Des­pite its unpre­pos­sess­ing name Hole Haven, the creek to the west side of Can­vey Island on the lower Thames, is a wel­come bolt-hole for those bound up- or down­river need­ing to get some rest or wait out a tide. It has ful­filled this ser­vice since at least the 1890s (in the writ­ings of Fran­cis B Cooke and H Lewis Jones) and doubt­less for many years before. I have overnighted here a couple of times in my canoe yawl Con­stance, and in time-hon­oured man­ner rowed ashore and vis­ited the Lob­ster Smack inn just over the sea-wall on Can­vey. Cooke warned of the per­ils of ‘boys’ in his day, and so, per­haps over-cau­tiously, we car­ried our tender from the hard to the inn with us.

Henry Lewis Jones, a Lon­don phys­i­cian spe­cial­ising in the applic­a­tion of DC elec­tri­city to the body via a water bath (an idea which seems to have led nowhere), wrote Swin, Swale and Swatch­way, a charm­ing col­lec­tion of cruis­ing yarns which was pub­lished in 1892 and gives us a rare portal onto the cruis­ing scene, and some aspects of shore-side life, of his day. It has been in and out of print since then, and was well ‘out’ when I tracked down a first edi­tion at the Brit­ish Lib­rary with a view to reis­su­ing it with the best pos­sible qual­ity of illus­tra­tion. I was delighted to dis­cov­er that the book’s pho­tos were prin­ted in some con­tinu­ous-tone, con­tact-print size man­ner not involving a halftone screen, so there was no fear of the dreaded moiré fringe effect in their fur­ther repro­duc­tion. Get­ting these copied at the BL was, how­ever, pro­hib­it­ively expens­ive and I resolved to find my own first edi­tion, which turned up a year or more later, not cheap, but cheap­er than the altern­at­ive. The book has a hard cover, covered in oil­cloth, and with my copy this had got wet at some point in its his­tory, but the interi­or has escaped wet­ting to remain, in the jar­gon of the trade, clean and bright with no fox­ing. The pho­tos turned out well; the mot­tling effect vis­ible in them is simply the tex­ture of the paper they were prin­ted on.

Here is Lewis Jones on Hole Haven:

Hole Haven is well known to most fre­quenters of the Lon­don river, espe­cially to those whose headquar­ters are high­er up, and there is gen­er­ally a pretty show of small craft lying there on Sat­urday and Sunday even­ings in the sum­mer; indeed some yachts­men sel­dom get any fur­ther down the river, and some do not get so far, for they stick upon the spit at the entrance, which runs down so as to form a reg­u­lar trap for boats com­ing from up river. There are usu­ally some pic­tur­esque Dutch eel boats lying moored inside; they find it a con­veni­ent har­bour, because the eels which they bring over from Hol­land will not live long in the Thames water as it is found off Billings­gate, so they keep them here in reserve, and take them up to Lon­don when wanted. These Dutch boats moor in a tier off the Cus­tom House, and form quite a fea­ture in the view of the river from Lon­don Bridge, with their bluff bows, bright var­nished sides and long pen­nants. Those who pen­et­rate fur­ther into the Haven find them­selves among hulks in which are stored gun­powder, gun-cot­ton and blast­ing gelat­ine in immense quant­it­ies. The sol­it­ary ship-keep­ers on these crafts are usu­ally delighted to have a yarn, and will even invite you on board if they are sat­is­fied that you are not “Magenta” (query Col­on­el Majen­die), or some other inspect­or in dis­guise; and when on board they will regale you with thrill­ing accounts of the quant­ity of explos­ives which they have got stowed on board under your feet, or behind the stove, or beside the par­affin lamp, or, at any rate, in what seems to the unac­cus­tomed vis­it­or to be an unpleas­ant prox­im­ity to him­self, until he begins to wish him­self safe out of Hole Haven, and feels by anti­cip­a­tion a sen­sa­tion of being pro­pelled through space like a sky-rock­et.

At low water Hole Haven is like a huge gut­ter with steep sides, and there is some risk lest a stranger should anchor on the edge of the shelf, and find him­self at low water slid­ing down a slope of fifty degrees in a very awk­ward fix (there is less fear of this in that part of the Haven between the entrance and the first powder hulk than there is fur­ther up). We once escaped this acci­dent more by good luck than any­thing else. It was at East­er time, cold, with a strong east wind, and when we got to Leigh and made a start, the sight of steam­ers brought up in Sea Reach wait­ing for it to mod­er­ate, togeth­er with a sample of the weath­er off Southend Pier, made us feel dif­fid­ent about put­ting our noses out­side into the chan­nel. The tides were very good, so we determ­ined to attempt the per­ils of the north-west pas­sage round Can­vey Island, and bear­ing up we came along past Ben­fleet in fine style, only stick­ing fast once, and that was near the entrance into Hole Haven; we got off again though, as soon as we had learnt from a rus­tic on the bank that the deep water lay on his side of us. In the after­noon, when the tide had ebbed, we walked round to view the scene of the ground­ing, and dis­covered our keel marks upon a salt­ing, and the chan­nel close by nar­row and deep, like the gorge of a moun­tain tor­rent. After get­ting clear we soon came out into Hole Haven, which, as it was high water, looked like an inland sea, and keep­ing her close to the wind, we stood along the weath­er shore until we were oppos­ite a powder hulk, when we resolved to bring up, but hav­ing espied a post stick­ing up from the water close to us, we soun­ded in four or five feet, and there­fore let her blow off a little before let­ting go the anchor; soon we had no bot­tom with the sound­ing pole, so down went the anchor, amid frantic ges­tic­u­la­tions and shout­ing from a neigh­bour­ing gun­powder ship cap­tain. We could not make out a word he said, by reas­on of the strong wind, but he was try­ing to warn us not to anchor too soon; for­tu­nately we were clear of the shelf, which must be at least twenty feet high at that place. How annoy­ing it is to be shouted at by unin­tel­li­gible people at crit­ic­al moments. One feels that one is doing some­thing wrong, may be sui­cid­al; one feels that they know all about it, and are prof­fer­ing the most excel­lent advice, and yet, after all, one has to act for one’s self and chance the con­sequences. When the tide had ebbed, we put on sea-boots and went for a visit to the powder hulk, and received a cor­di­al invit­a­tion to come on board, which we did later on, and then we went and had a look at the river, and wondered what kind of weath­er we should have next day. It did not look very prom­ising to see a great train­ing brig­antine labour­ing and pitch­ing as she tacked down past the entrance to the Haven under a lower top­sail, inner jib, and spanker, and we con­grat­u­lated ourselves on being snug in har­bour, and dole­fully thought of the mor­row, when we feared that we should be catch­ing a sim­il­ar or worse dust­ing on the way down to Sheer­ness.

Our worthy explo­sion­ist enter­tained us in the even­ing with the usual con­ver­sa­tion, shout­ing out all his remarks at the top of his voice, even when we were sit­ting togeth­er in his tiny cabin. We thought he did this by way of prac­tice, in order that when at length his cargo blew up, he might make his last words heard amid the crash of worlds. It is pleas­ant to take a walk on shore, and have a look at the island and the inn, with its quaint, low-ceiled rooms, which stand well below high-water mark. Here the rigours of sea cook­ery can be con­veni­ently mit­ig­ated by a din­ner on shore, for Mrs. Beckwith’s table is excel­lent, even if it be a trifle prim­it­ive. This inn seems to do a large trade for such a remote place; the front door opens into a low room with benches around it, on which sits rows of bar­gees engaged in a never-end­ing debate, each with a quart mug of beer in his hand, for they des­pise any smal­ler ves­sel. In the par­lour is a very fine spe­ci­men of a vis­it­ors’ book, full of graph­ic tales of yacht cruises, and eke with illus­tra­tions. One would think from the logs therein writ­ten that the weath­er in these parts must be extremely stormy, for nearly every vis­it­or has a tale, the good old tale, to tell of close reefs, heavy seas, crack­ing on and thrash­ing through, till one sin­cerely hopes that the moth­ers and fath­ers of the young and gal­lant yachts­men may never see this vis­it­ors’ book, and learn how great are the per­ils of the stormy Thames.

Hole Haven is, I think, at its best in the even­ing, when all is calm and peace­ful, and the tune­ful Dutch­man can be heard ser­en­ad­ing the stars upon his con­cer­tina, smoking the mel­low Canas­ter all the while. When ancient myth­o­logy comes to be rewrit­ten, and brought up to date, and the num­ber of the Muses increased to suit mod­ern devel­op­ments, then shall the Muse of Sea-song be drawn and rep­res­en­ted with a con­cer­tina. Was there ever a ves­sel without a con­cer­tina in the fore­castle? We feel sure that Orph­eus must have had one when he went on that buc­can­eer­ing exped­i­tion with the Argo­nauts, to say noth­ing of Arion and his music on the back of the dol­phin. Even here, in smoky Lon­don, the con­cer­tina which goes along the street at mid­night past my cham­bers calls up soft memor­ies of one of Green’s good Aus­trali­an clip­pers, and of balmy nights in the south-east trade wind, as she slipped along with all sail set, and the shreds of some ancient polka tun­ing up the while in the soft air of the first watch, and the South­ern Cross … but there, my part­ner, who is noth­ing if not prac­tic­al, is begin­ning to scoff, and wants to know who she was, and if I squeezed her hand!

A short dis­tance from Hole Haven, on the island, there is a curi­ous little round build­ing, which is believed to have been built by the Dutch, who embanked and reclaimed Can­vey Island, under the dir­ec­tion of Cor­neli­us Ver­muy­den, in the time of King James the First.

In enter­ing Hole Haven keep close to the east side, and if it is full of craft you can stand on a little way past the eel boats, and yet lie afloat at low water; this is a very good plan, unless one pro­poses to spend the even­ing ashore in the pub­lic-house, and wishes to be anchored near the land­ing-stage.

In going up to Hole Haven from below dur­ing the ebb, hug the oppos­ite or south shore until reach­ing the Middle or even the East Blyth buoy, and then cut across, for the ebb runs very strongly to the last on the Can­vey island side right down to the Chap­man: a bit of a les­son which we learnt at the cost of three hours or so one Sat­urday night, when it was fine and calm, and we had crossed over from the other side too soon, and found the wind fall­ing light­er and light­er, and ourselves drift­ing down and down to the Chap­man. By the time we reached the north side we had been set down quite to the light­house, and the wind was all gone, and it was a case of out oars and row; it seemed as if the last drain of the ebb would never be done. Glad we were at last to find our bow­sprit head­ing into the Haven, and to hear the rattle of the chain as we anchored in a snug berth, a hun­dred yards bey­ond Mr. Beckwith’s Inn. About mid­way along Can­vey Island, between Hole Haven and the Chap­man, there is a queer beacon on shore, look­ing just like a milliner’s lay fig­ure; what its exact mean­ing is we have not been able to dis­cov­er, although we tried to find out from a Coast­guard officer at Hole Haven; he said it was a land­mark for the pur­poses of nav­ig­a­tion, but when pressed to say what its exact use was, he told us we would find it in the charts, and finally admit­ted, on fur­ther cross-exam­in­a­tion, that he did not know what it was for.