Into the storm

On 15 November 1928 at 6.45am, the Mary Stanford lifeboat with her crew of 17 was launched from Rye Harbour into a fierce southwesterly gale to save a stricken vessel. Not one of these brave men ever returned, and the lifeboat house was never used again. Now, moves are afoot to restore it to its original state, and to create a coastal classroom for children who have never seen the sea, along with a permanent display in memory of the crew. 

The Mary Stanford lifeboat house stands on a striking spot. Look to the west and you can see Cliff End, where the undulating coastline stretching from Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters suddenly stops, giving way to the Norfolk-like flatlands of Romney Marsh. To the east, just across the River Rother, is the broad sandy beach of Camber and, beyond that, the wilds of Dungeness, the massive structures of its power stations forming a dramatic full stop to this sweeping bay. Behind and all around is a nature reserve, full of marshy ponds and dotted with hides for watching the rich birdlife. It’s a moody, atmospheric and starkly beautiful place, especially now in autumn, when the marshland turns a russet red.

Only the lifeboat house stands here on the shore. The surroundings are so flat and empty that you see it from pretty much anywhere in the reserve, its pitched roof breaking the skyline. There’s scarcely a scrap of protection from the wind here. It’s all too easy to imagine what the conditions must have been like on 15 November 1928 at 6.45am, just before dawn, when the 17-strong crew finally managed to launch the Mary Stanford lifeboat into the fierce gale blowing from the southwest. Here’s the account of what happened that day from the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House website:

At 5am, the maroons were fired to rescue the crew from the Alice of Riga, a Latvian vessel which had been involved in a collision with the Smyrna, a large German Ship, suffering the loss of her rudder and a hole torn in her side, eight miles southwest 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 6.45am. 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 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 9am the mate of the SS Halton saw the lifeboat three miles W.S.W from Dungeness and all appeared okay. It 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.

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 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, and the body of the youngest crewman John Head, aged 17, was never found.

The Mary Stanford disaster was the biggest loss of life from a single lifeboat in the history of the RNLI. The impact on the Rye Harbour community was devastating and deeply affected all who lived there. It 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.

All the dependents of the lost crew were pensioned by the RNLI: a local fund raised over £35,000. A memorial tablet made of Manx stone was presented to Rye Harbour by the people of the Isle of Man, and now stands in the local churchyard.

There is also a memorial stained glass window in the south aisle of St Thomas’s in nearby Winchelsea; unveiled in July 1929, it was the first to be completed of a stunning series by Douglas Strachan in this beautiful church. It depicts the lifeboat putting out to sea through mountainous waves, watched by their wives and relatives on shore, and lists all the names of the lost crew along with this dedication:

These men of Rye Harbour, crew of the Lifeboat Mary Stanford, having confirmed the habit of a noble service the courage handed down by their fathers, were quick to hear the cry of humanity above the roaring sea. In the darkness of their supreme hour, they stayed not to weigh doubt or danger but freely offering their portion of this life for the ransom of men they had never known, they went boldly into the last of all storms.

The lifeboat house itself is a memorial, too. A charity called the Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House has been formed to restore it to its original state. It has now gained Grade II listing, so its future is secured, and ownership has been transferred. In addition to the restoration, the plan is “to create a coastal classroom to bring children who have never seen the sea, nor sat on a beach. Most importantly there will be a permanent display to the memory of the 17 crewmen of the Mary Stanford who so bravely gave up their lives that awful day in 1928.”

Even now, there is plenty here to ponder: the building, weathered by the wind and rain; a straightforward account on a faded board; a poignant rendering in comic strip form, one of a number recently installed along this part of the coast; and, of course, the beach and the sea itself. It’s well worth a visit.

If you would like to find about more about the Friends or to make a donation, contact the project co-ordinator who, almost unbelievably, is called Jacqueline Mary Stanford. As another has observed, since Jacqui is no relation, the Friends are regarding her involvement as a “meant to be”. You can email her at or visit the website at

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