IT may be a year late thanks to Covid, but Southend’s celebration of how our pier played a vital role in the Second World War is set to be more of a success than ever.

‘The Bravest Pier in the World’ event will see schoolchildren and the public being welcomed to Southend Pier later this month to walk the hallowed boards of the almost 200 year old structure and learn especially about the role it played in the Second World War.

In September 1939, the pier was shut to the public and become Naval Control Centre for the Thames Estuary. It was renamed HMS Leigh with surrounding areas becoming HMS Westcliff.

During the war years huge amounts of food, ammunition and special equipment were carried on the pier’s electric railway.

Visitors to the HMS Leigh 76 event (delayed a year because of the pandemic) are set to meet actors playing the roles of workers, civilians and soldiers from Second World War Southend and HMS Leigh, which defended the Thames and dispatched over 80,000 ships on convoys throughout the world.

Upon entry at Pier Hill, guests will be met by the guns and members of the Shoebury Royal Artillery Association before passing through the HMS Leigh checkpoint. From there, visitors can stroll through the Memory Garden, where people can post a photo or buy a ribbon to tie onto the railings in memory of a loved one.

The walk along the boards of the pier will be accompanied by a podcast which will bring stories and music from 1940s Southend to the town.

The event, run by The HMS Leigh Project, is taking place thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Southend Council together with support from the Royal British Legion.

A huge part of the project is to remember the human stories behind HMS Leigh, the people who worked and spent so much of the war there, and many will be shared by the project organisers.

One of the wartime workers was Joyce Palmer who joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1939 aged just 19. She was to serve for the entire duration of the war. During her time serving, she was a messenger, a typist and a writer. She was awarded four war chevrons and a good conduct badge and her employment record showed she was a conscientious worker, steady and reliable.

While working for HMS Westcliff on the clifftops Joyce had to take weekly messages to the RAF office which was situated at the pier head. Travelling on the pier train – on which she was often the only passenger – she delivered her messages and took back any orders for supplies or parts the RAF needed.

The family story goes that one day after delivering her messages, she was asked by an RAF sergeant if she could do some typing for him.

Her reply was in the manner of “Certainly not. Get one of your WAAFs to do it” and she walked off to catch the train back. The RAF officer, Sergeant Ernest Rawlinson (known as Paul) was not put off by this feisty exchange and ran after Joyce to ask her out on a date.

Unfortunately, their courtship was cut short as Sergeant Rawlinson (who was a member of the 952 squadron RAF Balloon command which was involved in the barrage balloons protecting the pier and shipping in the estuary from bombing raids) was involved in the Dieppe raid in August 1942 and was captured.

He became a prisoner of war and held in Stalag 8B prison camp.

After a few anxious months of not knowing whether Paul was alive, Joyce eventually heard from him and they corresponded as much as was possible during the war. When the war ended and Paul eventually came home, they got married and were to live in Prittlewell for 62 years.

Another worker was Roland Hayward, who grew up in West Street, Prittlewell. From the age of 12 Roland served as a messenger for the Thames Naval Command in Royal Mews. He also helped to build Anderson air raid shelters and went out with his father to look for incendiary bombs twice a month.

These and many other fascinating stories about the people who made HMS Leigh such a success can be found at