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.