Our local branch in Plymouth has 32 members and has been meeting for over 40 years a remarkable achievement.  On 25 February 2015 we celebrated with The Mayor & Mayoress of Plymouth our 53rd birthday, a lovely evening at the Holiday Inn, Plymouth.  Over the past 53 years firm friendships have been established and much fun and laughter has surrounded us all.  The hard working chairman’s and committee members consistently organise events both to support each other and to raise money for Merchant Navy Charities.  (There are some photos of us handing over cheques to local charities we have supported – Sidmouth Lifeboat, Mission to Seafarers Fowey, Seafarers Link and Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in our gallery. ) 

The idea of the Watch Ashore in Plymouth was conceived in 1962 when Mrs Mary Sutcliffe put an advert in the Evening Herald asking if there were any other Merchant Naval wives who would be interested in forming a local support group. An inaugural meeting was held during the winter of 1962 those attending were  Mrs M. Sutcliffe ( wife of Capt Hughie Sutcliffe, Inston Line), Mrs Joan Hughes (wife of Captain G. Roy Hughes Head of the School of Navigation), Mrs Virick (her husband was a Captain in  Salvesons), Mrs B. Espley (her husband was Commodore Bill Espley, Manchester Liners), Mrs E. Martin (husband 3/0 Barry Martin- Blue Funnel), Mrs Mary Hunt (her husband was a Captain in Everards), Mrs Paula Harper (her husband Captain Ron Harper - Cable Ships) and Mrs Peggy Cook (her husband Capt Alex Cook – Coasters).  They agreed to meet monthly at the Duke of Cornwall where we continue to hold our meetings on the 2nd Wednesday in every month.

The local group are part of the national association which was initially formed to fight for the needs and welfare of our Merchant Navy Officers – the Plymouth group whose members were made up from wives, mothers, sisters and “sweethearts” not only supported their national association’s beliefs but forged strong bonds of friendship and support with other Merchant Navy wives whilst their husbands were at sea and we continue with this support and are actively searching for younger MN wives to join us.

Founder members Mrs Wendy Hawkins, Mrs. Avril Bailey, Mrs Doris Barry and Mrs. Elspeth Martin are still members to date and the branch continue to meet at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel on the second Wednesday of the month gathering for lunch and then a business meeting with a speakers as diverse as The Body Shop to March’s speaker from the Evening Herald..

Excerpt taken from the original Watch Ashore rule book

Their subscription in addition to the prevailing subscription to the National Watch Ashore, all members had to purchase a badge on joining and the local subscription was £2.50 per annum.   The officers – Chairman, Vice Chairman Secretary and Treasurer were elected by the Branch at the AGM and shall retire at the AGM following their election but shall be eligible for re election at such meeting although  in  the rules the Chairman may hold office for a period no longer than 3 years.

Several members were married to Lecturers at the School of Navigation, which had been formed in 1862 by Dr John Merrifield, a scientist who bought 13 Gascoyne Place which was run as a school of navigation.   The houses opposite housed the boarders and was subsequently called Merrifield Hall. One of the branch members, Mrs. Olivia Johnson, was the matron of the hall and many of the husbands of current members have very fond memories of her.The school of navigation started a 2 year Cadet Course, and this led to the marriage of many of the cadets to local Devon girls who subsequently became members of The Watch Ashore.

Mrs Sutcliffe remained Chairman of the Plymouth Branch until 1970 when she retired to take up office in local government and Mrs E Holmes took the position.   It is believed Mrs Sutcliffe returned to Yorkshire in 2004 but subsequently returned to Plymouth to live with her son where she celebrated her 100th birthday in 2011, Members of the Watch Ashore attended.  She died shortly after and her funeral was attended by Watch Ashore members.

Initially, when the husbands were home on leave, they were part of the Watch Ashore until 1971 when Gordon Butterworth had the idea to form, The South West Company of Mariners.   This Company of Mariners continues to both support and join in with many events held by The Watch Ashore.   Early records show that the branch enjoyed many varied social events -  including an annual Cheese and Wine  party held at The Guild Hall Plymouth, the Birthday Dinner, Children’s Christmas parties held at Merrifield Hall and many events in members homes.  Meetings tended to be more formal than today and suits, hats and gloves were the rig of the day.  However many Merchant Navy Charities of the day were supported by donations from funds raised at these events.

Despite having an active social calendar, the members never forgot the original aims of the organization and in latter years were involved in lobbying for an enquiry into the loss of the Derbyshire, confronting Alan Clark M.P. for Plymouth Sutton on the loss of British tonnage within the merchant fleet, and most recently the campaign against piracy. In 2000 our National Chairman and Secretary attended a European meeting in Brussels to discuss issues with the MN, and were able to put our views forward.  Past Chairman have also been involved in giving presentations at Nautilus Conferences over the years and more recently we were able to plant an oak tree at Mariners Park to commemorate our work alongside Nautilus.

Currently one of our Plymouth members Chris Rankin is our National Chairman and also chairs the Merchant Navy Welfare Board South West Port meetings which take place every quarter. The objective of these committees is to establish and encourage and coordinate the efforts of its members to provide welfare support and facilities for active, or retired seafarers and their dependants within its areas along with raising awareness of any local issues within our ports areas.In the South West there have been many issues both with the fishing fleets and MN and the committee helped raise awareness by bringing these issues to the attention of the wider Maritime Charities community. Indeed last year SfUK were able to give immediate support to the Mission to Fishermen Newlyn with emergency funding following the disastrous effects on the fishing vessels and their gear during the storms.

To bring things up to date, please click on the two pages – Events and Past Events and enjoy the gallery of photos.