Marking 70 years since Canvey Island’s catastrophic flood

On Saturday, 28th January, Thames21 hosted ‘Below the Wrack Line’ – a photo exhibition and film screening at the War Memorial Hall on Canvey Island, as part of the Building Resilience in Communities (BRIC) project.

©Jack Delmonte

Thames21 teamed up with professional photographer Jack Delmonte to use the creativity of photography and the power of images to deepen understanding of flooding and enrich community networks. Three residents, Lesley, Beverly and Liam, produced more than 360 photographs through community participation in photography workshops at the Yellow Door youth hub. Twenty of these photographs were carefully selected and curated by the group to best represent life ‘below the wrack line’ for this exhibition.

Wrackline. Noun. The line of debris left on the beach by high tide.  The wrack is usually made up of eel grass, kelp, crustacean shells, feathers, bits of plastic, and all kinds of litter. Canvey Island sits below high tide sea level – below the wrackline – making it vulnerable to flooding but also producing a unique and intriguing environment.

The exhibition explored the experience of Canvey Island as a wetland environment and marked the 70th anniversary of the Great Flood of January 1953, which devastated Canvey Island. The photographs prompted discussion amongst residents, as the different places and things depicted in the images evoked stories and memories.

A screening of two films exploring Canvey as a watery place followed the exhibition. The first film, produced by Jack Delmonte, features interviews with three survivors of the 1953 flood, showing old photographs and footage of Canvey as they detail their memories of the tragedy. The second film, ‘Until the Tide Creeps In’, produced by Jessi Gutch, is a lyrical dystopian film featuring residents Jan, Malcolm and George, who fear a disaster which is not dissimilar to a real archive of the past.

©Jack Delmonte

A lively panel discussion accompanied the film screening, featuring flood survivor Joan, film feature Jan, and photography workshop participant Liam. The discussion was facilitated by Thames21’s deputy CEO Chris Coode.

The discussion highlighted how Canvey’s landscape and community have shaped the lives of residents, with panel member Liam Hetherson saying, ‘It does define you as a person growing up, just even down to the fact that I love a coastal view wherever I go on holiday’. Suggestions for improvements to Canvey’s infrastructure were made, as one audience member highlighted ‘our drains have got to be kept up to a very high standard’, and another stated ‘there are so many people on the island’, and questioned ‘how are they all getting off’ because there are ‘only two roads both off of the same roundabout’.

©Jack Delmonte

But most importantly, the discussion celebrated Canvey’s community feeling, as one audience member declared that, ‘there is no more better community spirit anywhere else than on Canvey’, and panel member Joan Lythgoe stated, ‘I think Canvey’s a lovely place I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else’. The discussion was left with hope for the future, as panel member Jan Dunford said that what she ‘would like to see is Canvey left in the hands of the next generation where they can embrace the environment, look after the island, and make sure that we are the community that it should be’. The discussion overall demonstrated the unity of residents in their attachment to Canvey and the irrefutably steadfast sense of community in this unique place.

The exhibition was also displayed in a pop-up stall at the local shopping centre, the Knightswick, on Wednesday, 1st and Thursday, 2nd February. Canvey residents stopped to observe and discuss the photographs. They were shown the interactive Canvey StoryMap, which features the exhibition photographs, and provided with flood preparation leaflets and flood resilience surveys.

‘Below the Wrack Line’ prompted conversations about Canvey’s past, present and future in relation to flooding and demonstrated the resilience of the Canvey community in the face of adversity.