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Preserving our history: the UK's maritime heritage needs our help

3 May 2023

The fabric of our maritime history is under threat. We must preserve our history. The UK's maritime heritage needs our help, writes Malcolm Graves

The UK's maritime heritage should make us feel proud and inspire us to preserve timeless values and skills that could otherwise be forgotten in a rapidly changing world.

Unfortunately, it is our heritage itself that is often being forgotten.

In this article, I have chosen to highlight some of the historic maritime institutions that have already been lost. I think it is necessary to ask now what could be at risk in future, and what we should do to protect our maritime heritage. Difficult decisions will have to be made to preserve what is considered important in our heritage, as property requirements change.

Lost hotels

There were formerly Merchant Navy hotels in major UK ports. These were attractively priced for seafarers joining and leaving ships, and as accommodation while attending college.

I remember the Merchant Navy Hotel in Southampton from the time I joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in June 1979. The Lancaster Gate Hotel in London, with its notable historical paintings that illustrated Merchant Navy wartime heroism, was also valued by seafarers, who were accommodated there when attending Festivals of Remembrance.

The decisions to close the hotels was made by the Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) as each became unsustainable because of shrinking UK seafarer numbers. The hotel in Southampton, for example, was sold in around 1992 and is now a Travelodge.

As a NUMAST member, I was not aware of any MNWB or other consultation with seafarers, prior to the sales. The only contentious sale was that of the last Merchant Navy hotel at Lancaster Gate.

Sadly, amid impassioned protests from NUMAST members (one likened the sale to 'selling off the family silver') the Lancaster Gate hotel was closed in December 2002. The MNWB trustees felt the attractive £6 million offered by the developer for the west London site was too good to miss. This money was directed towards providing welfare services to merchant seafarers and their dependants.

Naval club

I once had a conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me at dinner at the Naval Club at 38 Hill Street, Mayfair, regarding the closure of the Merchant Navy hotels. I was struck by his response: 'do you think that could happen here?'

Thirty eight Hill Street was purchased by four Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) officers in 1946. In 1954 the building was designated as the National RNVR War Memorial, commemorating the 6,200 RNVR personnel who gave their lives in the Second World War.

However, in April 2021, an RNVR General Meeting was held by proxy during the 'fog of the pandemic'. The outcome included the sale of 38 Hill Street and for 30% of the surplus sale proceeds to be distributed amongst RNVR-related charities. The special resolutions passed during the meeting changed the 1946 Memorandum of Association by diverting surplus funds away from like-minded organisations and into the pockets of members during 'winding up'. An estimated £18 million is in the hands of liquidators, apparently awaiting distribution to former Naval Club members!

Public access to the War Memorial was established in 1994 through the creation of the Wave Heritage Trust, a charity which also sought to protect the building itself. Charitable donations included those from relatives of the RNVR war dead. Unfortunately, the charitable objective of the Wave Heritage Trust was frustrated by the sale, which forced the charity to close as well.

The RNVR Officers' Association Limited itself was not a charity. If it had been, issues of morality might have arisen. There was an apparent scant regard given to the war memorial during the sale of the Naval Club, and this is an example where so-called 'private members' business can become a matter of public interest, because 38 Hill Street remains registered as the National RNVR War Memorial.

College move

When the plans to move Warsash Maritime Academy (WMA) to the Southampton Solent University site, were first known, several opposing articles were published in the Nautilus Telegraph. A 2016 UK Branch Conference Motion to retain the WMA on its original site was hotly debated, both in committee and among members. But it would seem the move was decided as a 'fait accompli'.

WMA, on the original site, earned an international reputation for excellence and Southampton Solent University gained in status by association.

Warsash Maritime School's £7 million maritime simulator centre, the largest and most sophisticated in the UK, was built in Solent University's East Park Terrace campus in Southampton, and officially opened on 21 May 2019.

I understand there are plans to sell off the disused WMA site.

Missing museum

I used to visit the Ship Hall Museum near Glasgow when my ship was moored in the KG V Dock. The theme of the museum was 'Clyde built', relating to the proud history of our shipbuilding industry, and it had many interesting exhibits, including a Clyde 'Puffer' and an interactive facility that challenged visitors to steer a ship up the river. On my last visit in 2019 I discovered the museum had been converted into a drive-through doughnut restaurant!

At-risk register

Some of our remaining heritage is still at risk. Examples include HCMM HQS Wellington, the Sail Training Association, the Sea Cadet Corps and use of the Union Jack Club.

I feel that what is of value from our past must be protected, for the benefit of our younger and future generations.

As Sir Winston Churchill said, 'A nation that forgets its past has no future.'


Former Nautilus Council member Malcolm Graves passed away in April 2023 following a short illness. Read an obituary on the Letters page.


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