offering an innovative approach to the subject by focusing on what is usually glossed over by historians; primarily what remains of our heritage today. The ‘hands-on’ nature of exploring local heritage in our opinion is a good way to fascinate a younger audience. Also, we use professional-quality video equipment to produce documentaries on the places we visit found on the site.

We were encouraged to join the Centenary Partnership by the Bay Museum who is also a partner, whom we know very well. Like ourselves, they believe seeing and investigating remains of the Great War is the most effective way to really capture people, like history did to myself many years ago.

Beyond the Point has been running a series of articles on relating to the First World War, and we have many planned for the future. We began our investigation by having a look at the remembrance of the sacrifice paid. Joe and I took a trip to London and visited the poppies at the Tower of London, and also the Tower Hill Memorial for those who lost their lives in both world wars in the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets. You can read about our visit and our partnership with the IWM here: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-1if Next we paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum London itself as it was only fitting. We visited the First World War exhibition there. Read more here: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-1mb

Having paid respects to the more obvious commemoration of the Great War, we then set out to provide our own contributions. As we usually explore and document historic remains, we took a trip to Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve which held the ruins of the Ministry of Defence site that was there as far back as the 1700s up until recent. It served most notably as a firing range during the First World War. Joe and I took two friends with us and they were definitely fascinated like ourselves. We tracked down the ruins of an anti-submarine blockhouse, which shot down a zeppelin in March 1916, explored the impressive remains of the 1915 firing range, and ventured inside a gloomy anti-aircraft ammunition magasine; one of the original eight. We provided a downloadable trail guide on our website to enable viewers to discover the remains for themselves. You can read the whole detailed investigation, see all our photographs, and get the trail guide here: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-1s6

This is only the one of our investigations into remains of the First World War on the home front and we plan several more for the future. BTP created a 5-minute short documentary on Southend in The First World War based on the book ‘Southend at War’ by Dee Gordon. It visits sites that were bombed, or used in the war effort. Read the article here: http://wp.me/p1HP6Z-1md

We will be visiting the site of a First World War Kynoch munitions factory that is currently thought to be gone without trace by historians, to conduct an archaeological search, after we found signs of ruins corresponding to the original plans via Google Earth. We visited a similar site, now a nature reserve, in Pitsea, several years ago (Wat Tyler Country Park) which made much of the .303 ammunition for the standard-issue Short Magasine Lee-Enfield rifles used by troops in the Great War. This is somewhat antiquated content on our site which is not representative of the quality of our articles at present, although you can read about this here: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-Xl We also visited a munitions factory from the same era in 2013 at Cliffe, whose ruins span miles of Thames-side marshland in Kent to this day: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-1af Finally, again in 2013, we visited Stow Maries Aerodrome which was abandoned up until recent years in which a restoration project has taken place. They fly contemporary aircraft from the site, and hold a collection of restored and left-natural buildings from the time of the First World War. Read here: http://wp.me/P1HP6Z-Sx

Thanks very much for reading and thanks very much to the Imperial War Museum for the First World War Centenary Project which we are grateful to be part of.

The Crossing

Prior to the construction of the Colvin opening bridge in 1931, a ferry and stepping stones at low tide were used to get from Benfleet to Canvey and back. The stepping stones were cast into buckets originally and were removed in 1931 and held in the old Canvey Council Offices down Long Road for a long time. In 2012 however, they were moved close to their original site again in the Olympic Park just south east of the current Benfleet bridge. You can still see the worn down centres of them where people would have trodden, and you can now step those same steps for yourself. There was also a gravel causeway across the silt prior to the building of the bridges and the gravel from this too can be seen today.

Below you can watch the causeway and stepping stones being used alongside the 1931 bridge which is being constructed:

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/benfleet

Our videos here show the stepping stones, although they are of a quality worse than our current production standards:

The Station

Benfleet station was first opened in 1855. The Royal Assent was given to extend the line from Pitsea station, rebuilt in 1855 but had existed decades earlier, as far as Leigh and Southend in an 1852 Act of Parliament. The 1855 wooden Benfleet station and platform unfortunately burnt down in 1903 and a new station – the one seen currently, was opened in 1912. The platforms too are very close to their original form and still feature white wooden embellishments (canopies) in good condition similar to that of the other platforms along the current C2C line built at this time, although these are said to be gradually decaying upon close inspection.

Over the Christmas of 2012 major modification came to the Benfleet railway bridge which goes over Ferry Road leading to the bridge to Canvey. Joe and I managed to visit the bridge whilst this was going on over Boxing Day. Here they were removing a large steel curved shape similar to the one (possibly the exact one) seen in the sepia old photograph above of the platform from eye level. You can see this taking place in our video above. Apart from some cosmetic change to the platform and rail-bed, as well as the bridge which now has ugly steel supports bolted into it, the major task caused very little disruption to the form and external structure of the railway. James Hanson, project site engineer, reports:

Since mobilisation in late October; BAM Nuttall (with the help of various subcontractors) have faced a string of setbacks and problems that have kept even our experienced team scratching their heads. Our dedicated team of suppliers and subcontractors from across the country have aided us in coming up with the necessary solutions. The preparation for the main works have required an unplanned intensive piling  scheme – involving installation of sixteen twelve metre long piles, after discovering extremely poor ground conditions, 24 hour working on the station platforms and the installation of support beams weighing up to 12.5 tonnes to the bridge soffit. No easy feat considering the working space available and our aspiration to maintaining traffic flow under the structure during peak times. We have discovered huge culverts, abandoned headwalls and cess tanks, river beds and old oak piles – all remnants from the damming of Church Creek many years ago. We’ve even had the Thames at spring tide to keep at bay, but all in a days work for the dedicated team.

Despite the set-backs  and the weather, the team are confident and eager to get stuck in for a Christmas that is sure to offer up more surprises and enough challenges to test even the most experienced staff. We look forward to the completion of the project before the New Year and will be happy to have contributed just a little bit to the history of Benfleet.

BTP Joe explains…

Have you heard of Frederick Hester, the man who promoted Canvey in the early 1900’s to make it a fantastic seaside town? In the early 1900s an entrepreneur had a dream of turning Canvey into an Island holiday resort. His name was Frederick Hester. He was born in Fulham in 1853, the son of George Hester and Catherine (nee Potter). Frederick married Sibyl (nee Brewster) and they had seven children together, some of which were to help their father in his Canvey project. “F.W.B. Hester” in the poster below was Frederick’s estate agent son, Frederick William Brewster Hester, who was born in 1876 and named after his Mother & Father. He was to play a big part in his Father’s project and remained on Canvey all his life. Many changes were going on in these days. For example the expansion of the LT&SR railway line from Fenchurch Street to Southend-on-Sea. Frederick took advantage of the Benfleet Station, which is virtually on the Island as it was potentially an ideal holiday resort for Londoners to get out of the crowded city and get a glimpse of how life is different here, compared to the noisy and busy London! Posters like this one would have posted around London to try and promote the Island.

Hesters’ advertisement for Canvey-on-Sea

He built a monorail in the Island. Of course, their version of a tram was a horse and cart!  BTP Liam and I walked through where it would have been. Although it was just a horse and cart, Hester did have plans to make it a proper railway line with electric. He started building a generating station but it wasn’t ever finished or used. The bed and at least path of the monorail still exists today going up to Benfleet Boat Yard at the seawall south next to Castle Point Golf Course ranges, across Somnes Avenue, turning through the originally named ‘Station Approach’ and then ‘Central Wall’ roads, up to where it crosses the dyke as a modern footbridge opposite Venlo Road, behind Genk Close. It does not appear to carry on any further.

HestersMonorail

The images below show what remains of the wall that would have been for the ticket office to Wintergardens Greenhouses, which would have been a tropical experience. It was obviously built in Hester’s time and it’s the place where you would pay for a ticket. You can see a few metal spikes in the wall, which would have been bigger for security purposes. They were cut down in around the 80s due to health and safety reasons.

Frederick Hester dreamed of Canvey being the next Southend-on-Sea or even better by building a two and a half kilometer two-storey Pier which he planned would reach the Chapman Lighthouse. The photo below shows his pier with a Thames Barge unloading materials onto a small locomotive that ferried the materials to shore – Frederick certainly planned on joining the Pier with his railway that ended in this area. Marlboro House, the first building the Hester’s built on Canvey, can be seen on the far left.

Hester’s Pier

His pier can be seen in the image below (curtsy of the CCA and CanveyIsland.org.ukOnly 122 meters were built and it was later taken down and replaced by the Chapman Sailing Club.

Hester’s Pier

The pier today (2011/12)

Photographs from 2014 of the boys at the Sailing Club jetty adjacent to the site of Hester’s remaining stumps. The concrete barrels taken from the sinking of the SS Benmohr in 1902 were used to create part of Hester’s tourist jetty. Today they litter the beach around the site of the old jetty and can be seen in the photographs.

21-fmc-pier1

Read more at the Canvey Archive:

http://www.canveyisland.org/page_id__1549_path__0p228p236p30p.aspx

http://www.canveyisland.org/page_id__613.aspx

You can see archived footage of the jetty, ticket office wall, and monorail path here in our 2011 videos (please note these are of poor production quality unrepresentative of BeyondthePoint’s current professional level)

 

 – Sewage Works Remains
– Second World War Pillbox

Two Tree Island was reclaimed from the Thames in the late 1700’s and was used as farmland until 1910 when a sewage works was constructed on part of the site. These sewage works were used for the majority of the 20th century. During the North Sea Floods of 1953 two of the sewage workers had to be rescued by boat from a shed roof on the Island. From 1936 the entire island was used as a landfill site and continued until 1974, when only a smaller section was used for landfill. It is believed the sewage works stood there roughly up until this time. Soon after it was capped and re-seeded with grass. Like Canvey Heights, once also a tip, and Canvey Wick, once an oil-refinery, it is land which saw former use by man which often becomes the most appealing to wildlife.

Little is known about the sewage works and its structure on the island, so please contact us or comment below if you have any useful information or even photographs.

 Geograph contains several photographs of the Island in 1987 when it first became a nature-reserve

For a long time, the site was known as Leigh Marsh, although more recently, the site has been known as Two Tree Island as it was less-commonly known historically. Today the site is a nature haven and country park. At the peak of the Second World War, a pillbox was constructed on the eastern edge of the island, looking out across the Thames. This survived the war and is still there today for fellow explorers to visit, although over the years it’s become a victim to severe weathering. Since our first visit in 2011 its roof has nearly entirely caved in.

Purfleet Heritage & Military Centre is a museum set up inside Magasine No.5 from the Royal Magasine of Gunpowder. This MOD magazine (which means an explosives and ammunition  store) was contracted in 1759, consisting of five buildings, plus a proof house for testing the explosive. Four of the magasines, which would have held up to 10,400 barrels of gunpowder, were left in a derelict overgrown state until they were demolished when Thurrock Council bought the site off of the MOD. The magasines were part of a larger Ministry of Defence site covering what is now Rainham Marshes Reserve. See our visit here: http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/historic-locations/east-tilbury-and-west/rainham-marshes-firing-range-ww1/

We decided to take the train down one Monday to see the museum. The 300 year-old timbers that line the floor and rafters still remain, and were imported from America because they were the only timbers long enough to be carved into the required shape. The museum does a commendable job of retaining the original look and feel of the building, such as the original painted numbers on the timber, whilst accounting for the modern-day appeal of the exhibits. There is still a huge attic spanning the length of the building used for storage filled with tons of original sand to contain an accidental explosion.

Alan Gosling decided to save the building, and I was fortunate enough to speak to him on our visit. He explained how the museum has to work the displays around the preservation of  the listed building. It became a museum in 1992, housing an impressive collection of artifacts and displays relating to both the magazine itself and local history, as well as British military history from the 19th Century, such as the Zulu War, through to the two world wars and beyond. The scale of the interior is huge and it is entirely full with displays and artifacts; there is plenty to see! The welcoming atmosphere of the building was finished off with some appropriate wartime music and enthusiasts dressed in British infantry uniform from the Second World War who were stopping by.

Visit the centre’s website and check their opening times at http://www.purfleet-heritage.com/