On Sunday, November 18 members of the Rye Harbour community gathered together to remember and cherish the courage and heroism of the Mary Stanford lifeboat crew.
Each year since the 1928 disaster, in which 17 men lost their lives, their families and those who live in the village have packed into the little church of the Holy Spirit to remember and to pay their respects.
At the central point of the service, as each man’s name is read out, a descendant of his comes forward to light a candle which is placed on the altar in a tribute both solemn and moving.
After the service is completed, everyone moves outside to the lifeboat memorial in which the 16 recovered crew-men are buried: John Stanley Head was never found.
A single red rose laid on each name by current members of RNLI Rye Harbour lifeboat station acknowledges the continuing tradition of service and sacrifice.
In the silence after the plaintive notes of the Last Post die away there is time for reflection and gratitude.
This 90th year in particular has been a time for the families involved to share their memories and thoughts.
The loss of the Mary Stanford crew decimated the male population of the village.
Alan Haffenden, who has been his family’s representative since 1962, recalls that the disaster was not talked about in its aftermath because emotions were too raw.
Since the women of Rye Harbour had a ‘hands on’ involvement with the lifeboat, moving the wooden rollers that enabled the boat to launch, the whole village was stunned by the disaster in a way less likely to happen today.
Small details bring the tragedy closer: Mrs Tunbridge, who ran the café near the William the Conqueror pub, took care of all the children not old enough to attend the massive funeral.
Charles and Ron Pope remember their father William laying flowers at the memorial in the churchyard every year until his death in 1966. He felt guilty that he was not on the boat on that fateful night. His wife Julia, their mother, died the following year, of a broken heart.
“I’d love to have met him,’” admitted Bill Head about his grandfather, the Mary Stanford coxswain Herbert.
“My father, who was working in Gibraltar at the time, had to come back immediately. He was too late for the funeral, alas. He had to knuckle down and become the family breadwinner.”
The wheel has come full circle for Stuart Clark, great nephew of William and Leslie, both of whom lost their lives in 1928.
He has volunteered this year for the RNLI in Rye Harbour and explained: “The disaster was always ‘about’ when we were young.
“A memorial scroll hung over Nan’s chair although she didn’t want to talk about it. I’m glad to have the opportunity to train as lifeboat crew. It’s a family just like our own and it’s there when you need it.”
Descendants of the Mary Stanford crew are confident that their brave forebears will always be remembered, year by year.
As George Ford explained: “This is our way of keeping alive the sacrifice they made.”
Words by Martin Bruce.