My family moved from Leytonstone in east London to Canvey Island in Essex in 1950, when I was six years old, and my brother just a baby. Our father rented a small timber bungalow in Grafton Road for a year or so, only two hundred metres from the sea wall, then moved us all to Hadleigh, a small town a few miles further along the Thames coast. We then found ourselves next door to a chapel belonging to The Peculiar People, a Christian sect unique to south Essex, and still quite strong in the second half of the 20th century.
Had we stayed another year we might well have all been among the 58 Canvey Islanders drowned in the floods of January 1953, or certainly among the 11,000 evacuated until it was safe to return. I spent a year at Long Road Primary School, one of the few decent brick buildings on Canvey, which was surrounded by dykes, originally excavated by Dutch engineers, rich with dragonflies and other astonishing insects, small reptiles and impenetrable bullrushes and other rampant marshland vegetation.
I tell this story because it illustrates a number of salient points about the South Essex landscape, its history and its estuarine character. Firstly, that this migration from east London to the Essex coast was a particular demographic pattern of the 20th century. Secondly the bungalow we rented was one of many thousands of ‘jerry-built’ or self-constructed homes created in this terrain vague: a four-square, single storey wooden house with a verandah, erected on brick piers about 15 inches off the ground, high enough to crawl under from one side to the other. Every house in our unmade road was different, often eccentrically so. Thirdly, the people who settled in this part of Essex often embodied a pioneering spirit, and a nonconformist religious and political mentalité. Finally, the wider landscape had a distinctive character that was thought to be uncultivated, even wild.
A number of writers and historians – Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and more recently John Fowles and Simon Schama – have alluded to the intermittent ominousness of these wide skies, muddy and industrialised seascapes, brittle light and uncanny marshlands. Both Hadleigh Castle and Tilbury Fort attest to the strategic defensive importance of this strip of Thames coastline, along which over many hundreds of years armed invaders, would-be colonists, slaves, convicts and immigrants have arrived – and departed. This is not a landscape for the faint-hearted. When the genteel magazine Country Life published a guide to the English counties in 2003, comparing their various economic and cultural qualities, they gave Essex no marks at all (0 out of 10), for landscape value. Those who feel an affinity for these estuary skylines and unkempt fields and woodlands, would certainly disagree.
The landscape of South Essex rests on a mixture of alluvial deposits, sands, gravels, and chalk (this latter only found near Thurrock). It has been regarded as poor agricultural land, but important for quarrying and mineral extraction: hence the history of the sand, gravel and cement producing industries. In the mid-19th century the coastline running from Rainham Marshes, via Thurrock, to Canvey Island was one of the least populated areas in the county and beyond. In the 20th century many poor Londoners took advantage of low land prices to purchase small plots on which they could, over time, build their own homes: the story of these heroic ‘plotlanders’ – including that of the 84 year old London grandmother who cycled from Hackney to Laindon and back each weekend to claim a part of her arcadian settlement in the country – remains a powerful part of the social history and mythology of this part of Essex.
The area has also been the setting for a number of other utopian (and industrial) experiments. There was a short-lived Farm Colony at Laindon for over 100 men from East London’s Poplar Workhouse established in 1904, rather similar to the Salvation Army Colony at Hadleigh established in the same year to provide healthy work and living for destitute men from elsewhere in London’s East End. This latter farm colony has, a century later, reinvented its early idealism by becoming an organic farm, as well as supporting a new restaurant catered and staffed by people with learning difficulties.
On a larger scale, the Bata factory and garden village at East Tilbury opened in 1933 by the Czech shoe manufacturer, Tomas Bata’s son, provided factory work and model homes embodying the best of Czech modern architecture for many hundreds of workers, in an unusual ethos of industrial partnership. The factory and the houses can still be visited.
Nevertheless, the majority of workers in this part of Essex have earned their living working in quarries and cement works, or at the Tilbury Docks or the Ford Motor Company close by in Dagenham. This has brought an industrial infrastructure and working class culture to these modest hills, flood plains and marshlands. Wherever you are in this part of Essex the skyline is usually interrupted by the storage tanks and flaring chimneys of the oil refineries, factory towers, electricity pylons, and accompanied by the distant roar of heavy goods traffic up and down the A13 and M25. The Lakeside Shopping Centre at Thurrock, set in a former quarry, is today a major employer.
The area is now earmarked by government as part of the Thames Gateway, a proposed area of enormous expansion for new housing. Indeed some 131,000 new homes are due to be developed in Essex by 2021, a large proportion of them in or around Thurrock. In addition to the question of whether the infrastructure and existing social networks can cope with this increase, there is an issue as to whether the scale of the proposed development will destroy the existing landscape, and its history and culture, completely. The question as to how to develop these ‘urban fringes’ or ‘post-industrial landscapes’ is now being asked across the developed world, with prospects of architectural, social and ecological experimentation promising exciting possibilities if they work hand in hand.
The architect and masterplanner, Sir Terry Farrell, has proposed that the Thames Gateway area should be designated a national park, and such a designed landscape could then provide the primary structure into which all new built development has to fit (something now to be found in a number of north American cities, where the parks authority is invested with all local planning powers).
Any landscape or cultural strategy to renew the Thurrock area and its estuarine and vegetated hinterland, has to address this unusual ‘back story’, one of defensiveness, nonconformist experimentation, industrial idealism, and a strong streak of agrarian self-sufficiency. Its proximity both to London and to the English channel, makes it borderline territory, in which it is always wise to look both ways: to the agricultural and the industrial, to metropolitan values as well as to utopian ideals, to the past as well as the future.
Ken Worpole is a writer on architectural, landscape, and urban social policy issues. In recent years he has also been principally associated with two leading research and policy think-tanks in the UK: Comedia and Demos. His most recent book is ‘Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the West’.
Basildon Development Corporation & Countryside Commission, A Plotland Album: The Story of the Dunton Hills Community, Basildon, 1983
Essex County Council, The Essex Landscape: In Search of its History, edited by L.S.Green, Chelmsford, 1999
John Fowles, The Journals, Volume 1, Jonathan Cape, London, 2003
Dennis Hardy & Colin Ward, Arcadia for All: the legacy of a makeshift landscape, London, 1984
Simon Schama, Landscape & Memory, Harper Collins, London, 1995
Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments 1325 – 1945 at www.utopia-britannica.org.uk/pages/ESSEX.htm