OlympicChallengerAs a youngster living beside the Thames Estuary in the early 1950s I was an avid shipwatcher and spent countless days with my telescope on the end of Southend Pier.

Alongside others with the same passion, I was lodged in a little room below the Lloyd’s Signal Station and we scrupulously maintained a log book of the ships that passed. The book has long since vanished, but my clear recollection is that our record for a single day, from about 9am to 8pm, was over 200 commercial ships passing Southend Pier—that was something like one ship every three minutes, non-stop, for 11 hours.

Southend was the gateway to the Port of London and those broad estuary waters of the River Thames formed the seaward boundary for the Port of London Authority (PLA). Not only was there a constant frieze of distant ships moving up and down the river, there were generally freighters at the anchorage downstream from the pier and all manner of local craft closer inshore – especially the Leigh fishing fleet.

Fishing and other maritime pursuits had long been major features of Leigh-on-Sea, and even in the 1960s the occasional Continental trader would be seen discharging timber at Bell Wharf. Shipbuilding was once important, and there is a story that the Mayflower of the Pilgrim Fathers was either built or owned there.

The fishing boats, or bawleys, were commonly seen moored in line along Leigh Creek. They specialised in shellfish and crustaceans and were often referred to simply as ‘cocklers’. In the 1950s and 1960s we frequented the Leigh ‘beach’ (comprised of cockle shells) and watched the boiling of the day’s catch in somewhat ramshackle sheds, often taking home freshly-boiled shrimps.

From Leigh, through Westcliff and Southend to Shoeburyness, the Essex coast presented a vibrant, busy frontage to the estuary. How different it was on the Kent side, where the low, marshy Hoo Peninsula provided such features as Cooling Marshes, edging the Blyth Sands, rather than town names. Indeed, only Allhallows stood out as a small settlement near the coast, and you had to cross the Medway to reach the larger town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. Even the bleak and remote Hoo country, however, was destined to play a role in maritime matters, as will be seen shortly.

Click on a thumbnail below to open a slideshow in a new window.

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Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2009 Issue