In the small garden at the corner of Wellesley Road and Marine Parade is a seat on which the plaque states: ‘Captain Herbert Leonard Payne, known as Len, died suddenly at the age of 63, on 19 December 1955, while on board the Invicta just before she sailed to Calais at noon.’ He was the Commodore of the British Rail fleet at Dover and Folkestone and lived at ‘The Moorings,’ Castle Avenue.’
According to the 1901 census, Len was living with his parents, John and Alice, at 57 Bulwark Street, in Dover’s Pier District that year. His father was a marine porter. Further research shows that Len was educated at the nearby Holy Trinity School and went to sea at the age of 14. He served on many types of merchant vessels and travelled the world. Following the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) Len moved to minesweepers and then a patrol trawler, gaining his Masters certificate when he was 23 years old in 1915. Following this he was promoted to Captain and for much of the remainder of the War was engaged in minesweeping around the African coast in a whaler.
On demobilisation in 1919 Len joined, as second officer, South Eastern and Chatham Railway cross channel shipping that became part of Southern Railway in 1923. Passing through various grades len was given a command in 1930 and brought train ferries, the Twickenham, Hampton and Shepperton, from Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Newcastle-on-Tyne shipyard, in 1934, to Dover. He commanded the Hampton, which was the first train ferry to test the purpose built dock at Western Docks, in September 1936. Less than a week later Len also commanded her on the first experimental crossing of the Channel.
At the outbreak World War II (1939-1945) the Hampton was requisitioned by the Royal Navy converted into a minelayer and renamed H.M.S. Hampton. In command was Lt-Comdr. (N) Len Payne and during her time, the ferry laid about 6,000 mines in the Dover Strait. She was also involved in the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, under Len’s command. During those dark days, the Hampton made an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate the 51st Division from St Valery-en-Caux and Le Havre.
D-Day, 6 June 1944, Len returned to France in command of the Maid of Orleans, putting Commandos ashore near Caen. For this, he was mentioned in despatches. The evening before, Len made an impromptu speech that was reported in the world’s press: ‘Do not think I am braver than you because I am not. I would much rather be in my garden at peace or in the pub, but this job has got to be done or you and yours would become worse than slaves. And when this show is over you will be able to walk with dignity among your friends both in Britain and in France. Good luck to you all.’
A few days later, while Len was on leave, the Maid of Orleans was sunk. For his service during the war, Len was awarded the OBE and the Cross-of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
Following the war the Invicta, launched April 1940 and immediately commandeered by the Admiralty for war service, was refitted On 15 October 1946, the refitted Invicta replaced the Canterbury to become Southern Railway’s flagship carrying the prestigious Golden Arrow service. On 1 January 1948, with the nationalisation of railways, the Southern Railway became Southern Region and Len was appointed Commodore of the Dover and Folkestone British Railways Fleet.
In 1951, Len made the national papers again when the Admiralty had refused to allow him to fly the Blue Ensign. Len was eligible, as he had joined the Royal Navy Reserve in 1909, not long after first going to sea and had served in the Reserve until 1941. The Admiralty argued that only foreign-trade vessels qualified.
During the challenge, the Admiralty announced that the scheme would be extended to include Home-Traders and in a press statement said that Len’s warrant was the “first issued to a ship that was not foreign-going.” This too was successfully challenged because one had been issued in 1925 to the Master of the St Dennis on the Harwich-Hook of Holland route!
Shortly afterwards, Len was elected an honorary member of the Dover branch of the National Union of Seamen – one of the few serving officers to be so honoured. However, on 19 December 1955, at the age of 63, just as the Invicta was about to leave the dock in Dover for Calais, he collapsed and died. It was reported that at his funeral, which took place at St Mary’s Church, “thousands paid their respects”. Len is buried in Charlton Cemetery, his wife, Lilian Ella, was buried along side him following her death in 2004 aged 95.
- Dover Mercury 2 December 2010