Cold Case 2 – Down By the Jetty

Southend Pier
Southend Pier

Of all the places I habitually walk, the Thames Estuary has the biggest claim on my affections. I don’t think I’ve ever had a disappointing walk there. Elation doesn’t always last. But that’s not the fault of the place. Just the fact that whatever chased you out of the house will still be there when you get back.

For years I only did one route, first discovered in the pages of Timeout. I would get the train to Benfleet, about fifty minutes journey from Fenchurch Street, and walk along the creek to Leigh-on-Sea. After admiring cockle sheds and pubs, I would return via Hadleigh Castle, on a spur above the marshes, with a panoramic view of the estuary. I loved the walk so much I didn’t see any need to change it except maybe to reverse the direction of travel.

It was years before I realised that there was more than one way to swing a cat. The most obvious being to swap the wheel for a spoke (too many metaphors colliding here but you know what I mean?) and carry on along the promenade to Southend. Later still I discovered Canvey Island, some of which, at least on the west side, you could walk without seeing a soul. It is a bit busier today: there is new walking infrastructure and signage. Yes, depending on the wind direction your nostrils may be challenged by landfill wafting over the creek. And it would help if you were interested in industrial archaeology or oil storage and distribution, caravan design or pub rock. It isn’t mandatory, and nobody will test you. All you need to do is enjoy the orchids growing in the power station ashes, the fennel billowing above the concrete wall, the curlew and the police sirens.

At some stage too we discovered the sea wall beyond Shoeburyness – on MOD land but open to walkers at weekends. We visited Foulness Island when it still had a pub, The George & Dragon (closed 2007) and you had to call ahead the day before to get through the MoD checkpoint. We explored the Roach and the Crouch and the fantastic Dengie peninsular. On long summer days, I still managed to run out of daylight and invariably miss a train home from Southminster entailing a two-hour wait.

I’ve enjoyed them all in their way, but one of my favourites is Southend Pier. You have to pick your time: a weekday is good. I like to walk right to the end (1.33 miles) and around the back of the RNLI station. Just sit and watch the tide run or trace my family’s watery connections to the marginal territory we call home.

So when I came across a mention of the pier in Fermin Rocker’s memoir, I was already primed to react. It didn’t feel like information read and dutifully noted. It felt like something precious discovered on a walk.

In last week’s cold case, I looked at Rudolph Rocker’s wartime incarceration in Alexandra Palace. Now, reading his son’s memoir, I realise that before Ally Pally, the Anarchist had been banged up in the Olympia exhibition centre and then on The Royal Edward, moored in the Thames Estuary, three miles off Southend.

RMS Royal Edward
RMS Royal Edward

The trip to see his father was not without a certain kind of glamour. He enjoyed the steam train ride from London and the little electric train to the pier’s end. The small launch out to the steamer was also exciting. Once onboard, he remembered, security was less severe than Olympia – he could hug his father – and the visiting times longer.

I found the description of Rocker’s arrest very moving.

‘The real blow came a few weeks later when two detectives entered our home and placed my father under arrest. It was something for which I had been totally unprepared. I must have had a premonition that this was going to be a long separation. In wild despair I threw my arms around my father, clinging to him with all my might and obstinately refusing to let go. When I was finally torn away, I cast myself on the floor, howling and sobbing. Through my tears I saw him being led away and the door, which he was never to enter again, close behind his back. The sense of loss that seized me at that moment was indescribable. I felt instinctively that this was the end of an era for me and that life would never be the same again.’

Soon the knock came for poor Fermin’s mother as well. Her fate was Holloway and then Aylesbury Gaol. Luckily, Fermin had many aunts and uncles and a cheerful spirit. He needed it, you feel.

My only ‘insight’ into anarchist family life comes from Conrad and is very bleak. I’m thinking of Verloc and family in The Secret Agent. He was an agent-provocateur rather than an anarchist so perhaps shouldn’t count – but his suicide vested comrades aren’t exactly the Larkins either.

Fermin’s memoir is a foil to Conrad’s dark vision. The Rockers are a loving, and one feels, ‘functional’ family. Not perfect: most parents today would probably raise an eyebrow at leaving a child at home whilst they went off to meetings at particularly busy (e.g. strike) times, but it didn’t seem to do any lasting damage. If he was sometimes lonely, he never seems to have felt abandoned or neglected.

Fermin was reunited with his parents in 1918 when his mother left prison. They travelled from Greenwich to Holland to join his father, who had gone there a few months before, after a prisoner exchange. The journey took two whole days as their vessel had to join a convoy, take a circuitous route around mined areas, and couldn’t travel at night.

Fermin went on to become a commercial artist in New York. He returned to London in 1972 with his wife and son and eventually devoted himself to painting. He illustrated his memoir, The East End Years (Freedom Press, 1998) with drawings in the Edward Ardizzone mould. I can’t wait to track down some of his paintings when our own barbed wire disappears.

Fermin Rocker's painting of Tufnell Park
Fermin Rocker’s painting of Tufnell Park

‘Fermin Rocker, Painter from a family of London anarchists’ https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/oct/26/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries visited Wed 20 Jan 2021.

https://www.andrewwhitehead.net/blog/category/fermin%20rocker visited Wed 20 Jan 2021. Much excellent information on Fermin Rocker from his obituarist Andrew Whitehead’s blog, including this fantastic painting of Tufnell Park. On return to London the Rockers lived just around the corner from the station, in Anson Road. He died in 2004, aged 96.

The Royal Edward by Unknown – Ship Photo Gallery at the Great War Primary Documents Archive direct image link, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22413233

The Royal Edward was only a floating prison for a few months. The Evening Mail reported, unironically, that prisoners with deep pockets could upgrade to first class accommodation if they required it. It became a troop carrier, was hit by a torpedo in the Aegean, and sank in four minutes with the loss of one thousand lives.

‘British Troop Ship Sunk’, The Evening Mail, Wednesday 18 August 1915. https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

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