On 15th November 1928 at 6.45 a.m. the Mary Stanford Lifeboat with her crew of 17 was launched from this lifeboat house into a south-westerly gale with winds in excess of 80 miles per hour raging in the English Channel to save a stricken vessel – not one of these brave Rye Harbour men ever returned.
This is the biggest loss of life from a single lifeboat in the history of the RNLI, and this Grade II Listed boathouse remains one of the most important buildings in the history of Rye Harbour. At 5.00 a.m. the maroons were fired to rescue the crew from the ‘Alice of Riga’ a Latvian vessel which had been involved in a collision with a large German Ship ‘Smyrna’, suffering the loss of her rudder and a hole torn in her side, 8 miles south west of Dungeness. The crewmen and launchers, both male and female, battled against the wind to the lifeboat house almost 1.25 miles from Rye Harbour. The weather was so bad that it took three exhausting attempts to finally launch the Mary Stanford off the beach at 6.45 a.m.. 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 6.50 a.m. Rye Coastguard received a message saying that the crew from the ‘Alice of Riga’ had been rescued by the ‘Smyrna’ and 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, the crew did not see the recall signal.
At approximately 09.00 a.m. the mate of the S.S. Halton saw the Lifeboat 3 miles W.S.W from Dungeness and all appeared okay. The Lifeboat was also seen by a boy sailor on the Smyrna a little later on. At approximately 10.30 a.m. a young lad collecting drift wood 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. By midday it had been confirmed that the Mary Stanford had capsized, as she could be seen bottom up floating towards the shore. Over the next 2 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, and the body of the youngest crewman John Head aged 17 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. The Lifeboat House was never used again.
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