It remains the land of Thatcher (John Keeble/Getty Images)

October 18, 2021   7 mins

Southend is an unremarkable sort of place. If anyone knows anything about it, it is that it has the longest pier in the world: necessitated by the extent of the change between high and low tides at the mouth of the Thames estuary, from the days when the purpose of the pier was not to take a stroll and visit an amusement arcade or some other entertainment, but to allow steamers to arrive from London, bearing crowds of cockney day-trippers. They would crowd Southend’s beaches and eat pints of whelks and cockles and winkles, and drink beer and paddle in the sea — for Southend-on-Sea is so called because it is where the River Thames ends and sea begins. If this seems an unduly pre-war conception of the place, it has (compared with other parts of England) evolved slowly. It has the various trappings of modern life — from its drug-dealers to its consumerist vulgarity — but its kiss-me-quick seaside entertainments are the same, and the many streets of salubrious suburban housing largely identical to how they were from the Thirties to the Fifties when the town was represented in parliament by Chips Channon.

The parliamentary seat of Southend West had only three MPs in 86 years, which itself reflects the sense of cultural and community continuity in the area. Channon was succeeded at Westminster by his son Paul, who after almost 40 years himself was succeeded by David Amess, who was murdered doing his job as an MP last Friday. Sir David’s atrocious killing appeared random: we may never know why his murderer settled upon him, and upon committing an act that astonished and horrified quiet, ordinary Southend, which had until then remained in its own distinct corner of Essex, harmlessly going its own way – exactly like its late Member of Parliament. The murder of Jo Cox in 2016 was a comparable atrocity: but insofar as these acts of wickedness can ever have a rationale, her murder was committed by a constituent with a neo-Nazi obsession, who is now serving a whole life sentence, rather than by an outsider who seems to have settled on the MP for Southend West for reasons yet to be determined.

Leigh-on-Sea, the part of the Southend conurbation where Sir David was holding the surgery where he was murdered, still has evocations of this part of the Essex coast from the age before it became suburbanised. Leigh is a place with one of the best qualities of life in the country. The housing stock is mainly of high specification, though not extortionately expensive, and the marine views come with easy proximity to London. Crime is not considered a problem: all of this underlines why the shock of Sir David’s murder has hit the community so hard. It is not merely because of his well-attested popularity, but because this relatively sedate and unpretentious part of Essex is not remotely used to experiencing shocking events of this nature. In a different age, Channon made frequent visits to his constituency — more so than most MPs of the era — and found his constituents diverting. From his occasional descriptions of them — mayors who would like a knighthood and the odd internal wrangling in the Conservative Association — not a lot has changed in that respect either.

Historically, on the main shipping route from the northern continent into London, Leigh was once a prosperous port. These days, quite a few of the local residents have little boats of various descriptions that they play about in on the water. One can see them grounded on the vast mud flats offshore when the tide is out. The North Sea is but a few miles away to the east, and quite a few locals take their craft off past Shoeburyness and Foulness Island, and fish for a hobby. Leigh started off as a fishing village, and what remains of that enterprise notably harvests the cockles that still give visitors the definitive Southend experience.

But, then, in the 18th century, the channels that led to Leigh silted up and the marine trade dried up; while at the same time, tiny Southend, to its east, was becoming a popular resort. Much of old Leigh — vestiges of which still exist in a few wood-framed buildings and in the medieval church — was demolished in the 19th century when one of Southend’s two railways was constructed. It starts at Fenchurch Street and leads through the mainly charmless flatlands of south Essex, calling for the last few decades at the new town of Basildon, which Sir David represented from 1983 until moving on to Southend in 1997. A second railway, from Liverpool Street, takes a more northerly route, through a Brentwood now made famous by the delights of The Only Way Is Essex, and comes into Southend from the north. Their arrival, 140 or so years ago, marked the transformation of the area into part of the commuter belt, and initiated the wave of late Victorian building that has marked out much of outer Southend ever since. It also represented a social change that brought a large, respectable middle class into the area, further waves of which have arrived ever since, their aspirations sustained by the town’s excellent grammar schools. It has also helped secure a Conservative majority in what since 1950 have been Southend’s two parliamentary seats, and which had been held by the party since the constituency was carved out of the former South-East Essex seat in 1918. In political as well as in most other respects, the area is one that over decades has undergone no radical change.

Leigh is also an artists’ colony, with an estimated 70 painters, ceramicists and other creative people working in the town, selling their work through several galleries. Not least because of this, it has become the smart end of Southend; as elsewhere in Essex, the decline of the high street has led to premises being filled with bars and restaurants, and the service economy taking over while many of Southend West’s inhabitants take themselves off to London every day. It’s not exactly the Côte d’Azur, but it serves a remarkably similar purpose for the those who live in and around it. And it is emphatically the sort of place where people don’t get murdered in cold blood, least of all a hugely popular Member of Parliament.

Many of Sir David’s constituents would fit the profile for Essex Man, or his wife. The various waves of new, ambitious residents who have moved in to Southend since the war had their roots in the East End of London: they may even have first seen the place on one of those days trips to paddle in the sea and eat cockles, ice cream and sticks of rock, or to play in the one of the amusement parks, the most famous of which was the Kursaal. It was one of the first such entertainments in the country when it opened in 1901; it closed in the Seventies and the building it was situated in stands empty near the town’s so-called “golden mile”. The local government ward around it records one of the highest levels of social deprivation in the country; Southend is a town that has extremes of wealth and poverty. Much of its centre was redeveloped in the Sixties as the tourist trade collapsed with the advent of cheap foreign holidays, a succession of ugly concrete blocks being built to try to transform the place into a business centre. To an extent, it worked: the town is now home to the central VAT administration, another tribute to its sedateness.

Essex veered to Conservatism from the moment most agricultural workers were enfranchised in the 1880s. At the 1886 general election, which put Salisbury’s Unionists in for six years, most of the county returned a Unionist MP. The great agricultural depression that hit rural England after 1873 hit the newly-enfranchised men hard, and Liberal free trade policies were held to blame for it. Even at the Liberal landslide of 1906, when all of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and all but one seat in Suffolk went Liberal, about two-fifth of Essex remained Tory. After the Great War the party’s grip on the Essex electorate stiffened, helped by the enfranchisement of women who followed Mrs Pankhurst’s example and voted Tory. A story told by the distinguished journalist Colin Welch, when campaigning for Rab Butler in Saffron Walden at the 1945 election — when Labour won a landslide — sums up the independent and, indeed, aspirational mind of the locals even then. A local titled lady, who felt she was doing her civic duty in getting a Labour government elected, approached a yeoman farmer leaning on his five-bar gate to tell him why Mr Attlee deserved his vote. The farmer raised his tweed hat, listened politely and at the end of the lecture simply said: “Ma’am, oi’ve made moi poile, and yo’ can go ter buggery.”

The new towns and the influx from the East End post-war, especially in Sir David’s part of Essex, brought in Labour voters in large numbers for the first time: but the combination of essentially 18th century temperament of the indigenous population — who, like the farmer, just wished to be left alone to make their pile — and the barrow-boy inheritance of the East End proved a lethal cocktail to socialism. Mrs Thatcher’s promise in 1979 to create a new class of property-owners by allowing the sale of council houses to their tenants, and her subsequent deregulation of the City that broke the stranglehold on it of the old boy network and allowed the barrow boys to become filthy rich lit the blue touch paper under an Essex economic boom. New private estates popped up, wine bars opened, and Essex Man was invented: it was a short step from there to TOWIE. Essex became a county of small businesses: the Tory betrayal of such people after Black Wednesday led to half of Essex’s seats going Labour in the Blair triumph of 1997. Today every single seat in Essex is Conservative, reflecting the local, still Thatcherite ideology of hard work, aspiration and reward. More than ever they are making their piles, and socialism and any other doctrine can go to buggery.

Southend is, but in other ways is not, the Essex of what has become the popular imagination. It has a very high population density, yet its conurbation is bordered by marshlands where it is not bordered by the sea. It has a relatively unchanging culture, a tribute perhaps to the high proportion of its residents who are over 55. Yet it also has a strong youth culture, as its nightlife testifies, but many of the young people’s grandparents were putting themselves about on the Front back in the early Sixties, when mods and rockers would gather there in the hope of a pitched battle. As with all Essex towns, there have been new housing developments in recent years, though mainly on the periphery: and Southend, with what in recent years has been renamed London Southend Airport, looks outward in a way that perhaps much of Essex does not.

It is deep Essex not in the way that one often thinks of the term – the picture postcard villages such as Finchingfield or the Bardfields, 30 miles to the north, or the ancient market towns such as Thaxted and Saffron Walden – but in the sense of its distinct culture, bred for three or four generations out of the East End, and which made its new home on the mudflats of the Thames Estuary. It is in that that its Conservatism lies, why it and Sir David Amess took to each other so naturally and so well, and why despite its pockets of poverty the Left has never made any impact there. And in this generally happy world of its own making, it is no wonder the shock of what happened to an entirely innocent member of the Essex family on Friday is so visceral, and so hard to absorb.

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries (Volume 2): 1938-43, edited by Simon Heffer, is published by Hutchinson.

Professor Simon Heffer is a historian and journalist