One of London’s hidden architectural gems is undergoing its largest ever restoration as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) seeks to preserve the memory of the thousands of civilian sailors and fisherman killed in the World Wars. The Tower Hill Memorial sits at the heart of the capital, opposite the world-famous Tower of London, and yet the stories of the men and women of the Merchant Navy remembered on its walls are often overlooked.
The CWGC is undertaking one of its largest UK restoration projects in decades to ensure the iconic First World War section of the memorial, which contains 12,000 names, lives on. The Grade I listed structure was designed by the eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose best-known London landmark is the Cenotaph in Whitehall. While the Tower Hill Memorial may be lesser known, it’s central location and intricate design make it a hidden gem among the capital’s memorials.
The original First World War section comprises a Classical vaulted colonnade lined with bronze name panels. It sits next to the Second World War extension, which features a sunken garden surrounded by further name panels with another 24,000 names of those lost or buried at sea.
Andrew Stillman, acting area director for CWGC’s UK operations, said: “The CWGC’s Tower Hill Memorial stands at the heart of an incredibly busy corner of London. It’s an important part of the city’s heritage and something of a hidden gem which we are proud to look after.
“Remembered on its walls are the men and women of the Merchant Navy. These were ordinary people, often much younger or older than military personnel, doing a civilian job that suddenly saw them facing the same extraordinary dangers as soldiers on the front line.
“Restoring the memorial without changing the design has taken a lot of planning. Thanks to modern materials we can now make good on the original architect’s solution to avoiding water damage. While our work continues temporary exhibition panels on the outside walls will help to bring to life the stories we are preserving.”
Many merchant sailors were experienced mariners, having spent many years learning their trades. Others were young and had gone to sea in search of adventure and experience. The oldest sailor named on the memorial is Patrick Casey, who was 73 when he died; the youngest is Redan Sydney Jeffries, who was 13.
There is also a strong international presence on the memorial. At the start of the First World War, around a third of those serving in British merchant ships had been born outside Britain. Some of those named on the memorial come from as far afield as Jamaica, Japan, Sierra Leone and Peru. Non-European shipmates, however, were paid less than their British counterparts and often worked in the most dangerous roles.
The restoration project will include giving the roof of the memorial a new waterproof layer, re-bronzing of all the name panels and cleaning work to the exterior and interior. It will see modern materials at last make possible the waterproofing plan of the memorial’s architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. At the time of building, the available materials meant his proposals ultimately failed and posed the dilemma of finding a solution without altering the overall design of a listed heritage asset.
The First World War section will remain cordoned off while work takes place and there may be some disruption to the sunken garden part of the Second World War extension. Information panels will give visitors a chance to learn more about those remembered on the memorial during construction. The whole area is due to reopen ahead of Remembrance Sunday this November. A roll of honour containing all the names of those remembered on both sections of the memorial will be on display at Trinity House, opposite, during opening hours and can be made available on request.
This year’s Merchant Navy Day commemorations will still be able to take place as normal at the memorial on Sunday 8 September.