The weather in the English Channel, on the early morning of 15 November 1928 was rough and the Latvian steamship collier, Alice of Riga, with a cargo of bricks, began struggling as she rounded Dungeness Point, travelling west.
A larger German merchant steamship, the Smyrna, was following behind the Alice of Riga, but unable to see her. It’s possible that the stern lights on the smaller ship had gone out because of the heavy seas, but visibility was so poor in any case, that this might not have been a factor in the collision.
At around 04:00 GMT, approaching Fairlight, around 8 miles SW of Dungeness. the Smyrna collided with the Alice of Riga, rear-ending the collier. The smaller ship sustained heavy damage to her stern, including the complete loss of her rudder. A gash in the collier was also flooding the engine room.
The Smyrna reversed her engines and then began looking for the Alice of Riga. Eventually, signal lights were spotted coming from the damaged collier. The terrible weather made rescue attempts extremely dangerous, so the German captain decided to hold off until daylight.
The German ship sent a distress signal in the hope that other ships and the coastguards would pick it up, telling them that the Alice of Riga was leaking, drifting and in danger, SW to W, 8 miles from Dungeness at 04:30 GMT.
North Foreland Radio picked up the signal and relayed it to Ramsgate Coastguard, which recorded it arriving at 04:47 GMT. Rye Harbour Coastguard received the message at 04:55 GMT and fired off maroons at 05:00 GMT letting the lifeboat volunteers know that they were needed.
Meanwhile, out at sea, the captain of the Alice of Riga had decided that he and his crew needed to abandon ship. He signalled the Smyrna that they were taking to the lifeboats. The German captain brought his ship as close to the Alice of Riga as he dared. With lifeboats, ladders and ropes, the German sailors managed the heroic rescue of the thirteen Latvian sailors and their female cook.
A happy and miraculous event for the Latvians, but another story was unfolding..
The volunteer lifeboat crew of the Mary Stanford and the male and female launchers who helped them, began arriving at the boathouse, which stands over 1.5 miles from Rye Harbour, on the beach, in the direction of Winchelsea.
The ‘ Liverpool Class’ lifeboat relied on sails and oars for power, but first, because the tide was out, the launchers and crew had to drag the lifeboat across the beach. It took three attempts, by launchers and 17 crew members, in a south westerly Force 10 storm, with gusts of wind reaching 80mph, to launch the Mary Stanford.
Major Hacking, of Cadborough Farm, Rye, didn’t hear the maroons launch, because of the storm. He received a phone call, saddled his horse and galloped down to the beach, just in time to see the Mary Stanford heading out to sea at 06:45 GMT
The Smyrna had sent a message alerting the coastguard to the rescue of the crew of the Alice of Riga. The Ramsgate Coastguard received the German ship’s message at 06:12 GMT but it wasn’t deemed a priority message and didn’t reach Rye Harbour Coastguard until 06:50 GMT with the message ‘Not to Launch’ being passed on to the lifeboat house, within minutes.
The signalman launched a white Verey light signal and the launchers ran up and down the beach shouting and waving, but in the rough seas and strong winds the crew could not hear them.
The lifeboat would have made for the last known position of the Alice of Riga and then looked for survivors, but the stricken collier had already sunk.
At around 09:00 GMT the mate of the Halton reported seeing the lifeboat 3 miles WSW of Dungeness and nothing looked amiss. At around 10:30 GMT, a boy collecting driftwood at Camber, noticed the Mary Stanford illuminated by a ray of sunshine, capsize. He ran home and told his parents, who notified the Jury’s Gap Coastguard.
John Prebble, on duty at Rye Harbour Coastguard, also sighted the Mary Stanford just before 10:30 GMT, some 2 miles SSE of the coastguard lookout. As he watched during the Force 8 storm, the lifeboat attempted to turn, heading towards Rye Harbour and toppled, then crested a huge wave and capsized in raging surf just short of the harbour entrance.
The people of Rye Harbour rushed to the beach and attempted to resuscitate the bodies being washed ashore.
Joseph Stonham (43), Second Coxswain
Robert Henry Pope (23)
Robert Redyers Cutting (28)
Morris Downey (23)
Then the Mary Stanford herself was deposited on the beach at Camber, hull uppermost. Soldiers from the 2nd Tank Regiment were called in to help right the lifeboat.
British Pathé News was there, to record this sad event.
Charles Frederick David Pope (28) and Walter Igglesden (38) were recovered from the lifeboat.
Volunteers searched the shoreline, desperately hoping for survivors. Nine more bodies were recovered:
Herbert Head (47) Coxswain
James Alfred Head (19)
Lewis Alexander Pope (21)
Charles Southerden (22)
Leslie George Clark (24)
Arthur William Downey (25)
Albert Ernest Cutting (26)
William Thomas Ernest Clark (27)
Albert Ernest ‘Herbert’ Smith (44)
Three months later, the body of Henry ‘Harry’ Cutting (39) the Bowman, was found washed up on the beach at Eastbourne.
The body of the youngest victim, John Stanley Head (17), was never recovered.
The small village of Rye Harbour, was decimated. Fathers, sons, siblings, husbands, all gone. A fund was started for the bereaved, raising £35.000 – in today’s money, over £2 million.
The Board of Trade held a Court of Enquiry at Rye Town Hall 19-21 December 1928 and 1s5m 2nd and 4th of January 1929. Their verdict was that the deaths were due to a capsize, during a flood tide.
People from all over the UK attended the funerals and the dignitaries mourning, included members of the Latvian government.
A memorial to the 17 lost lifeboatmen was placed in the churchyard of Church of the Holy Spirit, Rye Harbour to commemorate the worst disaster in lifeboat history.
Rye Harbour Lifeboat House was never used again and was closed in 1929. It is now Grade II Listed and supported by the Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House
An annual memorial service is still held at the Rye Harbour church and Latvians still visit the memorial, to pay their respects.