The Mary Stanford Lifeboat Disaster, Rye Harbour – the Latvian Connection

Commemoration of 15th November 1928

Mary Stanford Disaster Commemoration Window – St Thomas-a-Becket church, Winchelsea

A few days ago, I came across a tweet on my Twitter account in a foreign language. It was a reply to the tweet I made of the image above – the commemoration stained glass window in St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea, East Sussex. All I could understand in the foreign tweet was the name of a ship – Alice. Carrying out further research I found the language was Latvian.

So what is the Latvian connection to this terrible tragedy where the entire lifeboat crew of 17 men were drowned in the sea off Rye?

The Old Lifeboat House, Rye Harbour

In the late evening of the 14th November 1928 it was raining and the wind was howling at over 80 miles per hour. In the early hours of the 15th November, thought to be about 4am, a small steamship called Alice of Riga (Riga is the capital of Latvia) collided in the pitch dark with a much larger German ship – the Smyrna. The collision ripped open a hole in the side of the Alice and took off her rudder. The captain of the Smyrna could see that rescuing the crew of the Alice was impossibly dangerous but he alerted the coastguard and at five minutes to five the first maroon rocket calling out the lifeboat crew was fired.

Despite the utterly appalling weather, the 17 brave men of Rye got up, pulled on their very basic cork life-jackets and launched their lifeboat into the raging surf. Some were as young as 17. To get to the lifeboat they had to walk 1.5 miles in a wind that was so strong that they could hardly stand up – but they were determined to save life if they could.

They finally managed to get the boat into the water and begin to row out into the storm. Unbeknown to them, at 06.50, Rye Coastguard were finally aware of the captain of the Smyrna’s message – that he and his crew had bravely and miraculously managed to save the entire crew of the Alice. The captain had sent his message at 06.12 to Ramsgate Coastguard who were unaware of what was happening at Rye , so did not treat the message as a priority.

So still, the outstandingly brave men of the Rye lifeboat, The Mary Stanford, were rowing towards the rudderless Alice.

Once the coastguard knew that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued, they began to fire the recall flares over and over, but the wind and rain was so bad that their efforts were thwarted.

Then, onshore several people saw the lifeboat tumble in a massive wave. It went over, casting the men into the dark and freezing sea. After much horror and sadness, 15 men’s bodies were recovered along with their lifeboat. The men – a true band of brothers, were buried together in communal grave. One more man was washed up at Eastbourne and he too was eventually interred with his colleagues. One person has never been found. It hit Rye hard and since the relatives of those brave men are still alive – it still is deeply sad.

Wikipedia records the names of the lost heroes: The seventeen men were the coxswain, Herbert Head (47), two sons James Alfred (19) and John S (17); Joseph Stonham (43), 2nd Coxswain; Henry Cutting (39), Bowman and his two brothers Roberts Redvers (28) and Albert Ernest (26); Charles Frederick David (28), Robert Henry (23) and Lewis Alexander (21) Pope, three brothers; William Thomas Albert (27) and Leslie George (24) Clark, brothers; Arthur William (25) (more likely to be Arthur George A) and Morris(s) James (23) Downey, cousins; Albert Ernest Smith (44), Walter Igglesden (38) and Charles Southerden (22).

Because the Alice of Riga was a Latvian vessel, members of the Latvian government came to the funeral of the men of the Mary Stanford. The vessel was a collier carrying a cargo of bricks. It had 14 Latvian seamen on board. So a close bond has developed between Rye and Latvia.

If you want to know what ‘brave’ is – this is it.

You can read more about this disaster here: https://ryesown.co.uk/alice-of-riga/

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