From the Vicarage to the Lobby

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Canvey Tunnel?

By Janet Penn

The Archive have no way of knowing whether the stories of smugglers tunnels on Canvey are true or false. It is true that smuggling was rife especially in the Lobster Smack area which is why the Coastguards were stationed there first housed in a hulk in Hole Haven then later in the Coastguard cottages.

It has been said that Canvey being below sea level there is no way tunnels could have been built, but Canvey was not always so low in the water. We must also consider that the so called tunnels could just have been holes in the ground for temporarily storing smuggled goods. We will probably never know the answers as all we have are stories and those who say they have been in the tunnels are no longer with us. We have spoken, some years ago, to a man who knew where one such tunnel was. He was very reluctant to talk about it because of the ridicule he had received.

At the end of the day whether they existed or not the stories are very much part of Canvey's history. This is one such story published in a local magazine.

One man claims he can put all those doubting Thomas's to rest, for he claims that in his younger years when he was eleven, he walked the full length of a tunnel stretching from the Vicarage at Haven Road to a place just beyond the Lobster Smack.

This, he tells us took place only thirty-seven years ago when he did a milk round as a youngster with Mr. Dines the milkman, who knew of the tunnel. Being young and inquisitive, his interest in their existence was mentioned on his behalf to the Reverend. He it seems was only too pleased to quench an enquiring mind and led the small party down to the two cellars. They were not connected to each other in any way and it was only necessary to enter one. Mr. Dines had taken with him the candle-lamp from one side of the three-wheeled milk wagon he drove on his rounds. Once in the cellar, the Reverend walked to the farthest wall where a door could be seen behind his bits and pieces in storage. Five or six steps led down the other side of the door, and he recalls seeing probably 30 foot of light sandy coloured brickwork, though it was grubby with age. He remembers that it was not really in keeping with the Vicarage at all, which was made of wood. Perhaps then the cellars had been in position before the Vicarage was ever constructed and the tunnel originally hidden under a previous building. Its presence otherwise, unless he was terribly naive, would surely have incriminated the vicar of the day as some kind of conspirator.

As they moved forward he noticed the walls were shored up with wood and beams and the tunnel had a depth to it that more than covered the height of a man standing tall. The deeper they went, the more musty and stifling the air became and the dampness of it all was very apparent, even to a little boy of eleven. There was nothing to be seen down there save the wooden walls and if there had been booty transported through the tunnel, there was certainly no lingering traces.

About a third of the way along, the air suddenly became less stuffy and not long after, the milkman and his lad entered an area the size of a large room. At a guess, the anti-chamber measured 20 x 15 foot, and the air in it was as fresh as above ground. "There must have been an air vent of some nature. Though however much we investigated above ground, we never found it". It took the two of them a good hour to reach journey's end, for after the chamber another narrow tunnel continued. They eventually surfaced behind The Lobster Smack, and taking into account their position, surmised that the angle the tunnel had taken must have led them at one point under the building itself. When asked if he had ever been down any other tunnels of a similar nature on Canvey, he said that he hadn't, though there had been talk during his school years of one in the Thorney Bay area. He believed it was discovered when the old farm that had stood there was pulled down for the development of the Fielder Estate. The entrance to it collapsed and he understood it was then filled in.

This page was added by Janet Penn on 10/02/2016.
Comments about this page

Interesting story . My oldest brother moved to Canvey after buying the mansard roofed house at the end of Laburnum Grove then known as " Valhuska "a stone's throw from the vicarage in that year . The property was bounded at the rear by a stream that divided his garden from the trading estate behind . The stream ran most of the year and quite deep during the rainy winter months . As he was into powerboats I had joked about it being a shame that the stream flowed to soak away in the feilds just to the south ,as we could put the boat in and take it out to sea that way . He had the same milkman that is described in this story and a friend's Dad lived in Clinton just a couple of roads down who I had known for years , Ron Leeming . I stayed there quite a number of times with my brothers family , his wife son and daughter ( my nephew and niece ) mainly weekends as I was working as a Surveyor in London . My bride was married at St Nicholas to a soldier and moved away . My nephew was working for a company in London and commuted . In 1982 he and his wife decided to sell and move to Spain . The house went up for sale and the new owners wanted to extend the building at the rear ,adding an upper floor to double the size of the property . My brother suggested that our brother Stuart ( a civil engineer) would design it and I would do the site survey as part of the sale . This was agreed survey done , planning permission granted .

The subsoil excavation showed highly permeable silty soil with a high water table in the general area , which was pretty typical for marshland . This was needed for the foundation design . The house already had a small back addition.

This would indicate that any tunnel below an inverted level of 1 M in would be flooded 365days a year . Having surveyed many pre Victorian vernacular buildings . It is often the case that a cellar is found below the building built in brick and a small cistern often constructed to catch ground water . This provided an indoor water source and a cool pantry area for perishable food in the summer such as milk and cheese . Canvey as where I live now with its various " wicks" Essex vernacular usually meaning dairy farms , I would guess that many such older buildings would have had this facility . 

The story goes on to describe going down several more steps of Gault clay brick to approximately 2 M to a timber lined tunnel leading to the Lobster Smack lined with wood so now at least 3-4M below ground level . Given that this whole area is effectively a soakaway for Canvey highest point this would be highly unlikely , even more unlikely to negotiate a tunnel at this depth without scuba equipment !

As for travelling under the Lobster Smack and coming out at the back . This was our local watering hole and I took a keen interest in the building and there is no evidence of any tunnel exiting anywhere outside the building , although the pub does enjoy a cellar like the one I described above .

The only network of tunnels that opens into an anti chamber I know of on Canvey is under the Labworth Cafe that my school friend Keith Fugl showed me when I was a William Read in 1968 . Being of prewar construction this may have been a Home Guard Auxillary Operating Base . I took my son to Canvey about 10 years ago and found to my dismay the whole area under the cafe had been backfilled and fenced off . If this is the case and anyone else is aware of this Base please contact BRO Coleshill .

By Malcolm Roberts
On 08/12/2018

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