What happens when the deepest, whitest island in the south meets its new neighbours – the only colony of Haredi Jews outside of London?
Left: Joel Friedman; Right: Canvey Island high street. Photos by the author
On Canvey Island, I'm met by Joel Friedman. He's Jewish, it just so happens.
It just so happens he's Hasidic, actually. Ultra-orthodox, in other words. "No manual manipulation of light-switches on the Sabbath please, we're Jewish" level Jewish, AKA Haredi. I think he prefers the term Haredi.
"Excuse the mess," he gestures, swinging open the front door of the school complex he and 40-odd Haredi families bought off Canvey Island's authorities. This is the messy phase of pioneering – with paint pots and trowels and spirit levels. Two years in, though, and their experiment seems to be gaining traction.
Like many new Essex residents, Joel arrived here because he had a vision of hell: he saw the London housing market.
"I was living in a rented apartment. I thought: did I want to spend half a million pounds? Could I even borrow the money? Even if I could, I'd spend it on a house that would already be inadequate for my family. You've got to remember, for us, the average family is about ten. In the community, you've got people living in terrible – terrible – conditions. A family of nine in two rooms!"
Around 150,000 Jewish immigrants settled in the UK in the late 19th century, mainly a result of pogroms in Russia and the Baltics. Later, north-east London's Stamford Hill emerged as the country's capital of ultra-orthodox Judaism; the area now has the largest Haredi community in Europe. Breaking away from the infrastructure that has been established there could be difficult, in part because being ultra-orthodox comes with a number of necessities.
"We need all kinds of things. Kosher food. Clothes. Schools. Synagogues. You can't just decide to move, you know," says Joel. "You need a minimum viable colony. How much is that? Well, we reckon it's about 80 families before it's self-sustaining."
Any colony going out on a limb would need to feed back to the mothership for supplies. It soon became obvious that the Haredis couldn't be more than an hour from London. So they hit the maps, made spreadsheets, spent a year doing detailed fact-finding. How many places, an hour from London, could offer big houses, low house prices and a building big enough for a Jewish school?
"This time, I think, it actually happened, because of the severe frustration," says Joel. "People in the community have been talking about moving for 50 years. But now, things are at a boiling point where you just had to light that spark."
Ramsgate was in contention. Harlow, Southend and a half-dozen others might have been the new hive. But Canvey won. "It also rains about a third less here than London," Joel points out, as a vast tropical rainstorm drums at the windows.
In many other ways, Canvey is a bizarre choice. It's… well, it's the weirdest thing an hour's drive from London. It's singular, a world unto itself. You might say that this makes the arrival of black-clad religious fundamentalists feel like a plausible development. This was the place with the third-highest Brexit vote in the country. It's 97.2 percent white – as white as it gets almost anywhere, let alone an hour from London – and utterly, ethnically, working class. Every third house has a transit van in the driveway advertising aerial installations, hedge-trimming, roto-rooters. Every fifth has mock-Tudor beams. Bungalows abound. The house-names are fairly idiosyncratic: "My House" is one. "Somewhere" and "Just Getting Started" are two more. There's an inexplicable large silver statue of a fly in pride of place at the gateway to the seafront. At odds with almost everything else, up on the sea wall sits the Labworth Café, a gleaming white pavilion designed by Ove Arup, the same engineer who built the Sydney Opera House – a glaring bolt of futurism amid the pie-n-gravy architectural mishmash of the rest. On Sundays, teens on scramblers buzz the streets, amiably enough.
Canvey is actually below sea level. You can feel it, even on a hot day – there's a coolness to the air here, a mist that clings to you. The land was reclaimed by a smart Dutchman, Cornelius Vermuyden, in 1621. He drained the marshes, built walls to push the sea back, then paid his workers with little parcels of reclaimed land. A greedy developer later branded the place as "Little Holland" and tried to flog houses by giving the streets Dutch names. He failed. By the turn of the century, it still only held 300 people. Now, it has a population of nearly 38,000.
Rapidly, after the War, Canvey became "the fastest-growing seaside town in the country" – despite having a Berlin Wall cleaving the town from the sea. The sudden post-war growth spurt ended abruptly, one night in 1953, with the North Sea Flood. On the 31st of January, a high spring tide met a huge European rainstorm coming up the coast, and the thin dyke that separated Canvey-level from sea-level snapped. Fifty-eight residents died. The town was left underwater.
Now, the dykes built to withstand a one in a 100-year event have been raised to one in a thousand. A new wall and an advanced pumping system, monitored 24/7, keeps the water out.
The first I heard of this was when someone told me you can't get home insurance on Canvey. It turns out you can – but only because everyone in the country pays about 50 pence a year on their policies, a special re-insurance fund, created after the 2013 storms.
It gets weirder. With the water-table being 3ft above your head, all the cabling is above-ground too. So the place is a thicket of electric and telephone poles, offering the air of some shotgun-shack town from the US Midwest.
Canvey like travelling through time. Not to 1953, exactly, but to an age of community cohesion. It's intensely suburban. One strip of high street serves over 37,000 people. Everything else is just neat little gridded streets; 98.7% of dwellings are households. UKIP got half the votes here in 2015. Unemployment is a meagre 2.2 percent. It feels like they look out for each other, in a way they once did in the Liverpool back-to-backs or Glasgow tenements your granddad mithered about.
That deep sense of solidarity has its political wing in the Canvey Island Independent Party. There are 17 seats within the Castle Point Borough Council allotted to Canvey. The Independent Party holds 15 of them right now, and has done for years. They're serious about independence. There are 35 seats in total, which means it's highly unlikely Canvey will ever get its way against the "mainlanders" – but breaking away has always been a stated goal. When the Catalonia independence thing blew up, the Canvey independence lobby jumped on it, selling the media on the idea that they were England's Catalans, an autonomous people keen to be freed of the manacles of Castle Point Borough Council, to part their own Red Sea in the Thames Estuary.
To stroll its gridded streets is to feel unseen eyes upon you, to sense you're nothing but an effete metropolitan prowler, rubbernecking on something quite private. The red sports car with the WH1T C1FFS license plate in front of the pink Tudor beam house. The raft of Union Flags being flown from proud white poles in front-yards. The kitsch friezes baked into the roof plaster. The Elvis impersonator headlining Canvey Football Club next Friday night. The occasional Haredi Jew, floating through on a bicycle, an apparition within this strange phantasm.
The conventional wisdom would be that Canvey might reject all incomers. But in point of fact, this "conventional wisdom" is precisely the sort of trussed-up class-loathing that has filled the liberal broadsheets every day since 2016.
"We had a bit of trouble, a couple of incidents," Joel shrugs. "A few youths gave some of our children a Nazi salute." He leans his jacket sleeves onto the desk. "But, you know, I grew up in Manchester. We had real problems there. Skinheads. Big groups. Thirty at a time, breaking your windows. That was terrifying. This? It's nothing. They're just kids who need a clip round the ear."
Joel is wearing a bluetooth earpiece throughout our chat. It's a nice touch – a kind of cyber-Luddite thing he's got going on.
"But, you know, the key thing we've tried to do is communicate. That's why you're here today. Historically, our community hasn't. But I always say: if you don't communicate, then they'll write about you instead. The important thing is to be good neighbours. I don't think we cause trouble. And we're trying to diffuse our community by not buying up houses on the same street. One problem with being so prominent – because of the way we dress – is that if anyone does anything, anything at all, bad driving, whatever, it gets around immediately. There’s one Facebook page for Canvey. It has 20,000 members. Well, that's half the population! Believe me, anything that goes on in Canvey goes in there."
Joel mentions the "bad driver" thing twice. I recall that someone once told me the Stamford Hill Haredi are notoriously bad drivers in their big Volvo people carriers. I simultaneously recall that someone else told me they mainly use Volvos because of Swedish neutrality in the war.
It took me a while to figure out that they'd probably buy actively anti-Nazi American cars – Chevrolets, maybe – if that were true. Still, I can't help but wonder if Joel's heard the bad driver thing. If that's why it came up. Has he? I ask. But Joel simply blanks it. With the minimum of fuss, he moves the conversation on. At this point, I figure I've used up my naive question credits, so I don't ask about the chunky Hitler biography, sat on a lone shelf, when he takes me through to his office.
"I suppose you could say we’re pioneers," Joel admits.
He's reluctant to draw much romanticism from it. "But the pioneers are the ones who get remembered!" I point out. "People write about them. People put them on commemorative coins."
He swats the thought away. "I'll say one thing: that every family who comes here finds it easier than the last. The people who come here now might complain that our shop is quite small – well, I remember when it was just one shelf!"
Pioneering isn't for the faint-hearted. And it's not for those with a needy attitude, either. "We never recruited. We never promised anyone anything. You know? You start promising people stuff, then it's like you owe them."
In the next room, kids in the school thump on the wall while we're talking. I ask to take Joel's photo, and there's a slightly awkward social dance where he keeps obliquely ducking out of my request. Eventually, I realise it's because he doesn't want his fellow Haredi to see him. Tongues will wag, in some way I can't quite get my head around. But he'll do it – just not in a public part of the complex.
Of course – as he also explains to me – the Haredi are forbidden from engaging with modern media. Not even the BBC. If any are reading this now: naughty, very naughty.
But does the community engage with politics, I wonder. Are they, like the Islanders, Brexit-lovers?
"Hmm! We tend to be conservative on foreign policy – Israel, and so on – and then liberal on social policy. But on Brexit, again, there's no real clear line."
There's no divine steer?
Joel crinkles his nose. "Me, I was for Remain. I'd say it was probably half-half. Like a lot of places."
Canvey is salvage England. Dredged from the sea, filled up with London overflow, an island within an island, separatist, wedged into an awkward penumbra of tragedy, an Atlantis of an England that England no longer deigns to recall. If the eternally displaced Hassidim can make it anywhere, then Canvey is their new spiritual home.