RNLB Mary Stanford (ON 661)
|Operator:||Royal National Lifeboat Institution|
|Class and type:||Liverpool-class|
The disaster was the worst for many years. It occurred on 15 November 1928 when the whole of the 17-man crew of the Mary Stanford lifeboat were drowned, practically the whole male fishing population of the village of Rye Harbour.
About every 10–15 years the RNLI lifeboats around the coast of Britain and Ireland are replaced with new boats as a matter of course. Some stations stay with the same class of boat and others are upgraded to the new improved versions of what they have had, or downgraded to a more suitable class to carry out the work that they have been doing with the old boat. It is traditional for crews to be asked for their input on what type of boat is to be supplied.
In May 1914 a new lifeboat was offered to Rye Harbour to replace the John William Dudly a self-righting 10-oar pulling and sailing Liverpool class in service since 1900. At the invitation of the Institution the then coxswain, William Southerden, and two of the crew were invited to visit three lifeboat stations and inspect the different types of boats, doing similar work to that of the Rye Harbour boat. In July they visited Cromer and witnessed an exercise launch of the 'Louisa Heartwell'. The one that was chosen was a 38 ft (11.7 m) Liverpool non-self-righting pulling and sailing boat with 14 oars. This was thought to be the ideal craft to operate in the surf conditions of Rye Bay. Also, according to the brother of one of those lost, the crew rejected a self-righting boat as it would have been too heavy to drag across the shingle and launch.
J.E. Saunders of East Cowes was the builders and on 13 April 1916 she was tested for draught and stability and found to be 'perfectly satisfactory'. The cost of the lifeboat was met by a legacy in memory of Mary Stanford, after whom the boat was named. After the loss, John Frederick Stanford, son of Mary Stanford, paid for another lifeboat to be named Mary Stanford, also built by Saunders Roe Ltd. RNLB Mary Stanford (ON 733) had an illustrious career saving 122 lives.
The lifeboat was sailed from East Cowes and was placed on station at Rye Harbour on 19 October 1916. On 25 November of that year she was launched on exercise in weather conditions that 'fairly tested her'. The Coxswain, crew and Officers of the Institution were satisfied with the result of the exercise. In 1920 the RNLI sent out a circular to all lifeboat crews around the country asking what type of lifebelt was preferred. The crew at Rye expressed a preference for the No 3 Lifebelt – the Kapok. Exhaustive experiments had been made up to September 1917 by the Institution, with co-operation with the Board of Trade and their officers, to ensure that Jackets of No 3 pattern fulfilled the purposes for which they were designed. The belts had fulfilled the purposes under the conditions of the experiment.
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The lifeboat was launched in a south-west gale with heavy rain squalls and heavy seas to the vessel Alice of Riga. News was received that the crew of the Alice had been rescued by another vessel and the recall signal was fired three times. Apparently the crew of the lifeboat had not seen it. As the lifeboat was coming into harbour she was seen to capsize and the whole of the crew perished. All the dependants were pensioned by the Institution. The local fund raised over £35,000.
During her time at Rye Harbour Mary Stanford was launched 63 times, 47 launches were exercises and 16 were shouts. From these 16 shouts, 10 lives were saved. One of these was quite spectacular for the time. On 12 December 1923 an Aeroplane ditched in the sea off Fairlight the lifeboat towed the plane back to station, but the pilot, an American, L.B. Sperry, was lost when he had tried to swim ashore before the lifeboat arrived on scene. During her time she had three coxswains. The first was William Southerden, who took delivery of the vessel in 1916 and was coxswain until 1919. He was followed by Joseph White until 1924, when Herbert Head took over from 1924 to 1928. The lifeboat exercised as usual and there were no real eventful services.
On the night of 14 November 1928 a south-west gale swept up the Channel with winds in excess of 80 mph (128 km/h). Just after 4 o'clock in the morning of the 15th, the small Steamer Alice of Riga, laden with a cargo of bricks, was in collision with the larger German vessel Smyrna. In the collision the Alice lost her rudder and had a hole torn in her side. The weather was too bad for the Smyrna to effect a rescue, and at 4:27 am the Ramsgate Coastguard Station received a message passed on by North Forland Radio – "Steamer. Alice of Riga. Leaking. Danger. Drifting SW to W 8 miles from Dungeness 04.30". The Rye Harbour Coast Guard Station was informed at 04:55 am, and the lifeboat maroons were fired. This put into action the most devastating chain of events to befall the small village of Rye Harbour. As soon as the maroons were fired, most of the village was awakened and could hear the ferocity of the raging storm outside. Fred Southerden recalled, as a lad he had heard his brother Charlie tumble out of bed, Fred called to him saying that he had 'only heard one maroon'. Charlie replied "best go someone may need help". Such was the will and spirit shown by all of these volunteers that morning, both crew and launchers. The locals that can remember that fateful morn to this day tell of how difficult it was to stand up in the wind, let alone make the 1 1⁄2-mile journey against the wind and rain to the boathouse out on the shore.
The maroons were fired just after 5 am, it was practically low water and it took three attempts to get the boat away, the time now was 06:45, as the boat went away. All of the crew by now would have been wet through. It was just beginning to break daylight, when at 06:50 Rye Coastguard received the message saying that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued by the Smyrna. This message had originally been received by Ramsgate Coastguard Station at 6:12 am. As it was not a 'life saving message' it was not considered to be 'entitled', i.e. priority. Also there was a further delay in sending the recall to Rye Coastguard when an attempt to call Dungeness via Lydd proved to be futile.
Frantic efforts were made by the signalman to recall the lifeboat, all to no avail, with the blinding spray and driving rain coupled 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. A very intensive time, no wonder the flares were not seen. As it was, the recall reached the lifeboat station just 5 minutes after the Mary Stanford had been launched.
At around 09:00 the mate of the S.S. Halton saw the lifeboat 3 miles (2 km) W.S.W from Dungeness and all appeared OK. The lifeboat was also seen by a boy sailor on the Smyrna a bit later on. About 10:30 a young lad, Cecil Marchant, collecting drift wood at Camber saw the lifeboat capsize. As he looked out to sea he saw it happen in a bright ray of sunlight. He ran home and told his parents what he had seen, and promptly got a clout for making up stories but just to be on the safe side his father reported it to Jurys Gap Coastguard. Soon rumours were going around Rye Harbour Village that the boat had 'gone over', the vicar thought that he had seen this from an upstairs window at the Vicarage. By 12 noon it had been confirmed as the lifeboat could be seen bottom up floating towards the shore. Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and the maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. The vicar went out on to the beach and broke the news to the launchers. One young woman Elsie Downey had been asked by her blind mother repeatedly to go to the huts (by the Flag Pole) for news of the boat. Elsie's Brother Arthur and cousin Morris were both in the boat that day. Her mother then asked her to run to Rye (there was no bus in those days) and tell her sister Lou the bad news. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned lifeboat lay. No effort was spared in trying to revive the bodies washed ashore. A tank was brought along from Lydd Camp to right the lifeboat. Over the next two hours the bodies of the crew were washed up. A total of 15 on that day, they were taken to Lydd for formal identification.
Eva Southerden, 15 at the time, remembers her father William, returning home that night and breaking down in tears as he told his wife he could not see Charlie (Charlie was found later that night). Henry Cutting's body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later. The body of John Head has never been found. Speculation was rife as to the cause of the capsize. It was said that the lifejackets were waterlogged and had drowned the crew due to the weight. The main point of conversation was what "was the lifeboat doing in the position where it capsized". It had no need to be there; it is most unlikely that it was making for Rye Harbour, as the boathouse is 1 1⁄2 miles to the west, also in these prevailing weather conditions, it was usual for the lifeboat to shelter east of Dungeness or go into Folkestone.
The popular view was that either John Head or Henry Cutting, or indeed both, had been washed out of the boat and that the lifeboat was actually looking for them. This scenario could be the answer as to why the lifeboat was in that position, but we shall never know. However, in a 1978 interview, Frank Downey gives some credence to the view of the inquiry. In it he relates how his brother, lost in the disaster, had only just gone to bed when the call came, having been up with some of the crew doing a night shift dredging the channel in the harbour. Could it be that a tired crew simply wanted to get home as soon as possible? On the evening of the following day an inquest was opened at Rye Town Hall, with the Rye Borough Coroner Dr. T. Harrett presiding. The seaworthiness of the lifeboat and competence of the crew were called into question, but it was emphatically stated that the boat and her crew were absolutely efficient. After evidence of identification and eyewitness accounts were given, the inquest was adjourned until the following evening. On the following evening, accusations were made about the suitability of the lifejackets. They were said to be perished and worn. As a result, they had become waterlogged and would weigh a man down and drown him. In response the RNLI stated kapok No 3 Lifejacket was adopted by the RNLI in 1917 and were delivered to Rye Harbour in September of that year. The lifejackets were tried in a heavy gale on 30 October 1917, and later voted 11 – 6 by the crew as being the most preferred type. The Coroner recorded a verdict of death by accident. In response to the accusations, the RNLI asked the Board of Trade to hold a full enquiry into the disaster. On Tuesday 20 November the funeral was held. 15 of the crew were buried in a communal grave on that day. When Henry Cutting's body was found at Eastbourne 3 months later, it was bought back home to be interred in the communal grave with his fellow crew members. John Head's body was never recovered.
Hundreds of mourners from all over the country attended the funeral. Members of the Latvian Government were among the dignitaries present, recognising that the men had lost their lives going to the assistance of a Latvian vessel. The crew of the Mary Stanford had grown up together, worked and laughed together and were buried together. The Board of Trade Court of Enquiry sat at Rye Town Hall on 19, 20 and 21 December and the following 1, 2 and 4 January, and after all their deliberation the court finally announced:
"As there were no survivors of the crew, the cause of the Lifeboat capsizing is a matter of conjecture, but from the evidence available we are of the opinion that whilst attempting to make the Harbour on a strong flood tide and in high and dangerous breaking sea, she was suddenly capsized and the crew were thrown into the water, two men being entangled under the boat. The broken water and heavy surf caused the loss of the crew".
The Mary Stanford remained at Rye Harbour until the inquiry was over. In January 1929 she was taken to the RNLI depot at Poplar in east London, where she was dismantled and broken up.
A memorial stained glass window was placed in Winchelsea Church (). It depicts a lifeboat putting out to a ship in distress while figures on the shore watch as it goes. For photo of window see this link...
The seventeen men who lost their lives were Herbert Head (47), coxswain, and two sons James Alfred (19) and John S (17); Joseph Stonham (43), 2nd Coxswain; Henry Cutting (39), Bowman and his two brothers Roberts Redvers (28) and Albert Ernest (26); Charles Frederick David (28), Robert Henry (23) and Lewis Alexander (21) Pope, three brothers; William Thomas Albert (27) and Leslie George (24) Clark, brothers; Arthur William (25) (more likely to be Arthur George A) and Morris(s) James (23) Downey, cousins; Albert Ernest Smith (44), Walter Igglesden (38) and Charles Southerden (22).
The Mary Stanford in fiction
Monica Edwards wrote a fictional account of the lifeboat disaster in her children's novel Storm Ahead, which was published in 1953. The young Monica Edwards (née Newton) witnessed the disaster at first hand: her father, the Reverend Harry Newton, was vicar of Rye Harbour at the time and officiated at the mass funeral. Monica was known to have been close friends with Charlie Southerden who died on the lifeboat.
Song for the Mary Stanford
Allen Maslen of Warwickshire folk rock band Meet on the Ledge wrote a song dedicated to the Mary Stanford. It is featured on their album The Portuguese Handshake. It is also available on the Charity CD "Someone was Calling" a compilation album with a nautical theme featuring artists who have appeared at Cromer's Folk on the Pier Festival.
- Rye Heritage Centre
- Rye Harbour Lifeboat Station
- Rye Harbour Image Library
- Rye Harbour Lifeboat Disaster - Facebook Community Site