The Nautilus Mariners' Park estate has seen a lot in its 160-year history, providing homes for retired seafarers and their dependants through two world wars and other times of national and global upheaval. And as Sarah Robinson reports, today's residents weren't going to let a pandemic stop them from marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day – while staying socially distanced of course
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, May 2020 was supposed to be offering a more convivial communal experience to UK residents than a national lockdown: the 75th anniversary commemorations of Victory in Europe.
A chance to celebrate the end of the Second World War and remember those who were killed in action, VE Day would be a big event this year, with street parties, memorial ceremonies and even a dedicated bank holiday on 8 May.
Things haven't quite turned out that way. But the staff and residents of the Nautilus Mariners' Park retirement estate remain undaunted. Set in Wallasey on the banks of the River Mersey, the Park is known for its clubs, activities and special events, and even though the residents' planned 1940s party can't go ahead, the occasion will be very much marked.
The whole nation will be pausing for reflection and remembrance with a two-minute silence at 11am, and in normal times everyone at Mariners' Park would have gathered for a ceremony at the estate's Atlantic Memorial Stone. Instead, the residents have been invited to come out onto their front doorsteps and balconies or simply take a quiet moment inside their own homes. In doing this, they will be joining a UK-wide initiative organised by the Merchant Navy Association to remember the sacrifices of merchant seafarers in the Second World War.
Most Mariners' Park residents these days are 'silver surfers', proficient with email and the internet, and many will be going online from 11.15am for the British Legion's VE Day livestream, which aims to bring together younger generations with those who lived through the war.
At 12.55pm, pipers and buglers around the country are set to play The Last Post on their own doorsteps, so Park residents will be stepping outside again to listen out for the strains of this traditional tune of remembrance in the local area or wafting across the water from Liverpool.
At 2.45pm, residents can turn on their TVs for a special broadcast on BBC1. A programme hosted by newsreader Sophie Raworth will pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and will include Sir Winston Churchill's Victory in Europe speech at 3pm.
Also on BBC1, there will be an evening of music and memories related to VE Day, starting at 8pm. This will include a speech by HM The Queen and a rendition by front-line care workers and NHS staff of Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again – perhaps the most famous song from the Second World War.
Mariners' Park's war
Mariners' Park has its own tale to tell from the Second World War – and the story has resulted in a little piece of the Park remaining forever in North Wales.
Because the estate was close to Liverpool and ports such as Birkenhead on the Wirral, the site was felt to be vulnerable to German bombing. Residents were therefore evacuated to the quiet village of Trefriw in Snowdonia from 1941-1945.
Sadly, few records of their time there survive, but there is some evidence in the form of a gravestone in Trefriw Cemetery, where Mariners' Park residents who reached the ends of their lives in the village were communally buried.
The grave lay largely forgotten until its existence came to the attention of Mariners' Park estate manager Danny Kenny around a decade ago. Mr Kenny and his maintenance and gardening team went to have a look at Trefriw Cemetery and decided they should spruce up and maintain the memorial and its surrounds, much as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the resting places of fallen servicemen around the world.
Return to Trefriw
When the work to restore the Trefriw grave was completed, a party of Mariners' Park residents went on a day out to the village in September 2013 – to see where their forebears had lived and lay a wreath in their memory.
As reported in the November 2013 Nautilus Telegraph, the group was made up of 10 residents: Mrs V. Walker, Mrs I. Jamieson, Mrs D. McKnight, Mr and Mrs G. Dickinson, Mr D. Laverie, Mr R. Lockwood, Capt J. Burt, Capt R. Pengelly and Capt G. Rolph. They were accompanied by staff members Audrey Stocker, Danny Kenny, Neil Foreman and Roger Cliffe-Thompson.
'Also in the party,' said Capt Burt at the time, 'we had port chaplain Dave Robertson — and not forgetting Andy Jones, who drove the minibus kindly provided by the Seafarers' mission. We were given a warm welcome by Valerie Hannah from the Friends of Trefriw Cemetery, who has assisted Danny enormously over the last two years.'
At the cemetery, Mr Dickinson laid a wreath after a short service in which the names of all of the Mariners' Park residents buried in Trefriw were read out by the chaplain. Afterwards, the group retired to The Princes Arms Hotel for refreshments. This hotel had once been The Belle Vue Infirmary, where the Mariners' Park evacuees had lived. There they were greeted by Aneurin Hughes, who was a member of the local historical group and had lived in the village during the war years as a child.
Local children like Aneurin would have easily recognised the evacuees as retired seafarers from the uniform they wore, pointed out Gerald Rolph, who had formerly worked at the Park and was in 2013 a resident himself. 'The uniform had a blue peaked cap and a reefer jacket with brass buttons,’ he remembered, 'and they were still wearing it when I came ashore and started work there in the early 1970s.'
The Mariners' Park team have continued to remember this episode in the Park's history by returning to maintain the grave, and both they and the Nautilus union would welcome further information and images related to the period. If you have anything to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.