Remembering the Merchant Navy

Unveiling the Plymouth monument

Paul Wright MNM FNI, tells how the Merchant Navy’s part in war has now formally been given long overdue recognition

The Red Ensign has been flown on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London since the day it was built in 1919, but for many years members of the Merchant Navy, the fourth service, were excluded from remembrance ceremonies, including the march-past at the Cenotaph.

In Plymouth, representatives of the Merchant Navy were similarly excluded from the Service of Remembrance at the Naval War Memorial until 1990, when a wreath was laid on behalf of the Merchant Navy by Captain Kingston, Master of the Atlantic Conveyor. There was acrimony in the city about the lack of civic recognition of the sacrifices Merchant seafarers had made. As a result, the Merchant Navy Association decided to fund and erect a memorial of its own. In 1995 a design based on the shape of an oil tanker was agreed. The plan was to locate the memorial on a wall close to Plymouth’s Mayflower Steps, but the site was found unsuitable, so it was mounted on an ancient wall close to the Barbican. It was unveiled in January 1996.

Year of the Seafarer

SS Maplewood

SS Maplewood, torpedoed by the U-boat U-35 off Sardinia in 1917. Over 17,000 of Britain’s civilian seafarers lost their lives in World War I; over 36,000 in World War II. Many more were wounded or taken prisoner. Photo: Bundesarkhiv

1997 was designated the Year of the Seafarer. A leading member of the Plymouth Branch of the Merchant Navy Association proposed that ‘a bronze statue of a seafarer be erected in front of St Andrew’s Minster Church’.

Design ideas were put forward but, despite the city council’s support for the proposal, the challenge of raising the thousands of pounds required proved too much, and interest waned. And so it came to be that the Merchant Navy memorial set in the ancient wall at the Barbican and ‘confined to a corner of the quay divided by a busy road’ became the site of acts of remembrance for the Merchant Navy and the fishing fleet.

Merchant Navy Day

In 2000 the UK government declared that 3 September would be the national Merchant Navy Day each year. On Remembrance Sunday 2000, for the first time, members of the Merchant Navy participated in the formal march-past and laid a wreath with a unique design at the Cenotaph in London.

Matters moved forward in Plymouth, too. The Merchant Navy was granted the Freedom of the City of Plymouth in 2008. A presentation of the scroll conferring that Freedom was made the following year, when members of the Merchant Navy first exercised their privilege ‘to march through the city’.

A more fitting monument

The need for a more fitting monument to commemorate the Merchant Navy’s sacrifice was recognised. In 2014, following a Remembrance Service that was disrupted by vehicles and pedestrians, several interested people discussed the matter. With limited awareness of the ideas considered two decades previously, they agreed that the possibility of finding a new site, preferably on Plymouth Hoe, with a more fitting monument, should be explored. Not long after this, what became the Plymouth Merchant Navy Monument Fund Committee held its inaugural meeting. The committee’s remit was: ‘to commission a monument to be sited on Plymouth Hoe. It will be dedicated to all who serve in, or who have served in, the British Merchant Navy or Fishing Fleet in times of peace and war, without whom our nation could not survive’. The choice of the term ‘monument’ was deliberate, being defined as a ‘large structure… built to remind the public of persons or events which are relevant to their heritage’.

The style of the monument was informally agreed. It would comprise a sculpture mounted on a granite plinth. The sculpture would be based on a statuette known as ‘The Officer of the Watch’, which had been produced in the late 1970s during liberal studies classes by cadets of Plymouth’s School of Navigation. To raise awareness of the value of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleet to the community, each side of the plinth would carry an inscribed plaque providing information about the importance of the Merchant Navy and the fishing fleets in times of both war and peace.

Fundraising

The original aim was that the monument would be ‘dedicated during 2020 as part of the celebrations associated with Mayflower 400 and the founding of the New World’. The fundraising campaign was launched with a few small personal donations. On Seafarers’ Awareness Day 2015, the first significant cheque was donated by the South West Company of Mariners. There was, however, a long way to go to match the estimated building cost of the monument – a daunting £175,000. Later in 2015 a first site meeting was held with Gordon Newton, a monument mason, whose portfolio includes the Falklands War Memorial at Tower Hill, London, and he was employed to help support the project.

By early 2016, charitable status had been acquired, patrons had agreed to give support and the first street collections had begun. The fundraisers were greatly encouraged when, in November the same year, a major grant was received from the LIBOR Fund. A letter from Her Majesty’s Treasury stated:

I would like to inform you of the Chancellor’s decision to commit £75,000 to erect a monument on Plymouth Hoe celebrating the service of those who have served under the Blue and Red Ensign.

‘Officer of the Watch’

Merchant Navy Monument on Plymouth Hoe

The Monument on Plymouth Hoe. Photo: MNMFC

Towards the end of the year the sculptor Stephen Melton was informally asked to design a seven-foot-high sculpture based, as previously envisaged, on the Officer of the Watch statuette. The new sculpture would be known as ‘The Watchkeeper’.

The following year was one of fundraising, and a Crowdfunding Appeal raised over £30,000. Then 2018 saw the launch of a targeted appeal in the City of London, the world’s most important maritime centre. The response was excellent, and more than £20,000 was added to the fund. A new Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Councillor Sam Davey, was elected in May, and for supporters of the project he was a most appropriate choice; he had not only studied at Plymouth School of Navigation, but also served at sea with BP Shipping and with the Marine Biological Association.

With fund-raising going well, it was decided to bring forward the date of the dedication and unveiling of the monument to 3 September 2019 – the 80th anniversary of the first action of World War II, namely the sinking of the British cargo passenger liner SS Athenia by a U-boat. To develop public awareness, an art competition titled ‘Seafarers and the Sea’ was planned for primary and junior schools in Plymouth.

2018 also marked the last Merchant Navy Day service at the memorial on the Barbican. Towards the end of the year members of the Merchant Navy Monument Committee visited the sculptor’s workshop to view a full-scale clay model of the sculpture. In January 2019, planning permission for the ‘erection of new Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleet memorial on the Promenade Plymouth Hoe’ was finally granted, and this was followed in April by a simple ceremony of cutting ‘first turf ’. By June the fundraising target had been reached. July was a busy month. An exhibition work resulting from a children’s art competition was held at the Plymouth Council House during the month the monument was being built.

Following the burial of a time capsule below the paved base on the morning of 18 July, the statue arrived, together with three 4-tonne blocks of polished grey granite. By nightfall the construction was essentially complete. The Watchkeeper commenced his watch.

The unveiling

3 September was a very special day. On Plymouth Hoe, in front of an invited audience of 250 and a substantial public gathering, a service of dedication was followed by the unveiling of the Merchant Navy  Monument by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal. As Master of the Corporation of Trinity House,

Her Royal Highness spoke of the importance of what had been achieved. ‘Sadly,’ she noted, ‘it seems it has taken a while to get this memorial – partly, I fear, because it reflects a slight  lack of awareness about the valuable role the Merchant Navy not just played, but continues to play, contributing to free trade and the life and economy of our nation, often in the most difficult and dangerous conditions.’

The Princess Royal continued: ‘Seafarers continue to be an incredibly important asset to our island nation and they are the lifeblood of our maritime sector … It is therefore fitting that in the ocean city of Plymouth a monument to the Merchant Navy should stand.’

The following day, the respected international shipping newspaper Lloyd’s List commented:

The Watchkeeper, looking out into the Atlantic from Plymouth Hoe,  serves two purposes. The statue should act as a focus for those wishing to remember the Merchant Navy and fishermen who made the ultimate sacrifice, and it should serve as a wake-up call to a British nation that has long forgotten the role seafarers play in the nation’s economy. ‘Lest we forget’ has more than one meaning.