Following the success of HMS Leigh - Make Do and Mend Online Event in May 2020 and the Interactive Journey in May 2021, the HMS Leigh Team, with continued support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Arts Council and Southend Borough Council, are now working to bring the community together to celebrate WW2 Southend in September 2021. The additional time added to the original project plan will be used to build an ambitious event marking the Royal British Legion centenary as well as exploring the WW2 legacy of Southend.
The HMS Leigh Team has already gathered and researched a unique archive that is being used to creatively engage a wide audience of all ages to have a greater understanding of what happened in Southend during WW2. From the NOIC (Naval Officer In Command) Commodore John Champion, through the stories of the service men and women, scouts and guides who ran messages from the HQ in Southend’s Royal Terrace to the command points on the Pier and along the seafront – all the way to the enigmatic Mona Budd, who was said to be the stalwart of the HMS Leigh catering corps that fed and watered tens of thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and all supplied by the ever present Southend Pier Railway that ran 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year delivering supplies and taking the wounded to the shore.
The HMS Leigh Team is continuing to be guided by local schools, led by the Southend SEN Trust to engage children with their heritage in new and interesting ways, both online and as circumstances allow, in physical activities that everyone can try - inspired by some wonderful local artists across many disciplines.
The HMS Leigh Team has recruited committed and creative volunteers who have been supporting the project and recording the history from memories, archive and collections. Most of the people being interviewed were children in the 1940s and the HMS Leigh website, database, memory garden and learning resources will continue to grow throughout the year.
The project will culminate with an HMS Leigh – Bravest Pier in the World Event in September 2021 which will bring a wide-range of community organisations together with our schools to learn, create and enjoy the heritage of HMS Leigh.
What was HMS Leigh?
Southend Pier was originally designed in the 1930s to allow passengers from the pleasure steamers to disembark, to make the town a popular destination. Over the next 100 years it became a tourist attraction itself, with millions of visitors promenading its length and back every year.
On Friday 25th August 1939, the Royal Navy requisitioned Southend Pier and it would eventually become the control point for the Thames and Medway for all shipping coming in and out of the Port of London. For the first few weeks it remained open to the public despite convoys of ships assembling and departing. It was officially closed to the public on September 9th, 1939.
Between 1939 and 1945 the 1.3-mile structure played a vital role in the security of London and the whole country, with 3,367 convoys comprising 84,297 ships departing from the Thames Estuary during the conflict. If Southend-on-Sea had fallen, London would have been lost and most probably, the entire country.
The command that covered Southend Pier and the requisitioned Royal Terrace was known as HMS Leigh, with many of the men and women stationed at HMS Leigh being billeted in the Royal Hotel.
Throughout WW2, the main responsibility of HMS Leigh was to keep the convoys afloat and supplied. The service and civilian personnel were responsible for supplying the thousands of convoys, tens of thousands of ships and millions of Naval and Merchant sailors during the conflict.
HMS Leigh was run by the Royal Navy and was home to a contingent of Wrens, it also had 200 British Army Pathfinders guarding against the threat of invasion, a Royal Air Force Barrage Balloon squadron, and many men and women from other services – and of course thousands of men from the Merchant Navies of the Allied countries.
HMS Leigh was a hub that made a huge difference to the war effort and was commended for its efforts during the Dunkirk and D-Day operations.
HMS Leigh was ‘paid off’ and handed back to Southend Council after the war came to an end on 15th October 1945.