The Rye Lifeboat “Mary Stanford” Disaster of 1928

by Hugh Willing

January 2020

The New Year opened with a mesmerising account of the tragedy of 15th November 1928 when seventeen RNLI volunteers from Rye Harbour lost their lives.   The events were all the more vivid through the accompanying slides of the bleak lifeboat station and its exposed coast, the photographs of the men and of their craft, the sombre gathering of people on Camber Sands and the mass grave at the Church of the Holy Spirit.   Interspersed with these were some outstanding seascapes, albeit not of this particular storm, but showing the waves at their most violent and challenging.

Hugh initially outlined the background to the event, describing how the lifeboat station had been built in 1882 and how many hands were needed to launch and recover the lifeboat over the expanse of shingle and, at low tide, sand.   The “Mary Stanford” had been in use for sixteen years, requiring fourteen oarsmen, and with some sail, and was not a self-righting craft because its design was considered to be more appropriate for the conditions at Rye.   During its twelve years of service it had received sixteen calls and saved ten lives.   The men wore kapok life jackets, considered to be lighter than the previous cork.

The coast was well supervised in those pre-electronic communication days, with ten lookout stations between Dungeness and Hastings, to challenge opportunities for smuggling or invasion from France, and to be alert to busy Channel shipping.

We then heard of the developing storm conditions of 14th November.   The “Alice” of Riga became involved in a collision and sent a distress signal.   This eventually led to the launch of the rockets which called the men of Rye Harbour to cycle to the lifeboat station and to launch the “Mary Sanford” after pulling her across the shingle and sand.   By 06.50 a.m. news arrived that the men from the “Alice” were safe, but in the stormy conditions the men on the “Mary Stanford” failed to pick up the signal to return.   It was just five minutes too late.

Later in the morning a boy on Camber Sands saw a boat being flipped over in the rough seas and ran to report it.   Over a thousand people gathered, helpless as the breakers brought in the bodies and the craft itself.   Fourteen were recovered by nightfall, one was found at Eastbourne three months later, and one was never recovered.

The funeral was held on 20th November and a mass grave and memorial established at the Church of the Holy Spirit.   “We have done that which was our duty to do”.   The Coroner concluded “Death by Accident”, but questions remained: whether the waterlogged kapok jackets played any role and, especially, why the “Mary Sanford” had chosen to take the dangerous route to the Rother across the sand bar.

In its tragedy and with so many harrowing “if onlys” it had been a totally intriguing evening.

David James