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Monday, 3 September 2012

‘Unsung Heroes’ will involve over 600 people from across the Eastern region in collecting these stories. They will help create a dedicated website, a touring exhibition, a sound archive of interviews with veterans and a large-scale commemorative event to be held in Peterborough next year.

Much of our work in collecting the stories of merchant seamen in World War II will come from collecting ‘oral histories’ – literally the history locked in a person’s own memory and experience. We are very privileged to have among us veterans who served in the Merchant Navy from 1939-45 and who are still here to tell their unique stories. Most will be in the mid to late 80s, some in their 90s. We are the privileged generation who have the very last chance to capture these stories first hand.

The project will be run in partnership with the Merchant Navy Association (MNA) many of whose members served on the dangerous convoys that crossed the Atlantic, sailed up to the Arctic or tried to avoid the Nazi guns aimed at them in ‘bomb alley’ – the East Coast routes supplying London and the south east. Other project partners include Anglia Ruskin University, who will recruit up to 12 history undergraduates to lead research sessions in local communities across East Anglia. The resulting touring exhibition and play will be seen next summer in many of the smaller maritime museums to be found on the Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex coasts. It is expected that over 2000 people will see this exhibition next year.

There will also be a new dedicated educational resource that secondary schools can access without cost. The resource will be piloted in local schools and then distributed to every school in the region. The project will conclude with a large-scale commemorative evening involving those who took part in the project. This is likely to be held in Peterborough next autumn.

Monday 19th saw the official public launch of the project at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge – one of the excellently equipped rooms in the new Lord Ashcroft building. One of the guests commented that it seemed to be decorated in nautical colours just for us!

We were so pleased that thirty one guests attended including a good number of our ARU undergraduates, Merchant Navy veterans Fred Reed, and daughter Audrie, and Peter Harris accompanied by son Robin. 

Four further veteran families were represented too, bringing stories of their research so far into their family member.

Monday, 19 November 2012


The website serves to collect, record and preserve the stories of the brave men and women who served in the Merchant Navy during World War II. The website contains regularly updated articles, looking at a broad variety of topics including ‘Merchant Navy Memorials’, ‘The Red Duster’ and ‘Surprising Statistics from World War II, provides downloadable guidance on gathering oral history and most importantly contains a constantly growing archive of WWII Merchant Navy veteran stories.

In time, we hope that the website will act as a forum on which the public can share and swap Merchant Seamen stories from the war and from more recent times and learn more about their ancestors and friends.

Please do check out the website: www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukhttp://www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukshapeimage_7_link_0

Monday, 10 September 2012

Several schools were represented too and we look forward to their involvement in the project in all sorts of ways. We were also delighted to welcome Geoff Hartgrove representing the MNA in Ipswich and Andrew Westwood-Bate from the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. And of course project team members Andrew Wrenn, Kathrin Andrews and Dr Sean Lang.

Mike started the proceedings with a short illustrated talk sharing a few facts and figures about the MN during World War II – the vital role it played and the terrible danger it faced. Lesley then explained the project elements in a whistle-stop run through the year-long project plan and showed the newly live website which has been very stylishly designed by Kate of Little Designs Cambridge.

Fred Reed spoke briefly to share just one little anecdote from his experiences and daughter Audrie of Beautiful Memories explained how she has researched and scrap booked her dad’s story. We showed the DVD that she made for us – an appeal from Fred, our project poster boy, to get involved in capturing these stories before time runs out.

But best of all was the chatting and the story sharing and the evident real shared desire to find out all we can, as soon as we can before these vital stories, and the part they play in the history of the war years, sink without trace.http://www.littledc.co.ukhttp://www.littledc.co.ukhttp://www.beautifulmemories.tv/about.htmlshapeimage_8_link_0shapeimage_8_link_1shapeimage_8_link_2

photography (c) Bobby Ford 2012

Dr Sean Lang, professor at Anglia Ruskin University and Mike Levy of Keystage Arts and Heritage Company spoke on The Jeremy Sallis Show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Thursday 15th November 2012 at 3:20pm about the Merchant Navy Unsung Heroes project.

We have had an excellent response to the interview with many Merchant Navy WWII Veterans and families of Veterans contacting us as a result.

If you missed the show, you can listen again on the right.

The Jeremy Sallis Show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

Thursday, 15 November 2012

On Thursday 17th January we three and four hardy undergraduates made our way to Kew by various means of transport and train beating car in time! On arrival we all began the signing in and signing up process – on computers and involving a little test just to ensure we knew how to access and how to handle the precious documents that we would be privileged to see.

We were issued with photographic readers cards and were good to go. The scale of the building is quite overwhelming but in a lovely setting, a convenient car park, a pleasant restaurant and a museum space and shop – everything you need for a good day out!

Thursday, 17 January 2013

We were lucky enough to have a ‘backstage’ tour in the company of Ela, staff member at Kew and friend of Keystage. So we got to see the storage areas. Normally the in house ‘finders’ work here to bring out requested documents to readers. We got a real flavour of the scale of the place and started to understand how things are categorised and organised. 

We saw two hand drawn and coloured maps – one drawn by the British and one drawn by the French, of the same sea campaign. Great fun to compare them!
Apparently they house eleven million records and growing all the time. I was particularly intrigued by boxes know as ‘X and Y boxes’ – documents that are yet to be sorted and some very old stuff indeed.

This was followed by a talk from the resident expert in Merchant Navy records. Janet whizzed us through letter and number codes that would lead us to the right places. She emphasised that we would need to look in various types of records as the merchant war experience could be found under admiralty, board of trade, commerce record and many other places. No so straightforward!

Amusingly she said if we came to a dead end then we should look in Treasury records because everything has to be paid for!

We had lunch and tired to de-fuddle our heads as we were to be let loose to work the system solo! I think we all felt that we were appropriately ‘at sea’ and had to choose just one small thing to look for.

We discussed the fact that you can start with a name, a ship, a battle and it would lead you down a path.

So in we went, each to a computer terminal. I think the undergrads had me on this one. They seemed to be off! Finding all sorts of things in all sorts of place and calling up documents, which were then sent to a numbered locker. You then collect them and take them to a numbered reading desk in the inner reading room.

I racked my brain to think of something I thought I could manage in the time left and we found the Casualty List for S.S. Ramillies – the ship that the father of one of our contacts was on when it was torpedoed in May 1941.

It was strange that a dry and dusty factual report brought home in the hushed room that we were looking at a poignant chapter in the story of a real man and his family.

We have to go back and we have to encourage as many people as we can to use this incredible resource.

We are delighted that young composer Alex Woolf was engaged to write the original music for the play.

Alex is a 17 year old composer and performer based in Cambridge. He is the winner of BBC Proms Young Composer 2012 competition, with his winning piece played by the Aurora Orchestra as part of the BBC Proms, broadcast on BBC Radio 3. He also holds the 2012 National Centre for Early Music Award for Young Composer, through which his music was performed by the Tallis Scholars in Durham Cathedral, also broadcast on Radio 3.

Monday, 18 February 2013

In May, his winning entry in a composition competition organised by the Royal Opera House was recorded and performed by the Royal Opera House Orchestra, under Sir Antonio Pappano, and can be heard at each opera/ballet in the 2012/13 season at Covent Garden as an alternative to the interval bell! Alex's music has been played throughout the UK (in venues such as the Southbank Centre, The Sage Gateshead, The Britten Studio, Cambridge's Trinity College Chapel and Durham Cathedral) as well as in Holland. He is also Cambridge Young Composer of the Year 2012. Alex studies with Jeffery Wilson and has been an Aldeburgh Young Musician since the age of 13. He is Principal Composer with the National Youth Orchestra (2012), where he is tutored by Anna Meredith and Larry Goves, as well as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage, Patrick Nunn and Nico Muhly.

His research for our piece involved reading many of the veteran stories and the final work is a five-movement piece for piano. It is called ‘Ebb and Flow’ – referring not just to the movements of the sea but also to the feelings and emotions that come across strongly from reading the veteran stories.

The movements are based on themes of adventure, vulnerability, action, horror and retrospective following closely some real quotes from the veterans.

As well as being used to underscore the performance, it will be premiered in its entirety at the final event, West Road Concert Hall in September.

The press launch of the exhibition and accompanying play was a huge success and the Cambridge Evening News wrote a fantastic two-page spread on the project as a result. 

We were honoured to be joined by two veterans; Peter Harris and Charles Downs, the composer of the music accompanying the play, Alex Woolf and maybe members of the press who joined us in watching the premier of the play, ‘Nobody Tells...’ in the Larkham Theatre, Cambridge.

Monday, 17 June 2013


These educational resources have been written by Andrew Wrenn, General Adviser - Humanities for Cambridgeshire County Council and a trustee of the Historical Association. 

There are 8 resources in total; ‘The Merchant Navy in Wartime Propagada’, ‘The Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945’, ‘The Merchant Navy in convoys to Malta, 1939 - 1943’, ‘The Merchant Navy in UK coastal convoys’, ‘Black, Asian and Arab Seamen in the British Merchant Navy’, ‘The British Merchant Navy in Arctic Convoys, 1941 - 1945’, ‘The British Merchant Navy - Everyday Life during the Second World War’.

They are aimed to be used principally by teachers of history and other educators, particularly those working with able, gifted and talented Year 8 pupils (12-13 years) and Year 9 pupils (13-14 years).

The resources are available from the Merchant Navy Unsung Heroes dedicated website: www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukhttp://www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukshapeimage_19_link_0

Friday, 12 July 2013


Venue: Time and Tide Museum. 
This museum had a exhibition already in it’s temporary space but were nevertheless very keen to have the play and to support the project. We performed in an intimate venue to about 35 people including some young teenagers. Some people stood and watched snippets, others sat for the whole thing.
The Learning Support Officer of the Museum said the following and Keystage staff have been invited to a regular group at the museum in February to show the DVD of the play and to lead a discussion about the Merchant Navy during the war.
“I thoroughly enjoyed watching the recent performance of Unsung Heroes at the Time and Tide Museum. The actor gave a moving and captivating portrayal as the old sailor and I was ‘there’ when he was recalling the wartime trials and tribulations of his family!
I was also interested to hear the story of the Merchant Navy especially as it was told by using the memories of those that lived through it. It was a viewpoint which I certainly had never considered before and which left me wanting to find out more. I work as part of the Education Team for Great Yarmouth Museums and am hoping to include references to the Merchant Navy, as told in Unsung Heroes, in our WWII school workshops as this would fit in nicely with our ‘Rationing’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’ sessions.
It might also be useful to teachers if we could direct them to your website or upload a copy of your performance for them to use as a teaching resource so I look forward to receiving the DVD in the near future. Congratulations on putting together a stunning play.” It is gratifying for us to know that we have ‘got in right’. This is a piece of theatre that effectively tells the stories and engages interest not only in the actual performance time but in the future.
For a full list of venues and dates, visit www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukhttp://www.merchantnavyunsungheroes.co.ukshapeimage_20_link_0

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Saturday, 27 July 2013


Venue: West Road Concert Hall Cambridge.
Also, Nigel Blanchford, retired HLD Officer was present and is able to report on the event.
Exhibition was on show in the foyer.
Pupils from two of our involved schools attended. ‘Nobody Tells...” was performed by actor James Hirst accompanied by composer Alex Woolf. Veteran Charles Downs joined James onstage to deliver the final message of the play, ‘Don’t let our stories die.”

Speakers were:
Dr Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University
Nigel Blanchford of HLF
Jessica Hicks of Sawston Village College talking about her grandfather
Benjamin Rowland of Chesterton Community College reading a poem by a Merchant Seaman
Phoenix Youth Training Choir singing For Those in Peril on the Sea against a backdrop of veteran photographs.
Audrie Reed, daughter of veteran Fred Reed.
More than 300 people attended including fifteen veterans and their families and the families of deceased veterans, project participants, school groups and members of the public. Refreshments were served after the event and provided a great opportunity for meeting, chatting and reminiscing.
“I would just like to thank you and your colleagues for last night, we all enjoyed it so much and I felt so proud to see my Dads picture in the book and on the screen.”

Sunday, 29 September 2013