Merchant Navy service is sunk by Council’s refusal to waive red tape
Merchant seamen braved storms and German submarines during the First World War but a service to recognise their sacrifice has been defeated by a six-foot wide stretch of tarmac.
The only national event for the merchant navy and fishing fleet during the war’s centenary commemorations has been cancelled after the City of London was accused of refusing to shut a short stretch of road.
The organisers of the service, arranged by leading maritime organisations and charities, said the road had to be closed for security reasons as the Princess Royal was due to be among the guests at the Merchant Navy Memorial overlooking the Tower of London.
Although the south half of the road is controlled by Tower Hamlets council, which readily agreed to the service, the other side of the dotted white line is part of the City of London. The organisers claim the City refused to allow the closure because the application was not made 12 weeks ahead of the event, which was before police had approved the security arrangements.
Cancellation of the service, which was timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the convoy system, has led to anguish and anger for the relatives of those who perished.
The 400 invited guests due at the event on October 17 included 30 ambassadors and high commissioners of countries whose seafarers are among the 36,102 names on the memorial.
The Right Rev Peter Broadbent, the acting Bishop of London, was due to lead the service with music from the Royal Marine Band.
Buckingham Palace announced the Princess Royal’s attendance last week but confirmed yesterday that the event would no longer take place.
Commodore Malcolm Williams, chief executive of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, one of the groups that organised the service, condemned the cancellation as a “triumph of bureaucratic process”. He added: “When you think about the sacrifice and flexibility of those who served in the war, there seems to have been little of that in this process. It is extremely unfortunate that it has been cancelled at this late stage.”
Captain Malcolm Mathison, national vice-chairman of the Merchant Navy Association, said: “We had been working on this for two years. There are a lot of very unhappy people who felt they have been left out of the commemorations. I have been contacted by members who are very angry. There is a feeling that ‘we have done our job and now you’ve forgotten about us’.”
A Tower Hamlets spokesman said that the council had no objection to the event and had been supporting the organisers where possible.
In the First World War the Mercantile Marine lost 17,000 crew and 2,417 ships and the fishing fleet lost 675 vessels and 434 fishermen. The introduction of the convoy system in May 1917 reduced the losses and saved Britain from being starved into capitulation.
George V recognised that wartime service with the title Merchant Navy. The Queen is the “Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets”.
A City of London spokesman said: “At no stage was an official application submitted for an event or any road closure. The organiser was encouraged to follow event planning guidelines but did not engage with highways officers in the correct manner.”
Article as appeared in The Times, 6 October 2017.