Eureka Island ... The islands of Essex...

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The Essex coast is a place of magical, weird and wonderful islands. Such places in other parts of the country tend to be inhabited by eccentrics and recluses. Essex islands, by contrast, are often snapped up by shrewd and savvy business brains, who know how to turn an island into a going concern.

Horsea Island in the Walton-on-the-Naze backwaters is one of the country's most successful bloodstock operations, Osea Island in the Blackwater was the scene for Britain's first substance-abuse clinic for the rich, and Sunken Island, in the Stour Estuary, with its famous murder rate, was bought by a lawyer - although he insisted that he was not on the lookout for clients.

There is another Essex island that also holds a respectable place in this tradition of business ingenuity, in a way all its own.

Whether Canvey Island can be described as weird and wonderful is a moot point. Yet it does have a history of inventing and selling colourful items of transport.

Is there any explanation for this extraordinary inventive streak on Canvey? Possibly the island's remoteness has something to do with the urge to concoct ways of getting on and off it a bit more quickly.

Whatever the causes, though, this tradition is very much alive. Its latest manifestation is the extraordinary invention devised, built and vigorously marketed by Canvey couple Jo Thatcher and Russell Smallwood-Hurn. It is pretty safe to say that the world has never before seen anything quite like it on wheels before.

It combines three elements that most of us would have thought were rather disparate: a fire engine, a stretch-limo, and a disco. Yet the combination works a treat. The vehicle offers all the fun of a non-stop disco, with the added advantage of travel, and the potential for countless magical mystery parties. This combination of brainwave, engineering sass and wheels goes back a long way on the island.

It can be traced at least as far back as 1890, when one islander, a certain Frederick Hester, contrived a remarkable feat. He designed and installed Britain's first regular public transport monorail. Hester was something of a visionary, who foresaw the modern traffic jam, years before the invention of the internal combustion engine. The monorail was his pioneering solution.

It was a lot more than that, however. Hester planned another grand scheme, the world's largest winter garden, covering six square miles - not far short of Canvey's entire land space. He actually built enough of this scheme for one visiting journalist to call the Canvey Winter Gardens scheme "a rival to Kew Gardens." The monorail was intended to provide a grandstand circuit around the this fabulous array of buildings. Hester planned to run his rail in a ring on the sea-wall, taking passengers on a 14-mile circuit of the island.

He succeeded in laying a mere two miles, running from Shell Beach to what he had so far built of the Winter Gardens, to the west of Canvey Point. The monorail design was Hester's own, built for him in local workshops. Four separate carriages carried a complement of 24 passengers. A single horse, which sounds as if it had drawn the short straw in the stable, hauled this load along a single standard rail line.

The monorail was intended as a showpiece. Hester hoped that his patent would catch on and be used in high streets across the country. It never happened, of course. Hester himself ended in the bankruptcy court in 1905, and disappeared from history. But the Canvey tradition in transport innovation didn't disappear so easily.

It switched from land to sea, and generated something truly remarkable - the world's first commercial catamaran.

Perhaps it took a Canvey mind to think it up. The first cat took to the water in Small Gains Creek in 1949, the brainchild of two boatbuilding brothers, Roland and Francis Prout. They had joined their father's firm, G Prout and Sons, which serviced a profitable and growing market, making folding dinghies and canoes.

Roland and Francis had never visited the south Pacific, but they had read accounts of the war-boats used by Polynesian warriors. These boats had a legendary ability to outspeed and out-manoeuvre their enemies. Keen racing yachtsmen both (they represented Britain at the 1952 Olympics), the Prout brothers were also interested in outspeeding and out-manoeuvring their opponents. They wanted some of this Polynesian action, and they decided that the unique twin hulls were the key to the warboats' success.

Their first catamaran was made by the simple process of lashing two canoes together. Crude it might have been, but the experimental craft proved so successful that the brothers set about creating a purpose-built catamaran. They used the tools and materials already to hand in their Small Gains factory.

The result was the legendary Shearwater One. The first catamaran made its debut at the 1954 Burnham-on-Crouch regatta. If the unusual craft raised any patronising smiles, they were quickly wiped off faces when the Shearwater won the regatta outright. It went on to win the Cross-Channel sailing race, beating all conventional dinghies, including one sailed by the legendary Uffa Fox.

The Shearwater became the motherlode for all subsequent catamaran designs around the world, and helped to set up Prout Brothers of Canvey as one of the best known names in the British boat industry.

Back on land, the caravan community is becoming increasingly familiar with another offbeat item of Canvey transport, the Clipcar. Conjured up by Canvey man Norman Richardson, the Clipcar is designed to retain all the charms of the traditional caravan, while eliminating its most notoriously unpopular feature, especially with other motorists. Gone is the wobble.

Explaining how he dreamed up the Clipcar, Mr Richardson said: "We're all familiar with the way caravans snake and bob about on the road. This is something which can worry other motorists, and which intimidates many people who might otherwise enjoy caravanning."

The Clipcar eliminates the conventional towbar. In its place it substitutes a roof projection, which slides and fastens onto the roof of the towing car. Mr Richardson's own pitch describes the set-up in a nutshell. "It turns a problem into a home," he says.

Like other Canvey transport inventions, the Clipcar has a curiosity element. "People are fascinated by it," Mr Richardson said. "If I stop in a car-park, they'll come up and question me about it. Nobody's ever seen anything like it before."

No, nobody's ever seen anything quite so extraordinary before. Until the next Canvey invention.

Business Essex July 2005.

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