Canvey Island: Residents on why they want independence

By George Mann
BBC News

image captionOccupying seven square miles off the coast of Essex, Canvey Island is home to more than 40,000 people

They are two battles for independence taking place 700 miles apart: one fighting for the future of Catalonia, the other for the reclaimed land of Canvey Island.

While Catalonia's Carles Puigdemont wants to separate from Spain, the aim of the Canvey Island Independence Party is to wrestle back control of the Thames estuary island from the mainland's Castle Point Borough Council.

The movements may differ in size and scope, but both share a view that they are different and a resentment that their affairs are being run from elsewhere.

So who are Canvey's islanders and what has inspired their fierce sense of pride and tangible community spirit?

The independence leader

image captionCouncillor Dave Blackwell says others are "jealous" of Canvey's community

Councillor Dave Blackwell is the leader of the Canvey Island Independence Party (CIIP).

Over a pot of tea in the Labworth cafe, just off the seafront, he says Canvey people have always been different.

It is partly because Canvey is an island, he says, and partly because of the way they are seen by outsiders.

His party currently has 15 of 17 councillors on the island itself. Yet there are 24 other councillors on Castle Point Borough Council from the mainland.

This has led to Canvey's councillors being consistently outvoted, Councillor Blackwell says, resulting in the island becoming the "poor relations" of the mainland.

He claims that following the party's recent election successes, one opposing activist posted a comment online saying they did not mind losing seats in Canvey as it was "a wart on the landscape".

Councillor Blackwell says people on the mainland like to make Canvey the butt of their jokes. They are, he says, "jealous" of the pride locals take in the area.

He beams when asked about the work put in to rejuvenate the beaches and facilities through "Canvey Bay Watch".

"All we want is to be treated equally," he says.

The east London original

image captionGary Tivey moved from London's East End

Gary Tivey, moved to Canvey 28 years ago and still jokes he is a newcomer.

He says the high number of islanders who originated from London's East End brought their morals and values to Canvey.

He tells a story about when he was having a house built and the sale of his own property fell through.

The builder said "don't worry about it, I know how much you want this house" and waited for him to remarket his house.

"That wouldn't happen anywhere else," he says.

For Canvey's population there is "no next town" to go to, he adds, "so you can't fall out with people".

The mum

image captionDanielle Low says going to the pub can feel like a therapy session

Gary's daughter Danielle Low is a 34-year-old mum of two who has lived on Canvey since she was six.

Whenever her 11-year-old son is out and about, she says her "little spies" are keeping an eye on him.

But she admits living in such a close community does have its downside.

"If I go into to my local pub it can be like a soap opera," she says.

"If anyone is in trouble or having an affair everyone knows about it. Going for a drink can be like a therapy session."

If fans of US reality TV really wanted a shock, Danielle says, they should film a series of "Real Housewives of Canvey Island".

She says her proudest moment was helping to raise more than £50,000 with 25 friends on a 70-mile walk.

They were greeted by the "whole island" on their return, she says, adding: "That is what Canvey is all about."

Where is Canvey Island?

image captionPrefab sprout: Canvey has more than 2000 "park homes" for over 55s
  • Occupies seven square miles (18km) off the coast of south Essex
  • Settled by Dutch engineers in the early 17th Century who reclaimed the land from the Thames Estuary
  • The island controlled its own affairs until Canvey Island Urban District Council was abolished in 1974 and it became part of Castle Point Borough Council
  • It now has a population of more than 40,000
  • Canvey is connected to the rest of Essex by two road bridges

The new community

image captionJoel Friedman (right) and colleagues looking at JCoCI's latest house purchase

Despite the deep roots of many residents, Canvey's population is changing.

In the last 15 months, the Jewish Congregation of Canvey Island (JCoCI) has been established to find homes for people from north London's strictly orthodox Haredi community.

Spiralling property prices have prompted some to look beyond the confines of London.

JCoCI trustee Joel Friedman says he could not have received a warmer welcome.

"Other councils didn't want us, but the attitude has been very different [in Canvey], both from the islanders and Castle Point."

Mr Friedman acknowledges there could be challenges ahead.

"We are moving from one of the top Remain areas in the country to one of the top Brexit areas," he shrugs.

"We need homes that are available and affordable and the perception of Canvey has perhaps helped in that respect."

His was one of six original families that move to the island in the summer of 2016.

There are now 28 families and about 200 people. Mr Friedman estimates eventually there will be 70 to 80 Haredi families, making a community of more than 450.

The 'flood baby'

image captionChris Fenwick has managed the band, Dr Feelgood, for 43 years

One of those helping the new community settle down is a man with a complicated CV.

Chris Fenwick is probably best known as the manager for the last 43 years of Dr Feelgood, Canvey's best known band.

He also owns the Oysterfleet, the largest pub and hotel on the island.

He is heavily involved in helping the JCoCI become established and is keen to explain how the island will benefit from their arrival.

He laughs at comparisons between Canvey and Catalonia, but says the way the island is seen by people a few miles away is a problem.

He talks about going to a business lunch where one speaker described Canvey as the "biggest open prison in England".

image captionCanvey's sea wall has several murals portraying the 1953 flood

"They despise us," he says. "They look down on us, but they never come here. Canvey has more multi-millionaires per head than anywhere else around."

He says you can't begin to understand why Canvey is different without talking about a flood that hit the island in 1953, killing 59 people and leading to 13,000 more being evacuated.

Chris claims to be the product of the flood. "The storm hit on 31 January and I was born early November. I was a flood baby," he says.

He says Canvey is now booming because people are making the same calculation that some in the Jewish communities have made.

"House prices mean London has turned into another country," he says. "Canvey is benefitting."

'The Professor'

image captionJohn Huet says in many ways time has stood still in Canvey

Seventy-year-old John "The Professor" Huet is a former electrical engineer and lecturer.

He moved to Canvey from east London 61 years ago to what he thought was "a beautiful playground".

"Canvey isn't part of the mainland and isn't part of the Thames, we're something other," he says.

He says the island has moved with the times in many ways. But in a lot of other ways it has stayed the same.

"Time has stood still, but 40 years ago my house was in the middle of field, now it's surrounded."

He backs the demands for an "independent" Canvey.

"It was taken away by political chicanery," he says. "We need to get it back."

All photographs by Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures

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