Remembering those of the Merchant Navy who died in wartime ‘with no grave but the sea’

Rain at beginning to the ceremony. Pic: Pius Bentgens

With memorial services taking place all over London on Remembrance Sunday, Tower Hamlet’s unique Tower Hill memorial service commemorated those from the Merchant Navy that have ‘no grave but the sea’.

Ted Gradosielski, Master of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, said the service was meant to “commemorate the people that died in the First and Second World War mainly and every other conflict in-between.” He adds: “But this memorial was specifically for seamen … so during the service they … sang the hymns that refer more to the sea than the land in a lot of ways.”

The Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames is an ancient working guild and is involved with the life of the River and those who work on it. It was founded in 1514 to regulate watermen, wherrymen and bargemen. Lightermen are those carrying goods and cargo.

When asked how he felt on this day, he said: “Marvellous. Wonderful. I think that God smiled down on us, because it stopped raining as we came out and stayed bright and warm for the whole of the service.”

Ted Gradosielski, followed by Captain Geoff English, Master of the Honorable company of Master Mariners. Pic: Pius Bentgens

The Tower Hill memorial is a stone and bronze memorial listing the names of Mercantile Marine casualties from both world wars, located between the Tower of London and the Port of London Authority building. The memorial lists 12,000 names of casualties from World War One and 24,000 from World War Two that have no known graves.

In both wars, the Merchant Navy’s duty was to be the supply service of the Royal Navy, in spite of greatly enlarged risks, primarily due to German U-boat attacks. They provided both personnel and ships to support the existing resources of the Royal Navy.

Pic: Pius Bentgens.

The memorial was first unveiled by Queen Mary after the First World War in 1928 and the Second World War extension was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. A third memorial, commemorating merchant seamen who were killed in the 1982 Falklands War, was added to the site in 2005.

The Falklands memorial extension. Pic: Pius Bentgens
Pic: Pius Bentgens

Wake band leader Phillip Wake, a Freeman of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners and the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, was less delighted about the weather, but was happy with the performance of his band, the Wake Band.

He said: “This combination and ensemble of freelancers has been playing probably over 20 years now. … It’s a special occasion for us because I’m ex Merchant Navy, so [this] memorial is something very close to our heart.”

The Wake Band was lead by Phillip Wake. Pic: Pius Bentgens.
Young marine cadets marched at the ceremony. Pic: Pius Bentgens.

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