Close to the Tower of London on Tower Hill is Trinity Square Gardens, formal gardens which have been there since 1797. They now contain two war memorials to the sailors of the Merchant Navy of both world wars, who lost their lives at sea due to enemy action and who have no known grave. The role of the Merchant Navy is one that is often overlooked, but they played a vital role and it was a highly perilous job, as these huge monuments show.
The mercantile navy was a supply service for the Royal Navy, delivering supplies, troops, raw materials and finished products, personnel and ships, as well as continuing with its peacetime role of transporting food and goods for the civilian population and aiding the fishing fleet.
The two memorials, one for each war, were erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The memorial to World War I was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, creator of many war memorials including the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Its design is based on that of a Doric temple, with the walls covered in bronze plaques with the names of the ships and the seamen who died in them. It was opened by Queen Mary in 1928 and is now a Grade I listed monument.
The memorial runs parallel to the main road, with its dedicatory inscription in bronze on the top of the exterior:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND TO THE HONOUR OF
TWELVE THOUSAND OF THE MERCHANT NAVY
AND FISHING FLEETS
WHO HAVE NO GRAVE BUT THE SEA
During World War I, the merchant navy lost 3,305 merchant ships with a total of 17,000 lives. The largest single loss of life commemorated on the memorial is from the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 which was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. 1,200 people lost their lives with more than 350 of the crew commemorated on the memorial.
In total, the First World War memorial records the names of some 12,000 casualties, and it makes for harrowing reading as you walk through.
The building is designed as an open corridor made of Portland stone with a chequerboard floor and a vaulted ceiling.
Even on a boiling hot day it is cool inside, the sounds of the nearby tourists flocking to the Tower of London strangely muted as you focus on the aged bronze panels listing those countless names.
The views through the memorial are impressive - the Tower of London, the Church of All Hallows and the rest of Trinity Gardens, where you can see the sunken memorial to the Merchant Navy of World War II.
The memorial to the Merchant Navy of World War II was designed by Sir Edward Maufe and was dedicated in 1955 by the Queen. It is a large sunken garden adjacent to the earlier memorial, as the trend by then was for war memorials to be less triumphalist and more a space for personal reflection.
There is a lawn area with benches and the names of the sailors are inscribed on panels around the outside, separated by reliefs personifying the seven seas.
A low wall sits at one end with two larger than life sculptures of Merchant Navy seamen - one an officer and the other a sailor.
The inscription between them reads:
1939 - 1945
THE TWENTY FOUR THOUSAND OF THE MERCHANT NAVY AND FISHING FLEETS WHOSE NAMES ARE HONOURED ON THE WALLS OF THIS GARDEN
GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR COUNTRY
AND HAVE NO GRAVE BUT THE SEA
In the centre of the garden is a large flat disc of a compass, and over it all flies the red flag of the Merchant Navy.
4,786 ships were sunk during World War II with the loss of 32,000 lives of which 24,000 are inscribed on this memorial. None of those who had a grave are listed here, which shows just how many were lost at sea.
The SS Ceramic was the greatest loss of life in World War II, a steam ocean liner which was hit by torpedoes in December 1942 in the Atlantic Ocean. Although they had time to launch lifeboats, the heavy seas and Force 10 winds meant that everyone perished, except for a single engineer who was rescued by the German submarine which had sunk the ship, and he was kept a prisoner until the end of the war.
In one corner of Trinity Gardens is a small memorial to the Merchant Navy of the 1982 Falklands War. A granite sundial with an iron anchor at the centre, this small memorial is dedicated to the 17 sailors who lost their lives at sea during the conflict. The greatest loss was the Sir Galahad, bombed in June 1982 with the loss of 48 lives. The inscription reads:
IN MEMORY OF THOSE MERCHANT SEAFARERS
WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES TO SECURE
THE FREEDOM OF THE FALKLAND ISLANDS
Trinity Gardens and the Tower Hill Memorials are a poignant yet beautiful place to spend some time. Under the gaze of the incredible Port Authority building, lovely views over the Tower of London with a good playpark and part of the Roman Wall of Londinium nearby, they really should receive more visitors than they do. Next time you are in the area, eschew the standard tourist area outside the Tower and spend some time here instead - it is well worth a visit.