Guardian of the Thames
Southend Pier is famous for being the longest pleasure pier in the world but the crucial role it played in the liberation of Europe during WWII was largely unknown locally before the HMS Leigh project began.
In September 1939 it was taken over by the Royal Navy and was renamed HMS Leigh with surrounding areas being renamed HMS Westcliff. It was a crucial mustering point for convoys. Over the course of the war 3,367 convoys, comprising 84,297 vessels departed from HMS Westcliff. It was also Naval Control for the Thames Estuary. The HMS Leigh project worked in partnership with the Royal British Legion, Southend SEN Trust, a wide range of local organisations including schools to preserve and share this history with the wider community.
Permission to start the project given by the Heritage Fund on 5th November 2019.
The Project Outcomes were all based around a successful event in May 2020 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Southend Pier. This had to adapt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The HMS Leigh Steering Group was set up and recruited a Project Manager and Officer by December 2020. As it was a tight time schedule to get the event organised, the HMS Leigh staff and volunteers worked hard with schools and community organisations from November 2019 to March 2020, collecting archive and stories and building exhibitions around the HMS Leigh history.
Actors were recruited to recreate scenes from VE Day on Southend Pier in WW2 developed from the memories given to the project by residents who had lived through it.
By March 26th 2020, the UK was in full lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus. We were given permission by our Heritage Fund Investment Manager to move the event online on 4th April 2020.
May 6th – 10th 2020 HMS Leigh: Make Do and Mend a 5-day online event to celebrate VE 75 and the history of Southend Pier during WW2. The Online event content and platform was put together in a month using images, video and audio, content was put out on 3 platforms: HMS Leigh website, Facebook and Instagram. Posts were gaining over 100K views and overall there was a very high level of social media engagement. This period also meant that the HMS Leigh team and volunteers supported a story gathering drive and connected with those who had memories or stories to share regarding WW2 Southend during lockdown.
In October 2020, during the lull in covid restrictions HMS Leigh ran a small event for under 30 people at the end of the Pier to dedicate a plaque to commemorate the anniversary of the pier being handed back by the Royal Navy to the town. This was supported by the Mayor and Mayoress of Southend and the Royal British Legion. It was also broadcast live on BBC Essex.
The plan was to run the original event in May to celebrate VE76. The HMS Leigh Team worked tirelessly to make that happen but as we know, necessary pandemic restrictions continued until July 19th 2021 preventing this.
During this difficult time while we had to wait to see what was safe, as well as trying to prepare for an ambitious in person 4-day event, the team researched, wrote and produced an HMS Leigh Interactive Journey Film where 10 actors were filmed bringing to life the individual histories of the people who were there.
This film was released on May 7th for the VE76 celebrations on our website and on Youtube, in place of an in-person event. Shortly before this happened, Southend Borough Council gave us permission to run the event on Southend Pier on September 23rd-26th and the Heritage Fund agreed to extend the project until November 2021.
And finally, we are proud to announce that HMS Leigh: Bravest Pier in the World successfully took place on those dates. Sir David Amess MP, James Duddridge MP, the Mayor of Southend, many WW2 veterans and local people all joined us on 26th for the HMS Leigh final event.
Tragically, Sir David Amess was murdered a few weeks later. Southend Borough Council have very kindly allowed us to keep up the HMS Leigh exhibitions and we have added tributes to make this space now the Sir David Amess Memory Garden until after Remembrance Sunday. This means that the HMS Leigh exhibitions will have been visible to all visitors on Southend Pier since September 23rd and be available to a much wider audience than expected.
HMS Leigh – Make Do and Mend
The initial planning and preparation phase of the HMS Leigh Project in late 2019 and early 2020 centred around the project outcome of delivering the VE-75 celebration on Southend Pier in May 2020, this all came to an abrupt end on the 26th March 2020 when the government announced the first Covid-10 lockdown.
Although there had been some indication that restrictions would come into force, we were unable to cancel the event until an official decision was made. This left us with roughly 6 weeks until VE-75.
The only choices we had were to cancel the event totally, postpone it to later in the project timeline, or to move online. After talking to our Steering Group, most of who were in high risk Covid-19 groups we decided that going Online would be the sensible course of action.
Over the next 6 weeks we proceeded to contact local historians, film makers and oral history experts to gather materials for an Online VE-75, and we received a wonderful response. The Mayor and Mayoress of Southend agreed to film an event opening for HMS Leigh, which due to the nature and time frame we called ‘HMS Leigh – Make Do and Mend’, our team managed to put together a 3-minute project introduction with contributions from people young and old filmed on their mobile phone or tablet.
The project Digital Outputs Manager started to build an audience on social media for the project, and the VE-75 Make do and Mend audience doubled in that period from approximately 1000 to 2000 people. This was done using mainly organic growth via Facebook groups who were interested in the 1940s, World War 2, Southend-on-Sea, the Royal Navy, and history in general. The project did run promotions on Facebook but found that it was much more effective to do it manually. The only downside of that was that it is a very time intensive process.
By the time Wednesday 6th May arrived we had gathered so much material from our contributors that we decided that to do it justice we would run the VE75 Online event over 5 days. With rare footage of Southend-on-Sea between WW1 and WW2, photographs of WW2 Southend from, stories of Southend WW2 experiences, and contributions of music, art, history and film, these 5 days gave the audience a new item half hour between 9am and 6pm – which was of course available any time of day.
HMS Leigh – Make Do and Mend took a lot of hard work over a very short space of time, but was so successful that we were able to turn our audience of 2000 people into a reach of over 130,000 – the vast majority of who were local to Southend-on-Sea.
HMS Leigh School Engagement
With the reopening of schools in September 2020 the project had the opportunity to deliver its school engagement plans, however the project had to be very creative here as everything needed to be delivered either online or by existing school staff – as visitors were simply not allowed into schools. The HMS Leigh Schools’ Resource Booklet was produced and distributed to all 55 Southend Schools to provide teachers with a way of engaging their pupils with local history as was usual in the first terms of a school year. This was a 26 page PDF that was emailed to the school history lead and the senior leadership team of each school, and was made available on the project website for the general public - https://www.hmsleigh.org.uk/learning-resources
Alongside this we enabled the HMS Leigh Artist, Ali Ward, to work with the 4 special schools of the SEN Trust Southend to deliver heritage activities that were suitable for all abilities. With screen printing and bunting making activities backed up with the history of WW2 Southend these were delivered to the Kingsdown, St Nicholas and St Christopher schools over the first part of the year where schools were open. The project was also able to engage the West Leigh Infant School over the first 2 terms and provide activities and materials for 16 classes. Over this rather fragmented time sessions were given to over 550 pupils.
The project team received very positive feedback on the activities provided and were happy that HMS Leigh has done what is possible within the confines of the pandemic while keeping everyone safe.
Steering Group Meetings
The HMS Leigh Steering Group was comprised of 12 members. 2 from Blade Education, 2 from the Leigh-on-Sea Branch of the Royal British Legion, 2 from the Southend Branch of the Essex Society for Family History, 2 from local schools, 2 of the project team, and 2 local citizens. Most of the members were drawn from organisations that had been consulted on the project in the planning stage and were happy to support HMS Leigh once it officially began. Meetings were held once a month at the Leigh Community Centre or St Margaret’s Church Hall, at a time suitable for most of the Steering Group Members.
From March 2020 meetings were either held online or by telephone, and this did not lessen the positive contribution of the meetings. The process did take more time as at the beginning of the pandemic many of our members had technical issues with some of the online platforms available.
Over the course of the HMS Leigh Project the nature of Steering Group Meetings has changed. Beginning with meetings in local church halls, the monthly gathering was very useful to focus the project team and to get feedback and advice from stakeholder groups represented. The next move was to online meetings where a difficulty lay in the platforms our Steering Group members had available to them and were happy to use. To begin with MS Teams and Facebook calls were used and two meetings a were held to accommodate to accommodate the needs of the Steering Group members – with individual telephone calls to one or two who were not online.
The online and in person monthly meetings and contact with individual members when they could contribute their expertise and experience, did help the project to move with the changing regulations and requirements that were imposed on the general population throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and at times the HMS Leigh Team relied on the group’s guidance when postponement of activities threatening.
Once meeting in person was allowed to some extent, we offered our Steering Group the option of Garden Meetings or Online Meetings – and ended up doing at least one of each. This did allow for personal contact (at 2m of course) and did help some of our members to build their confidence again after the total lockdowns and terrible events of 2020.
The HMS Leigh Project settled on Zoom as a platform as it seemed the most useful to us and the most flexible to our mix of technical abilities. In future this seems like a very viable alternative to the time and resources taken by face-to-face meetings.
The Project Team found the advice and guidance of the Steering Group invaluable thanks to the breadth of experience its members brough to the table, and Blade Education as the lead organisation for HMS Leigh would like to thank all of those who were Steering Group Members for this project.
With the permission of the Heritage Fund the HMS Leigh Project was extended to allow for an event to be delivered on Southend Pier in May 2021. This was to be a 2-day event with actors and exhibitions, music, and spam fritters. Again, sadly our plans were scuppered by the pandemic. Fortunately, the project was able to Keep Calm and Carry On by working with our actors and theatrical director to produce short films based on the work that had been done to build their performances for VE76. The Steering Group agreed that using a walk down the Pier to frame all the material would be a nice way to engage our audience as an online event or experience, rather than simply a set of films to watch.
Thanks to the past year our team of actors and director were used to using their own environments and equipment to film with. To facilitate this process HMS Leigh provided period costume and props in order to increase the production values of the individual films, to avoid it simply being a set of talking heads, and much more a believable set of WW2 Southend stories told through the people who were there.
Thanks to Southend Pier we were able to safely send our Project Assistant to Southend Pier before it was allowed to publicly re-open in order to film an entire walk of the 1.3 mile structure. With the help of project volunteers and the HMS Leigh Steering Group it was determined that simply showing a walk of Southend Pier interspersed with WW2 Southend films would not be very engaging for young people, so it was decided that we should gather a list of relevant WW2 events to give the audience a sense of the war and how it affected the borough. This was a huge task that was undertaken with enthusiasm by the Project Manager, who eventually came up with a timeline of events that, once edited down to a manageable level, were presented as a set of text and audio slides that populated the entire walk between films. https://www.hmsleigh.org.uk/interactive-film
Once the actor’s footage was gathered and edited, the Pier walk films were produced and some lovely period music was commissioned, the HMS Leigh Interactive Journey was built using a mix of social media to make everything accessible to everyone – we even build DVDs for those who were not able to access it online.
The VE-76 Interactive Journey reached over 40,000 people with 75% of them originating in the Southend area.
One of the initial HMS Leigh Project outcomes was to work with 12 actors to provide portrayals of some of the people who had served on HMS Leigh or lived in Southend during WW2. This process began in March 2020 when it became clear that a Covid-19 lockdown was imminent, and our plans changed to providing a VE75 Online Event for our audience.
Our challenge at this point was to work with actors and produce films based on WW2 people in a lockdown situation. So we worked with the resources we had available and the process became an excellent example of the Make Do and Mend philosophy. With scripts written by the HMS Leigh Team, who are experienced script writers and producers, direction by our Theatre Director, Michal Deacon, filming either using existing equipment or our actor’s smartphone, and acting from friends and family, the HMS Leigh Team managed to produce 14 films, which was cut to 12 in the end, that were built into the HMS Leigh Interactive Journey for VE76. Portrayed in the films were:
Eric Marsh, Convoy Signalman D-Day – played by Luka Lacey
Marine Jack Lacey – played by Simon Castle
Wren Joyce Palmer – played by Rebecca Croxford
Captain JP Champion, NOIC HMS Leigh – played by Alastair Deacon
Lieutenant A Alder, HMS Leigh – played by Michael Deacon
Many Route, Merchant Navy Sailor – played by Luke Bush
Melanie Puckle, HMS Leigh family member – played by Jil Sinnes
Mona Budd, HMS Leigh Catering Manager – played by Maisy Hainge-Cox
HMS Leigh Sentry – played by Daniel Deacon
Winn Hooper, Southend resident – played by Gabrielle Nellis-Pain
For the HMS Leigh Bravest Pier in the World Event in 2021, the project had much more time to work with professional actors to produce performances during the event. Based around many of the characters portrayed in VE76 our Theatrical Director was able to issue a casting call via Starnow.com looking for actors local to Southend who were interested in historical portrayal, would work for the fee available, and were available during our event. With 12 actors needed the initial response of over 60 actors was excellent. After interviewing 50% of those, auditioning 15 actors, and casting 6 from existing contacts, we had our cast in place. Rehearsals took place individually over Zoom, and costumes were secured to for each actor. Sadly 2 of our cast had to drop out at a late stage for personal reasons, however this still left the event with a solid cast of 13 actors (Steve and Irene came as one). Each actor was given an activity to teach/perform and given the excellent feedback received from both schools, guests, and VIPs, the performances were able to engage our audience with their heritage in a way that bought the interest of both young and old, local and visitor. The HMS Leigh cast pleased a major part in the success of the Bravest Pier in the World Event. Our cast was:
Alex Bailey, playing Chris Hooper, ARP
Carmen Magnus, playing Irene Plumber, WRNS
Chris Cordell, playing Lt Cmdr. Leonard Redfarn, RNVR
Daisy Bull, playing Irene Hart, Land Girl
Doug Setters, playing Capt. JP Champion, RN
Jil Sinnes, playing Melanie Puckle
Luke Bush, playing Sgt Ernest Rawlinson, RAF
Maisy Hainge-Cox, playing Mona Budd
Poppy Thalia, playing Joyce Palmer, WRNS
Robin Denys, playing AP Herbert, MP
Steve and Irene Volke, playing Bert and Gert Hayward
Todd Hazeldine, playing Jack Lacey, RM
Local Organisation Support
The HMS Leigh Project has had some lovely support from our local voluntary organisations. The project was initially supported by the Leigh on Sea Branch of the Royal British Legion, the Southend Branch of the Essex Society for Family History, and the Shoeburyness Branch of the Royal Artillery Association. These organisations were very helpful in the development of the project and the changing face of our heritage engagement.
Thanks to their continued support the HMS Leigh Bravest Pier in the World Cultural Event in September 2021 had a host of representation on Southend Pier:
Southend Pier Museum
Westcliff-on-Sea Motor Company Bus
Shoeburyness branch of the Royal Artillery Association
Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Royal British Legion
Southend branch of the National Coastwatch Institution
Royal Naval Association
The Royal Engineers
St Margaret’s Church Leigh-on-Sea
Southend and Southchurch Salvation Army Band
The Daisy Bawlers
The Silver Darlings
Southend Branch of the Essex Society for Family History
The Leigh-on-Sea Endeavour Trust
Southend-on-Sea Scouting including many local packs
Our thanks to you all.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a profound affect on all of our lives, and so it was for the HMS Leigh Project. From moving meetings online and not being able to interview veterans, to making historical films postponing the HMS Leigh Event twice, the pandemic changed the project.
However, the project was not cancelled or stopped, the HMS Leigh Team kept working throughout all of the lockdowns, held outdoor meetings at 2m apart when allowed to, postponed what was impossible, and continued to fulfil the project aims and outcomes – all be it in 2 years rather than 1.
Covid-19 added complications and costs to most of the activities that were planned and forced a whole new way of working onto a group of people who rely on face to face contact to get things done. Covid-19 did not derail the HMS Leigh Project, in fact it showed how resilient the HMS Leigh Team and Volunteers are. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the project team and its supporters the ship sailed on and got there eventually.
Due to the pandemic, schools have had a challenging 2 years, often being at the front line of the most difficult decision to be made to keep communities safe. HMS Leigh was the first event that the schools had attended since the pandemic. We are very honoured to know that we were this trusted. The actors, led by Michael Deacon, did a brilliant job of helping young people to experience what it would have been like to be aboard a naval battle station in WW2, and it was so exciting to see students fully engaged in kinetic learning, such as learning semaphore, de-coding words, special placement and experience firing an infrared replica of a machine gun in the context of the defence of the pier. Thanks to everyone who made it possible. We sent evaluation forms out to the schools that took part – here are some of the comments we received:
“It was a fantastic day out and the children learnt so much about the role of the pier during the war.”
“We would definitely return again. Also the online resources were excellent.”
“Really enjoyed the visit – Hope it can become an annual event for schools.”
“Thank you for setting it all up. I hope the volunteers enjoyed it all. Brilliant. More please.”
Thank you for informing us about the role of the pier during world war two.”
“Just like to say how brilliant It all was today. The children really enjoyed it all! Well done. Where can I write a fabulous review?”
“Well done to everyone who worked so hard to put this altogether.”
“Just wanted to say thank you so much for Friday. The children really did have a wow of the time and the actors/exhibitions were great – we were particularly impressed with how well they made the content suitable for our age group. In hindsight, we wish we’d booked the train home for a little later so that we had more time on the Pier so sorry we had to leave early.”
“I would definitely recommend the visit to all classes at our school and hope the event continues to be supported by Southend Borough Council.”
“Just wanted to add that the children really had a fantastic time and learned so much about our famous Pier. A great educational experience and something that many of our children had not done too - walking the length of the Pier. “
“Great to see so many people taking on different roles along the Pier too, adding to the sense of history and making the event 'real' for the children.”
“I really hope you are able to put this event on again as it is a great base for topic work on the local area and the history of Southend.”
General Public Feedback
These are just some of the comments that we received:
“We had a brilliant day, thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make this happen” Beverley Mackenzie
“It was an amazing afternoon. Thank you to all those who organised this event.” Maureen Rooke
“I enjoyed my short time helping out on the pier. Wished that I could have done more really. My sister and friends went to the HMS Leigh event and sent me some photographs. They say that it was amazing.” Maurice Smithson
“Myself and two friends came along on Sunday and had a lively time, the actors were wonderful as the characters they portrayed very believable, we spoke to The Mayoress and local MP.”
“I feel it is important to let you know how deeply significant the door opening has been for me and how very grateful I am to you.” Melanie Fuller, daughter of Leslie and Melanie Puckle.
“We had a very interesting day, we met 'Commodore Champion' who was extremely surprised that I was able to show him the signature of the original Commodore Champion as he had signed my fathers' records no less than five times dating from 1941. Unfortunately he could not tell me exactly what my father was engaged on for all the years he was there. As far as I know he was part of a crew on a tug. Perhaps you may have access to that sort of information. We would be pleased if you wish to see the Naval record, or whatever.” Dave Wall
“Great day, well done all.” Bridget Patton
“It ran like clockwork. The actors were superb and line perfect. Wonderful sea shanty about the pier too.”
“Yes it was an amazing event and so good to see so many organisations taking part. Also so encouraging to see so many young people from the Scouts and Guides etc. I enjoyed chatting with some of the RNLI crew members and watching the rescue displays. We are so lucky to have such a great resource, with such dedicated people, in our town. Beth and her team worked very hard on this event and I think we should send our congratulations for a very successful and enjoyable 4 days.” Jill Healey Leigh Town Councillor.
“I loved it – I got the chance to be a wardrobe mistress which I’ve never done before and it was so lovely to be in the thick of it with such a lovely team.” Gwen Simpson, volunteer and local artist.
“We have to pay tribute to all those who came and supported this project. A 1.3 mile structure that stretches into the sea isn’t the easiest of venues but with the huge support that the HMS Leigh Team were offered by local organisations and individuals was outstanding. From David Hadjicostas and his Royal Artillery Team who with their WW2 gun and jeep brought such joy to so many visitors old and young. The WW2 Bus Team lead by Martin Farmer also worked their magic.”
“The Royal National Lifeboat Association with their displays brought the sea to life – reminding everyone of the dangers of the swelling tides around us. The Royal British Legion volunteers brought the Memory Garden to life, taking the precious photographs and stories from people with grace and charm. Coastwatch and the Royal Naval Association volunteers supported them admirably. The Engineers and Army Recruitment officers inspired young people to learn more about what being a soldier is all about today.”
“The Salvation Army brought the Pier Head to life with their wonderful music – their first time to perform since lockdown – we were so honoured. Sir Father David Wylie, once again did hours of work preparing and creating just the right WW2 Service to bring the community together.”
“The Silver Darlings and the Hoy Shanty Crew kept visitors spirits up and the Southend Scouts and their thoughtful and professional leaders did the project huge credit.”
“Mark Lambert, Rob Dawkins, Kim Bones, Peter Bones, Gwen Simpson, Mary Forsdyke, Paddy Hooper, Clara Edey, Megan Elliston, Hari Jones, Maurice, Jayne Jude, Maurice Smithson, Suzy Edey, Samantha Lierens, Bryony Gardner, Louisa Gardner, Luka Lacey, Nick Lacey – so many brilliant people – thank you so much for helping the project.”
“Just amazing so important that children learn this stuff you should do it every week.” Terry Pritchard
Online Legacy - the HMS Leigh project will leave an online legacy of Resource Materials for all to use, including a database of stories gathered during the life of the project. Blade Education will continue to maintain the HMS Leigh Facebook page that has a loyal following over 2,000 people.
The Exhibitions will remain until 16th November 2021 including the tributes to Sir David Amess.
The Pier Museum Trust has been energised by a busy and successful event weekend. They along with other organisations are keen to explore what else can be done going forward to promote the WW2 history.
The project materials are available for a minimum of 5 years on www.hmsleigh.org.uk