In 1929, thanks to the Prince George Extension, Southend Pier measured 2,158 metres or 1.34 miles and became the longest pleasure pier in the world. Between the wars, Southend Pier was as popular as ever. However, its moment of true glory was to arrive in September 1939, when it was to become Naval Control Centre for the Thames Estuary and was renamed HMS Leigh with surrounding areas becoming HMS Westcliff.
The structure of Southend Pier was tactically a huge advantage in WW2 – with its berths for both big and small ships, buildings, Lloyds Signal Station, devoted staff and probably most crucially, the electric railway. Throughout the war, from the very first day, the Pier Electric Railway was operated by the Pier staff, 24:7. Trains always ran through, covering over 300,000 train miles and carrying 1.5 million service men and women, including the sick and wounded.
During the war years huge amounts of food, ammunition and special equipment were carried on the railway. Acute shortages of staff made maintenance difficult, but this vital link never failed. Today, during the pandemic, it is back in service, housing the staff who are looking after making sure our most vulnerable people have enough food to stay at home.
Originally HMS Leigh Guardian of the Thames, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, intended to reveal this secret history by turning Southend Pier back into HMS Leigh or Naval Control and bringing back to life the people who worked there. This week, the HMS Leigh team were looking forward to welcoming everyone to Southend Pier where it was once again to become HMS Leigh for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. We were excited about sharing all the stories we had
As soon as we knew that mass gatherings were unable to take place, our team have rolled up their sleeves and been trying to make sure that we can all still learn more about HMS Leigh and celebrate VE Day 75 online. We thought that WW2 Southend deserved to be celebrated even if we do have to socially distance to keep everyone safe.
Everyone is coping with this lockdown in different ways. Together, we decided that we would do anything that we could do together to celebrate Southend-on-Sea and the VE75 generations who also went through their own lifetime changing event and came out the other side to create the NHS. Our funders have agreed to an extension of this project and we are hoping to be able to bring you a big and better event next May 2021.
The HMS Leigh Make Do and Mend Festival is being opened online on Wednesday 6th May @ 0900am by the Mayor and Mayoress of Southend, John and Pat Lamb. Every day we will publish a schedule that will let you watch a wide array of great artists, archive and musicians made in or around Southend, learn about the history of HMS Leigh and be inspired for the very first moment we can all safely be together. On Wednesday 6th May and Thursday 7th May we have honoured the original plans to hold School Days and the all the films are aimed at being able to be watched by young people.
We have delved into archives to explain how Southend Pier became the Guardian of the Thames during WW2. If you sign up on our website we can send you each days’ schedule and all the great things that are happening over this week – like the special service for VE Day lead by Father David Wylie, which due to popular demand we will try and make available from VE Day, brilliant 40s jazz played by local treasure, Digby Fairweather and how to make VE Day bunting at home by local artist Ali Ward.
The virtual HMS Leigh Memory Garden will also be open for anyone to send us a memorial to a loved one or someone they would like to be remembered. Please send any image and text to