The Mary Stanford Lifeboat Disaster

All 17 crew members of the ‘Mary Stanford’ perished

On 15th November 1928 at 6.45am the ‘Mary Stanford’ lifeboat with her crew of 17 was launched to save a stricken vessel. A south-westerly gale with winds in excess of 80 miles per hour was raging in the English Channel. Not one of these brave Rye Harbour men ever returned.

This was the biggest loss of life from a single lifeboat in the history of the RNLI, and the Grade II Listed boathouse remains one of the most important buildings in the history of Rye Harbour. At 5am, maroons were fired to summon help to rescue the crew of the ‘Alice of Riga’, a Latvian vessel which had been involved in a collision with a large German ship ‘Smyrna’ eight miles south west of Dungeness. She had suffered the loss of her rudder and a hole had been torn in her side.

The crewmen of the lifeboat and the launchers, both male and female, battled against the wind to the lifeboat house which stands well over a mile from Rye Harbour. The weather was so bad that it took three exhausting attempts to launch the ‘Mary Stanford’ from the beach. The 17 RNLI crewmen rowed this non-self righting 14-oar pulling and sailing ‘Liverpool Class’ surf boat away from the beach with great effort and no motor power to aid them.

At 6.50am, Rye Coastguard received a message saying that the crew of the ‘Alice of Riga’ had been rescued by the ‘Smyrna’, and frantic efforts were made by the signalman to recall the lifeboat, but to no avail. In the blinding spray and driving rain and with all of the action going on in the lifeboat – keeping her head to sea with the oars while the mast and sails were raised – the crew did not see the recall signal.

At approximately 9am, the mate of the S.S. ‘Halton’ saw the lifeboat 3 miles WSW from Dungeness and all appeared to be well. The lifeboat was also seen by a boy sailor on the ‘Smyrna’ a little later on. At approximately 10.30am, a young lad collecting driftwood at Camber looked out to sea and in a bright shaft of sunlight saw the lifeboat capsize. He ran home to tell his parents who reported it to Jury’s Gap Coastguard at Camber.

The Lifeboat House still stands, but was never used again

By midday it had been confirmed that the ‘Mary Stanford’ had capsized; she could be seen bottom up floating towards the shore. Over the next two hours no effort was spared in trying to revive the 15 bodies washed ashore, but all died. Three months later the sea gave up the body of Henry Cutting, who was washed ashore at Eastbourne. The body of the youngest crewman John Head, aged17, was never found.

The impact of the disaster on the Rye Harbour community was devastating and deeply affected all who lived there. The disaster was also felt worldwide, and was front page news over the days that followed. The funeral was attended by hundreds including the Latvian Minister. An annual memorial service is held at Rye Harbour church to this day.

The Lifeboat House still stands, but was never used again.