In April 2015 I took my first birding trip outside London since returning to the UK; a coach trip from London to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex1. While I spotted species I hadn’t seen for many years what left the most lasting impression was coming across the historical Mary Stanford Lifeboat House, and learning of the disaster that had befallen the village of Rye House in 1928.
The sea has always been of huge importance to the UK as an island nation; for commerce, defence and recreation. Its coastline is broken making it longer than those of other similar-sized countries and lifeboat services have an important role to play in reducing the loss of life at sea.
There are at least 70 independent lifeboat services in Britain and Ireland but the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the largest charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, owns and operates the majority of lifeboat stations. Founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck it has saved 140,000 lives with more than 600 lives lost in service. In 2015 lifeboat crews, which consist of mostly unpaid volunteers, rescued on average 22 people a day.
Growing up in the UK I was aware from an early age of the RNLI’s importance. One of my favourite programmes in the 1960s was Blue Peter (today, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world). Since it first aired in 1958 it has supported the RNLI through four fundraising appeals, which have funded 28 lifeboats at stations around the UK.
Until my trip to Rye Harbour the only major lifeboat disaster I knew of was that in the close-knit West Cornish fishing community of Mousehole (pronounced ‘Mowzel’), where the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne was stationed. On the 19th of December 1981 the boat set out, with eight of Mousehole’s men, to aid the stricken cargo-carrying coaster MV Union Star. In the rescue attempt both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died. The loss of eight local men from the small community hit Mousehole very hard. Even the £3 million raised locally for the families of those lost at sea could not fill the gap left by the disaster. Every year, on the anniversary of the tragedy the famous Mousehole Christmas Lights are switched off for an hour in remembrance of those lost.
Walking along the top of the beach at Rye Harbour I saw a weather-beaten shed with red wreaths in the distance.
Wondering what they commemorated I wandered over and found a weathered Maritime Heritage Trail interpretation board from which I learnt about the RNLB Mary Stanford lifeboat tragedy for the first time. According to a Wikipedia list of lifeboat disasters in Britain and Ireland the loss of 17 crew members is the most associated with any lifeboat disaster in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The disaster was particularly tragic because of the circumstances surrounding the attempt to rescue the crew of the small Latvian steamer Alice of Riga, which had collided with the larger German Vessel Smyrna.
Though the maroons2 were fired just after 5 am, the wind speeds were so high that it was difficult to even stand up and the crew members had to cover 1 ½ miles into the face of the wind and rain to get to the Boathouse on the shore. By the time they arrived it was practically low tide and three attempts were needed to get the boat away at 6.45 am, as daylight began to break. Only five minutes later Rye Coastguard received a message originally received by Ramsgate Coastguard Station at 6.12 am, saying the Smyrna had rescued the crew of the Alice of Riga. Because it was not a ‘life saving message’ it was not considered a high priority for transmission, a situation worsened by a further delay in sending the recall to Rye Coastguard due to an unsuccessful attempt to call Dungeness via Lydd.
Frantic efforts by the Signalman to recall the Lifeboat were fruitless. There was no boat-to-shore radio and the blinding spray and driving rain meant the recall flares weren’t seen by the lifeboat. At around 9.00 am the lifeboat was seen upright 3 miles (approx. 5 km) WSW from Dungeness. It was later reported that a sighting from Camber at 10.30 am suggested the lifeboat had capsized; by 12 noon this was confirmed when the lifeboat was seen upside-down floating towards the shore.
Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned lifeboat lay, and extensive efforts were made to revive the bodies washed ashore. 15 bodies of the crew were washed up over the next two hours; Henry Cutting’s body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later; John Head’s was never found.
According to the Friday 16 November 1928 edition of the Western Times, the disaster wiped out practically the whole male population of Rye harbour. Three members (father and two sons) of the Head family and three members of the Cutting family were on board.
As I tried to imagine how a small coastal community copes in a situation like that I recalled an experience from my youth. Growing up, many of my family holidays were spent on different parts of the UK coast, exploring cliffs and rock pools. When I was 11 we visited my aunt and uncle in the small fishing village of Port Seton, outside Edinburgh, where my uncle was a fisherman for many years.
An abiding memory is of a Sunday evening service at a local church, the roof and supporting rafters resembling an upturned timber boat, and the singing of the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save (I’d always assumed it was entitled For Those in Peril on the Sea!3). I’ve never experienced a congregation sing a hymn with such feeling – not surprising when loved ones were at the mercy of the elements each time they went out in their small boats.