Today in Thames history, 1973: Canvey islanders sail ‘Oil armada’ to parliament

In 1973 a campaign began in order to stop 2 oil refineries being built on Canvey Island. It was to last 14 years.

Secretary of State for Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, had given the all clear for a second oil refinery to be built on the Island by Occidental Petroleum, over-ruling his own inspector’s initial decision.

In response, the Canvey Islanders built a grassroots campaign, “a peoples’ organisation and non-political. It was successfully conducted, with George Whatley at its head, at a time when there was no computer or mobile phone technology – so no emails, Facebook, twitter etc. Photocopiers were also few and far between, so printers like Roneos were relied on. The protest group had to continually think of ways of keeping their protest as high profile as possible in the media. This involved amongst other things going on marches in London.”

From the start, the opposition took the offensive against the oil company, choosing to discredit their corporate image. Their aim was to delay the start of building the oil refineries so long that it would cost the companies a lot of money; this was successful, in that the campaign delayed the start of building so long that it became no longer a viable proposition, especially as they were unable to get planning permission for expansion after they would have started building the refineries. But the campaign also had to fight the government establishment and bureaucracy.

Part of the deal that they built the new road off the Island ‘Canvey Way’. Land down Northwick was sold for the refinery and Northwick Road itself was widened to make way for tankers.  But Canvey Islanders would have none of it.

Canvey Island residents managed to benefit from the first ever risk analysis of a proposed refinery project. This officially recorded that Canvey people were 5 times more at risk of lung disease than coal miners. After that, the planning fight “was turned on its head. It was no longer the case that residents or an individual had to prove that a company’s activities were dangerous, rather that the company had to prove that it activities were safe before planning could be granted. Therefore Canvey’s residents were instrumental in the change to Societal Risk Analysis Reports which became the first chapter in today’s Health and Safety Regulations.”

A short chronology of the battle against the Castle Point Refinery

A 14 Year Battle – Part 1 (Janet Walden)

1965 – 2 million ton refinery on 232 acres. E.N.I. (Later United Refineries). Public Inquiry. Opposed by Essex County Council, Benfleet Urban District Council, Southend Council and numerous other objectors including the Refinery Resistance Group. Canvey UDC supported application after being flown to Italy by oil company to view their refineries. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by Secretary of State, Richard Crossman, after taking decision to the Cabinet (see Crossman Diaries) E.N.I. allowed application to lapse probably as 2 million tons not big enough. Laid road to site and marked out tank positions.

1970 – 6 million ton refinery 325 acres. Occidental. November Public Inquiry. Opposed by Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C. and Thurrock Council and numerous other objectors including Refinery Resistance Group. Essex C.C. supported application with conditions. Inspector found for the application which was approved by Secretary of State Peter Walker.

1971 – 4 million ton refinery on 541 acres. E.N.I. (U.R.L.) Public Inquiry. Opposed by all the local authorities, residents’ associations and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application and was supported by Sec. of State Peter Walker who said that ‘ a site in a more easterly position would receive sympathetic consideration’.

1973 – 4 million ton refinery on 314 acres. U.R.L. (E.N.I. and Murphy Oil). Public Inquiry. Opposed by all local authorities, residents and Refinery Resistance Group. Inspector found against application but was over-ruled by the Sec. of State Geoffrey Rippon. Massive protest.

June – Occidental started work.


June – Flixborough explosion – Chemical cyclohexane stored on Canvey

September –Anthony Crossland announced inquiry into possible revocation of U.R.L. planning permission.


February – Inquiry into revocation. Castle Point District Council (formerly Benfleet and Canvey U.D.C.) and Essex C.C. support revocation together with other objectors and Refinery Resistance Group.

March – Occidental announces review of their refinery – all work ceased.


February – Inquiry into refusal of Castle Point D.C. to determine detail of U.R.L. refinery.

March – U.R.L. inspectors revocation report issued. Inspector recommends revocation. Sec. of State Peter Shore  announces examination of North Thameside Petro-Chemical industry before he will decide on revocation.

June – Sec. of State will not determine U.R.L. detail plans until Health and Safety Executive has reported.

 November – U.R.L. obtain judgement in the High Court stating that their 1965 planning permission is still valid – Essex C.C. who fought the case are not going to appeal.


Thousands of Canvey and district residents took part in demonstrations against the refinery. At one of the protests, on 5th May 1973, a huge crowd  – 5,000 protestors – assembled at the local Council offices, and took part in a “funeral” procession. Young children wore gas masks, adults smog masks and black

Canvey oil protest 27 Aug 1973

armbands. Members of Canvey, Benfleet and Rayleigh Councils were among the protestors. They surged up Long Road, at times eight abreast, sing­ing and chanting their opin­ions of Mr. Rippon. Among the placards read: “JACK the RIPPON, the ENVIRONMENT BUTCHER” and “R.I.P. – P.O.N.” At one stage during the march oil tankers going to a local depot passed the demo and were met with a storm of boos. Marching to the refinery site, they planted white crosses and laid coffins there. Musician Norman Smith sounded The Last Post.

On the following Monday (May 7th) Canvey “housewives” travelled to London to demonstrate. They were met at Westmin­ster by Sir Bernard Braine, Conservative MP. for South East Essex, and met the Min­ister’s Personal Private Sec­retary. A letter was handed in at No. 10 Downing Street asking Prime Minister Ted Heath to reverse Mr. Rippon’s de­cision and renew faith “in the rights of the people”. It was “a plea from the fright­ened people” implacably op­posed to the refinery.

On Saturday 19 May 1973 700 Canvey Islanders organised an “oil-mada”, hundreds travelling by ship, boarding the boat at Tilbury, with banners and posters and ‘graveyard’ crosses, sailing up the Thames, to put hand a protest letter to the prime minister at 10 Downing Street. Geoffrey Rippon also agreed to speak with a deputation from the protest groups, (this was after Canvey Council gave the protestors an outright ‘no’ to proposed talks three weeks prior). “there was more than one boat involved this armada being just one of many protests the people of Canvey embarked upon.” (Ken Burgess)

Canvey oil protest 19 June 1973

Following this protestors stormed the ENI Building in London on 19 June. Before Occidental looked to build a refinery on Canvey in the 1970s, ENI Italian refining (United Refineries Ltd) had looked to build a refinery on Canvey where the West Canvey Marsh RSPB nature reserve is today. ENI aimed to build the refinery in 1964 and gained permission in 1965 but it did not come to fruition. It was expected to be completed by 1967, but pollution and vicinity to houses in case of emergency was a great pressure on the plans for the refinery. It would also appear United Refineries submitted an application to build around 1971-73 at the time of the refinery protests as Occidental were also taking an interest.

45 Members of Canvey Oil Refineries Action Committee stormed the building in Park Lane in a ‘secret’ demonstration, keeping the target secret all those taking part were aboard the coach. An Action Group spokesman explained: “About forty-five took part. They were a family group. Mr A Abbott Anderson, of E.N.I. said in the past that the people of Canvey were welcome and we took him at his word (“We barged into a board room meeting and took them by surprise.”) After discussion with him we withdrew”. Police were called to the scene.

Eventually demands changed and fewer installations were needed. Occidental had spent £65 million, of which £10 million went on the longest jetty in Europe at a mile in length. It was never used. The United Refineries’ land was also left unused.

An account of the fight from one of its main activists:

“Canvey people fight and win. (George Whately)

This was a massive David and Goliath fight, a clash of the Titans, with the ordinary people of Canvey Island on one side and the might of 2 oil companies, Occidental an American oil company and URL a subsidiary of ENI an Italian state owned oil company plus the might of the establishment.

Up till then no oil company had been beaten. There was no Health and Safety, there was no MOT on shipping (shipping flew flags of convenience), there was little or no information on Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) in a background of national economic interest where oil companies were bringing foreign investment to the Thames-side energy industries. Taking the impact to the local community into consideration and to be an environmentalist were considered anti-establishment.

Canvey oil protest march 14 May 1973

2000 acres of Canvey Island’s approximate 4200 acres would have been taken over by the 2 foreign oil companies and the existing energy companies. On Canvey and in its vicinity there were already:

Fisons – a chemical plant, Mobil – an oil refinery, Shell – an oil refinery, London and Coastal – an oil storage depot, British Gas – a liquid natural gas processing and storage plant with in ground and above ground storage facilities and ammunition loaded off and on at Chapman’s Point and then the threat of 2 more oil refineries Occidental and United Refineries Limited.

There was and still is one access and egress point on Canvey Island that is Waterside roundabout. There was then and still is today no fit for purpose evacuation plan.

The oil refinery fight was a fight by the people for the people that started with 4 people in my kitchen.

That day I was going to work totally oblivious of what was going on around me, wrapped up in my own world of bringing up a family. As I waited for the bus I saw a great number of white wooden stakes planted in the ground on the site of URL. I was shocked to find out it was the site for an oil refinery and a public enquiry was going on in Benfleet that day.

I took the afternoon off work and attended the inquiry where I met 2 men standing over a large map of Canvey Island with nearly half the map showing where the site of the oil refineries were going to be.

I asked them “What is the dark area?” They stated “That is where we are going to build our oil refineries, he is from Occidental and I’m from URL”. I stated “You can’t put oil refineries there, I live there”. They said “go away little man you can’t and you won’t stop us”. Those were the first shots fired in the Oil Refinery War. Subsequently planning permission was granted by the government to Occidental and URL to build 2 oil refineries.

As apathy is the biggest killer for any protester or campaigner, bad publicity is the one weapon the big corporate companies can’t fight as they will spend millions of pounds protecting their corporate image.

I was fortunate enough to be trusted by the people of Canvey Island to lead the publicity war against the 2 oil companies.

A spear is a powerful weapon. I was the point of the spear in the oil war, the strength of the spear was the ordinary people driving it forward. Without the ordinary people standing firm the fight would have been lost. It was like being a bundle of twigs bound together in one cause. One twig can be snapped very easily but if you bind a bundle of twigs together no matter how powerful you are you will never break them.

The Canvey Island Resistance Group was the most successful environmental group in Europe. The ordinary people stood alone and took on the power of the establishment and the power of the energy world and won against impossible odds.

There were many public meetings that galvanised the people into opposing the oil refineries plus there were many peaceful demonstrations and marches to publicise the plight of the people of Canvey Island, it was an all-out fight by the people for the people.

At first the full council was not listening to the people and would not let them speak to them at a council meeting, so the people invaded the public gallery and locked the council in the council chamber until they were heard. The police and the fire brigade had to release the councillors.

There was the ‘Cross for Canvey’ march where thousands carried white crosses and planted them on the proposed oil refinery site.

Open top buses went to London full of people to protest at 10 Downing Street and Westminster delivering a petition.

There was an ‘Armada’ of boats taken up the Thames to Westminster to coincide with the lobbying of Members of Parliament.

Road tankers used to come out of the Texaco depot 2 or 3 at a time making it very difficult to get past them in rush hour. Letters of complaint were ignored so very early one Saturday morning people used their own cars and blockaded the tankers which had been sent out in convoy. After that protest road tankers never went out in convoy again.

After the petition was presented to 10 Downing Street it was decided to do a referendum because a referendum is more powerful than a petition. We used sealed sweet jars with a slot cut in the top and went door to door giving the voting population a chance to say yes or no to the oil refineries. Needless to say the count was 98% did not want the oil refineries. This also gave the Oil Refinery Resistance group a mandate to speak on behalf of the people on this issue.

Sir Bernard Braine led many delegations of the committee to 2 hour meetings with the Secretary of State and other ministers during the fight. He along with others also gave evidence at a number of hard fought public enquiries and meeting with the newly formed Health and Safety Executive. He gave the longest speech in the House of Commons by an MP on the issue.

There were countless radio and television interviews I participated in. Two in particular, namely the ‘Today’ program and ‘Panorama’ type programmes also after the 6 o’clock TV news programs.

Canvey oil protest 7 May 1973

The Flixborough disaster was a turning point in the oil fight campaign. At Flixborough there was a ‘Nypro’ plant using Cyclohexane. This plant exploded killing 28 people due to an ‘unconfined vapour cloud explosion’. At the time I exposed on the ‘Today’ program that at one of the storage depots on Canvey Island 5 times the amount of Cyclohexane was being stored as well as a whole witches’ brew of other volatile fuels.

After a lot of pressure was put on the government the Health and Safety Executive was born. The first 2 studies undertaken by this group of scientists into high risk fire industry and the societal risks they impose was the Canvey 1 and the Canvey 2 reports. These reports took 2 years each to complete and cost £400,000 each. These reports are no the corner stone of societal risk and planning law.

During this time there were a number of notable incidents such as a gas road tanker which crashed near a holiday camp in Spain, an ammunition ship which rammed Canvey sea wall, a petroleum  fire incident at Langley in Slough, a terrorist bomb which exploded on a tank at a depot on Canvey, a large spill of high octane fuel at the Texaco depot at Canvey, a gas ship collision in Tokyo harbour, shipping collisions on the Thames and many other incidents. The publicity of these and other incidents were used to gain a number of public enquiries where the peoples’ voice could be heard.

The oil companies employed top legal eagles and the ordinary people took on top barristers at these enquiries which took many weeks. You don’t often score points off these very big QCs, when you do it’s memorable. For example I can remember a man by the name of Bill Deal. He was a fireman union representative being cross examined by a QC. The QC said to Mr Deal “You have told the enquiry it takes 20 minutes to get a foam tender from Basildon to Canvey. Are you a fire officer, do you have this qualification or that qualification?” Bill replied” No,sir”. The QC then said “So how can you tell this enquiry that it takes 20 minutes to get a foam-tender from Basildon to Canvey?” “Quite easily sir”, replied Bill, “I drive the tender”. (I have never forgotten that).

During this time the Richard Crossman diaries (he was Secretary of State for the Environment) were being published in the Times on Sunday. What they exposed was that there was a deal done between the British Government and the Italian government so that BP could build a refinery in Italy as foreign investment and ENI subsidiary URL could build a refinery in the UK as foreign investment. This was a done deal before the inquiry was convened. I tried to use this information at the public inquiry but the QC stated that it wasn’t admissible and it was upheld by the inspector. I left the inquiry stating that I had been gagged. I phoned Sir Bernard Braine at the House of Commons and he said he would raise he matter that day at Prime Ministers question time in Parliament. As I only had a limited amount of annual leave which I used to attend these inquiries, I went back to work at the Bank of England. The next day I got a call at 10 o’clock to attend the Establishments with immediate effect. Apparently Sir Bernard Braine raised the matter at question time to the Prime Minister who in turn questioned the Secretary of State who then stated that my evidence was admissible. They knew I worked at the Bank of England and so they contacted the Governor to give me leave with immediate effect so that I could attend the inquiry.

When I entered the inquiry the QC for the oil companies was in full flight doing his summing up. The Inspector stopped the proceedings and called me into chambers. The inspector said my evidence was now admissible and therefore I was not being gagged and he would take it as written evidence. I challenged him stating that “Is this a public inquiry or not? He was taken aback. I then said that there are hundreds of people I represent and they deserve to be heard in what I have to say in my evidence otherwise I’m still being gagged. He agreed to let me give my evidence in full. We went back to the inquiry and the Inspector told the QC of his decision. The QC could either finish and then they would hear my evidence or he could hear my evidence and then finish his summing up. The QC chose the latter and as my evidence took over 4 hours we went into an evening session. Then the QC finished his summing up and in doing so stated that he and the company he represented objected to me being able to present my proof of evidence. I challenged the QC saying’ you a QC deny me my judicial rights?’ The Inspector intervened telling the QC he was the one who ruled the inquiry not him. (The QC is now a judge. If I ever go up before him I’ll be going down for a long stretch). During the campaign I know I upset a lot of powerful people, but to me the truth had to be heard.

The Occidental Oil Company put up 9 professional public relations officers to combat one spokesman, me, for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group. As I told them when we clashed, you are professionals and I do it part time and weekends.

Canvey oil protest 11 Oct 1973 – councillors locked in their offices by protestors

My favourite incident was when we took 2 coach loads of protesters to the Occidental Offices in London. When we got off the coach to meet the president of Occidental and their PRO man we surrounded them with 4 crying women. Men can’t talk to crying women. At the same time some bright spark in their office decided to put 2 fingers in a ‘V’ sign under a copy machine and then run off loads of copies and throw them out of the window. As they cascaded down I grabbed one and making sure I had the attention of the press photographers I cast it in front of the president and said ‘that’s your answer to the people of Canvey. Needless to say the president stated it was not true and he would sack whoever did it. Their corporate image never recovered from that incident as it went global.

There were lots of stories like this during the campaign and those who stood there and were counted have their own memories.

Both oil companies were held up for long enough for the building of oil refineries to become a non-viable proposition. Ironically when the half constructed refinery was being dismantled for scrap, the taking down of the chimney was going to be done by world famous steeple jack Fred Dibnah with all the local dignitaries watching. After all the years of hard work there was no room at the inn for the Oil Refinery Resistance Group, they were refused an invitation by the council to the celebration.

The day before this celebration, the prepared chimney fell down on its own with no one watching. Eventually the dog leg jetty was also stripped of its wealth.

It’s the first and only time that oil companies were beaten in Europe. That was by ordinary people saying ‘NO’. URL company died that day and Occidental Oil Refinery site RIP – Rust in Peace.

Yes I went on to stop Calor Gas processing and storing liquid natural gas at a later date, but that’s another story. Of all the Thames-side terminals that were in existence at the start of the Oil Refinery Campaign only 2 are left, namely Calor on the old British Gas site and Oikos which is on the old London and Coastal Oil Wharf site.

Canvey is a safer place than it was, but people still need to be vigilant.”

This was largely sourced from this great Canvey island history site, which has loads more and great photos

The abandoned site



This was not the last Thames protest armada either: there were at least three docklands armadas in the 1980s to protest against highhanded redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs in the interests of capital and business, ignoring the local people and the destruction of their jobs.

During the campaigning of the eighties against the London Docklands Development Corporation, representatives of both the Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG) and Docklands Community Poster Project (DCPP) would attend the different meetings of the federated tenant and action groups around the Docklands area, as well as inviting representatives to their own meetings. A comment was made at one such event, that it was time to take another petition to parliament to challenge the imposition of the government appointed Docklands Development Corporation, which had effectively removed powers from the democratically elected local authorities.

Another delegate pointed out that since both Docklands and parliament were both situated on the river, that made it a potential route for delivery of the petition. Someone else spoke up to say that he was a lighterman in Wapping, and owned a barge – perhaps an appropriate means of transport for this journey? There was a further proposal that this barge could be decorated. The idea was taken up by JDAG and taken around the meetings of other Dockland groups, and in this way grew from a petition to a major event. People wanted to go from each Docklands location, so the hiring of pleasure cruisers was planned. These could also be decorated. And what would all these people do when they arrived at parliament? The Greater London Council (GLC) were approached. They provided funding for the event, plus use of Jubilee Gardens close to the pier opposite parliament where the pleasure boats could discharge their passengers.

Jean Lowe from JDAG together with Stewart Luck of the North Southwark Community Development Group undertook the organisation, while the DCPP co-ordinated East London arts groups and provided imagery, design and publicity. The main barge was decorated with a 24’ x 12’ banner with an image that was to become the emblem of the community fight back. This was a dragon in the shape of the river as it runs through Docklands, the dragon of myth and legend, a force of the underworld, and the power of repressed emotion. The symbol caught the imagination of local groups and a wealth of ephemera was generated – T shirts, mugs, letter headings, badges, balloons, posters and more banners.

The Basement Arts Workshop printed local area banners for the barge and pleasure boats. However first the barge had to be prepared. This was co-ordinated by Graham Downes of Cultural Partnerships, who worked with a host of young people to paint the barge, hoist the banners, ensure their safety on the voyage and provide tannoy and music. A thousand people took to the river. They sailed to parliament broadcasting their message and heralded by music and songs. It was a moving moment to hear the Armada’s progression up river, cheered on by crowds identifiable by their banners and balloons in the blue and red that had come to symbolise the Docklands fight back. At Jubilee Gardens more music, dancing and banners welcomed those who disembarked at an event that combined arts festival with political rally.

Ken Livingstone welcomed all, and members of the Labour shadow cabinet were asked to address how they would address the issues affecting the people of Docklands from day one of coming to power. Each politician was presented with a copy of the People’s Charter for Docklands, reminding them of their pledge.

This was not the end. There were three People’s Armadas to Parliament between the years of 1984 and 1986. Poems and songs were written about the issues and at a later Armada, Cultural Partnership co-ordinated an enormous barge of musicians, whose contributions filled the air on both sides of the river. They were also pyrotechnics experts, and at another Armada the flotilla of boats circled at North Woolwich by the LDDC offices to the sound of cannon fire. These were events that brought lumps to the throat and tears to the eye. Thousands of people, old and young, who would not have otherwise taken part in political campaigning, took part in this, then continued in an unprecedented involvement. The politicians continued to speak in support of the Docklands communities. Miners leading the strike of 1984/5 held meetings with the Docklands groups, and launched a campaign entitled ‘Don’t let the Mines go the same way as the Docks’. They were so impressed with the Docklands dragon, that they created their own ‘pit dragon’ as a massive carnival costume worn by young people, and attended the Armada celebrations. Though events such as this could not on their own enable the major shift in political focus that only a change in government would bring, much was achieved on the way. The Armadas also marked a shift from activism to pro-activism in the Docklands political campaigning that became a hallmark of this time, and would be further developed through such campaigns as the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks. They also marked a moment for the artists where their cultural interventions had moved from the margins to the centre of the agenda of resistance.

The above was nicked from here


  1. Ben · February 10


    I run a page called The Liquid Highway all about the Thames and wondered if you have high res of the passenger boat shots here you could email?


    • mudlark121 · February 13

      Hi Ben

      Thanks for the enquiry… I don’t have high res images sorry. I too mine off the internet and they are as they are.
      I’ll have a look and see if I can suggest any possible sources.



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