Memorial to the lifeboat crew

This week sees me still in Rye, and I have another sad tale to tell.

Sadly sometimes those who go to the aid of others end up losing their own lives, which is what happened in the case of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat disaster when her entire crew of seventeen was lost. The story began early on 15 November 1928, when a south-westerly gale with winds gusting over 80 miles an hour ravished the English Channel, leaving many ships in difficulties.  At 5 am the maroons were fired informing the crew of the troubled Alice of Riga that help was on its way. The Latvian vessel had collided with a large German cargo ship, Smyrna, a little out of Sussex, at Dungeness. The Alice of Riga had lost her rudder, was holed and taking in water as she drifted helplessly. Those helping the crew to launch the lifeboat struggled in the wind to get to the lifeboat house a mile or so from Rye Harbour, and after three attempts the Mary Stanford, a non-self righting 14 oar boat was finally launched around 6.45am. Five minutes later Rye Coastguards received a message that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued by the Smyrna, and the lifeboat wasn’t needed after all.  Despite efforts to contact the lifeboat, the crew were too busy coping with the spray and rain to see the recall signal. The mate on the SS Halton reported seeing the lifeboat 3 miles from Dungeness and everything appeared to be fine.

Ypres Tower in centre of picture

A little later a young sailor on the Smyrna also saw the lifeboat, but then Cecil Marchant, collecting driftwood at Camber, saw the vessel capsize, and ran home to tell his parents..Always a story teller, he received a clout for his efforts but his father thought that perhaps he should report it to the coastguards. Soon rumours spread around the seafaring community. Then at midday came the official confirmation came that the Mary Stanford was seen bottom up drifting towards land.  Over100 men rushed to the shore, and every effort possible was used to try and revive 15 of the crew washed ashore, but it was too late, and two hours later the bodies were taken to Lydd for identification.

Stained glass window at Winchelsea Church

The national and local papers carried stories of the disaster.  Rumours about its demise were rife, and it was wrongly assumed that the lifejackets had become waterlogged and the weight dragged the crew under. The community was devastated as the crew had grown up and worked together. Eighteen dependent wives and parents, and eleven children were left to grieve. Hundreds of people attended the mass funeral held on November 20, including members of the Latvian Government who felt it was their duty to pay their respects as the lifeboat was going to the assist a Latvian vessel. The bodies of two crew members had not been found in time for the funeral, but three months later the body of Henry Cutting came ashore at Eastbourne.  Unfortunately the body of the youngest member of the crew, 17 year old John Head, the coxswain’s son, was never found.  .  A court of Enquiry sat in December and in January 1929 they concluded that as there were no survivors the cause of the capsizing was a matter of speculation, but from the evidence it was most probably caused by making for the  harbour on a strong tide, in dangerous weather conditions.  Two of the crew were entangled under the boat. The Mary Stanford was eventually taken to the RNLI depot in London where she was dismantled and broken up and the lifeboat house closed as a mark of respect and was never used again. A fine memorial to the men, and presented by the people of the Isle of Man and made of Manx stone, can be seen at Rye Harbour.  Above the statue of a lifeboat man are the words: ‘We have done that which was our duty to do.’ A very fitting memorial I feel.


About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.