Donate now

90 years ago: Remembering the lost Rye Harbour lifeboat crew

By KT Bruce
Press Officer, RNLI Rye Harbour

Rye Harbour lifeboat Mary Stanford
The Mary Stanford under sail on a previous mission

Early in the morning, on 15 November 1928, the Rye Harbour lifeboat Mary Stanford was launched to assist the Alice, a small Latvian vessel in difficulty off Dungeness. The weather conditions were among the worst in living memory.

Frank Saunders was a launcher on that fateful day and recalled that it was a dark and wild morning, blowing a full gale from the south-south-east.

The maroon was fired at 5am. One crew member observed that you couldn’t see across the marsh because of what looked like fog, but was in fact the spray from the shallow breaking waters.

It was low water and the volunteers had great difficulty in launching the boat. There was a stretch of sand to pull the boat across and it took three attempts before she was afloat. The crew had to get out of the craft, so they were drenched through before they even set off.

Mary Stanford had only been afloat a matter of seconds when a message came through recalling her, as her services were no longer required. The signalman, Mr Mills, fired his recall signal and Frank Saunders ran across the sands into the water to try to attract the attention of the crew. The weather was atrocious and they were busy getting the sails set.

Mary Stanford was a pulling-and-sailing type lifeboat. She had no engines or radio; none of the devices that today we regard as commonplace. With oars in their hands and sails to set in a gale, it is little wonder that they did not see the recall signal.

What happened between setting sail and her capsize we will never know as all 17 hands onboard lost their lives.

Rye Harbour lifeboat Mary Stanford capsized on the beach


Mary Stanford after the capsize

Villagers at the time recall the devastating sight of the vicar, Reverend Harry Newton, kneeling on the beach with the women of the village praying. Eventually the bodies were all brought back to the harbour and put in the Fisherman’s Room. All the coffins lay side-by-side with just the words ‘Dies Gallantly’ placed on each one.

The Mayor of Rye launched an appeal for money for the families, which went worldwide.

The day of the funeral arrived and it was the biggest known in these parts. There were over 1,000 wreaths laid.

Flowers in the church at Rye Harbour in memory of the crew of the wrecked lifeboat Mary Stanford


Flowers laid in the church in memory of the lost crew

The crew of the lifeboat had worked together, laughed together, saved lives together and died together – and now they were buried together. The village was in mourning for a very long time, having lost so many of their men.

The funeral procession of the lost crew of the Rye Harbour lifeboat Mary Stanford, 1928


Locals pay their respects during the funeral procession

The crew of the Mary Stanford:

Coxswain Herbert Head (47)
Second Coxswain Joseph Stonham (43)
Bowman Henry Cutting (39)
Leslie Clark (24)
William Clark (27)
Albert Ernest Cutting (26)
Robert Redvers Cutting (28)
Arthur Downey (25)
Maurice James Downey (23)
James Head (19)
John Head (17)
Walter Igglesden (38)
Charles Frederick David Pope (28)
Alexander Pope (21)
Robert Henry Pope (23)
Herbert Smith (44)
Charles Southerden (22)