An account compiled by Richard Tollett from Newspaper cuttings, Lifeboat Station history and local memories.

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 of 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. The one that was chosen was a 38ft 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.

J.E. Saunders of East Cowes was the builders and on the 13th 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. The Lifeboat was sailed from East Cowes and was placed on Station at Rye Harbour on the 19th October 1916. On the 25th 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.

During her time at Rye Harbour the 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 the 12th December 1923 an Aeroplane ditched in the sea off Fairlight the Lifeboat towed the plane back to Station, unfortunately 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 Coxswain’s William Southerden who took delivery of her 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 the 14th November 1928 a SW gale swept up the Channel with winds in excess of 80 MPH. Just after 4 o’clock in the morning of the 15th, the small Steamer “Alice of Riga” laden with a cargo of bricks is 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 affect a rescue, and at 4.30AM North Forland Radio received the following message. “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 04.50 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 were 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 local’s 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 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’

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.

At around 09.00 the mate of the S.S. Halton saw the Lifeboat 3 miles 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 shay 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 water logged 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 mile 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 in actual fact looking for them. This scenario could be the answer as to why the Lifeboat was in that position, but we shall never know. 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 sea worthiness 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 eye witness 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 water logged and would weigh a man down and drown him. In response the RNLI stated KAPOK N o 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 the 30th 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 the 20th 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, sadly, John Head’s body was never recovered.

Hundreds of mourners from all over the Country attended. Members of the Latvian Government were among the dignitaries present, in recognition 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 December 19th, 20th and 21st 1928 and January 1st, 2nd and 4th 1929 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 was eventually taken to RNLI depot at Poplar in east London, where she was dismantled and broken up.

Compiled by Richard Tollett 

For Rye Harbour Newsletter

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