Posts Tagged ‘Edwardian’

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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Seven Victorian tunnel-like magazines were built on the Benfleet waterfront near Jotmans in the late part of the 19th Century. They would have been used for the storage of explosives by barges possibly on the way to London or nearby explosives factories (where is now Wat Tyler Country Park and Coryton Refinery).

The Benfleet Community Archive first introduced Beyond the Point to ‘the mags’ at a community event on Canvey. We were told it was rumoured they were used as storage from barges carrying explosives down the Thames. There was definitely a heavy explosives industry in South Essex around the turn of the 20th Century, so this was not an unreasonable idea. I looked this up when I got home, and listened to an audio account on this website which mentions them and their location. We visited the area numerous times between 2012 and 2015, finding a wartime pillbox and ruins from the old sewage works, yet were unable to locate the ‘mags’.

Magazines

In September 2015 we decided to investigate the rumours, following a 1895 map from http://www.benfleethistory.org.uk showing the location of the magazines layed over modern satellite imagery. The entire area south west of the sewage works was overgrown and it became very difficult to work out exactly which parts of the area the magazines were in. We covered what we believed to be the entire area and only found rectangular mounds/earthworks, perhaps covering something? A brick walled section, broken concrete, and a very old huge iron manhole cover (probably from the sewage works) was also found.

 After explaining about the mounds and brick wall that we found to the http://www.BenfleetHistory.org.uk archive site, we were put in touch with Dave Cowan in early 2016 who has lived in the Jotmans area since he was a child. He gave the initial audio account on the Benfleet Archive of playing near the mags as a child that prompted our investigation.

   We met up with him and he took us to where he saw one of the mags around 2012/13 guided by a picture of the area on his phone, using a tree as a landmark. After some looking in the bushes we finally uncovered the ruins of one of the entrances  (mag 1,2, or 3).  He was unaware of the other mags west of the current sewage works as this area was inaccessible in his childhood days, but when we showed him the earth mounds I found in September 2015 he found it all made sense; we had finally found where the mags are/would have been in relation to the 1895 map!

Magazines 1-3

Above you can see the remaining entrance area of either magazine 1, 2, or 3 and an artistic reconstruction. The other two of the three are somewhere along this stretch although they could either be overgrown or gone without trace. Dave explained how the sides and entrance facing were made of brick, yet the interior was buried in earth and was concrete from what he could remember. We found the two walls that would’ve formed the entrance although the actual doorway was covered in soil; presumably it had collapsed at one point. Dave recalls seeing the magazine turn off left and right inside, going down about 10-12 feet either way. He remembers several along that stretch which corresponds to the old map, although the other two were probably hidden in the undergrowth hence why further investigation could be done. Below are the brick remains of the one we found closer:

Magazines 4 & 5

Below are photographs of reinforced concrete broken roughly on the site of either of mags 4 and 5. This must be part of them as Dave remembers reinforced concrete being used to form the inside of magazines 1-3, presumably of the same design. A section of brick wall was also found near here in good condition, although seemingly isolated from any kind of greater structure. Still it was probably part of the entrance to magazine 4 or 5.

Magazines 6 & 7

These magazines are both further north-west along the bike track in the wood area west of the current sewage works. They remain only as earth mounds at first glance, although it could be likely that the magazines remain underneath and were simply covered over at one point, or demolished and churned. The photos below only feature mag 6, but 7 is a similar mound of smaller size further north along the bike track/footpath.

Many thanks to Dave Cowan for his help and for joining us, but also to Frank Gamble from http://www.BenfleetHistory.org.uk for aiding us on this quest and putting us in touch with Dave. See the coverage of this on there here, which has been lucky enough to be featured for the time being: http://www.benfleethistory.org.uk/page/uncovering_the_lost_explosives_magazines

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)

 

Shortly before writing this, I began reading the book ‘Southend at War’ by the excellent local author Dee Gordon. Beyond the Point’s affiliation with the Imperial War Museum Centenary Partnership meant that it would be both appropriate and useful to create a short documentary on Southend in the First World War inspired by the first section of the book. As no real physical evidence exists of the damage done by the numerous bombings that Southend suffered, the 5-minute documentary focuses on familiar locations where destruction, and aid, occurred. 

Did any kind of destruction occur on the home-front in the Great War to the degree of World War Two?

Indeed it did, but unlike during the Second World War and the Blitz, only some places were hit. Southend was one such place. The most notable affair concerning the Great War and Southend-on-Sea was that it saw 100 bombs dropped on it during air-raids from German Zeppelins on the 10th of May 1915. The first of these to find a target landed here in York Road, damaging a house that a soldier was billeted in at the time. Numerous houses along the London Road were hit also.

The Gotha bomber was a German bi-plane capable of longer-distance missions and greater accuracy than previous technology had allowed. Twenty of these hulks were spotted cruising to London on Sunday the 12th of August, 1917, when they unexpectedly made a bee line for Southend. In fifteen minutes, 40 bombs were dropped near the Southend Victoria railway station. Over forty innocent people were injured, and the fire brigade were called in not only to tackle the blaze, but to drag the blasted corpses from the scene as horrified civilians looked on.

 What part did Southend play in the war effort?

The Palace Hotel was built in 1901 and served great use in the war effort. Messrs Tolhurst; the owners of the hotel, were generous enough to offer the building up for free as a naval hospital for the rest of the war. Its glorious five star interior would’ve been quite bizarre with hospital beds placed amongst its lounges and ballrooms. It held possibly the world’s first purpose-made x-ray department. It recently underwent refurbishment by Park Inn to bring it back to its former glory.

In the renown Victorian ‘Kursaal’ amusement centre, Lord Kitcheners’ famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ recruitment campaign enlisted over 1,000 men to be sent off to France. However, between August and November of 1914, 22 Southenders had been killed. Down Victoria Road, captured German officers were held in a prisoner of war camp set up in the building which would later become Westcliff Highschool for Boys in 1920. The school moved to its current site at Kenilworth Gardens in 1926.