The scene is a summer's afternoon, somewhere on the Thames, in the high Victorian age.

Pleasure boaters and picnickers laze away the hours on a drowsy backwater.

Despite the outdoor surroundings, everyone is immaculately and fashionably dressed.

The boats are sleek and elegant and so are the people.

It's smart enough to be Henley, or Oxford in Trinity term. But it isn't.

It's Canvey Island.

This is no fantasy, either.

Canvey in the age of Oscar Wilde and Three Men in a Boat was an elegant, upmarket place.

The line drawings, published here for the first time in the Echo, show why it had a reputation as the posh spot of the Thames Estuary.

Until the late 19th century, Canvey was still sometimes referred to locally as the Five Islands.

Creeks and channels threaded through the main mass of Canvey, splitting it up into smaller islets.

At high tide, pleasure-boaters could pass straight from the estuary into these waterways.

Skilled punters could reach the centre of the island by water.

Canvey became a popular destination for intrepid oarsmen and scullers, especially if, as in the picture, there was a young lady to impress, lolling in the beam end of the boat.

The local promoter Frederick Hester capitalised on this reputation when he transformed a number of muddy creeks and ditches on the east side of the island into a replica of Venice.

The result, phoney but fun, looked not unlike the modern Venice Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

Hester even claimed to have imported genuine gondolas from Venice, though there is some suspicion they consisted of a fairground job lot made from old packing cases.

It would have been typical of Hester's style if he had actually snapped them up from a bankrupt attraction in Skegness.

To build up Canvey as an upmarket resort, Hester next proposed something genuinely impressive and unique - the longest winter garden in the world.

For an idea of the scale involved, take a look at the spectacular winter garden in Great Yarmouth, then multiple it by a factor of about 50.

The artist's impressions published here, as with the picture of the punter, are taken from a new book, Canvey Island, a History, by landscape photographer Robert Hallmann.

Many such schemes get no further than the artist's impressions.

This vision actually came into partial fruition.

The original plan postulated an incredible six miles of continuous conservatory. In the event, around one mile of greenhouses, inspired by the Crystal Palace, was actually built and planted up.

To add to the uniqueness of the spectacle, a narrow gauge electric train was laid through the centre.

The writer A A Daly described "a handsome glass structure, shimmering in the sunlight, rearing its crystalline head, and lengthening its glittering body."

The centre was planted up with "luxuriant exotics, handsome flowering shrubs...creepers, palms and ferns...oranges, apricots, nectarines, peaches, grapes." At regular intervals there were "aviaries, fishponds and fountains."

Hester had created his fantasy world out of the Canvey marshes.

Alas, and not for the last time on Canvey, nature struck back at human dreams. Impressive though they were, the glasshouses and imitation Venetian palazzos had been build on skimpy footings.

In 1904, a higher than average surge tide in the estuary sapped the foundations of the mile-long conservatory, and the entire structure, along with its birds, fish and exotic plants, began to collapse.

One unkind wag commented that you would need a balloon rather than a train to view the scene. Hester sold up and left the island, and the winter gardens were converted to the utilitarian task of growing tomatoes and cucumbers. Even this function declined as the glasshouses slowly sank back into the Canvey mud.

As for the elegant high society that had once frequented Canvey, that had long since departed to other, less muddy, more predictable climes.