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Mary Strachan Memorial Window

Dave Godden

Maidstone, United Kingdom

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Designed by namesake Dr Douglas Strachan.

St Thomas Church in Winchelsea, Sussex UK overlooks Rye Bay covered by the Rye Harbour Lifeboat.

In 1928 she was lost with all hands (see below) and the bodies buried at the Rye Harbour Church in a communial grave.

The window depicts the figure of Christ in the centre stiffling the tempest. On the right is St Augustine first Archbishop Of Canterbury landing in AD597. On the left is St Nicholas patron saint of children and sailors. In the glazing above are the pelican and phoenix symbols of self sacrifice and resurrection. Across the bottom onlookers observe the lifeboat forging through an angry sea to a stricken ship as the villagers did that fateful day.

On the night of the 14 November 1928 a SW gale swept up the Channel with winds in excess of 80 mph (128 km/h). Just after 4 o’clock in the morning of the 15th, the small Steamer Alice of Riga laden with a cargo of bricks was in collision with the larger German Vessel Smyrna. In the collision the Alice lost her rudder and had a hole torn in her side. The weather was too bad for the Smyrna to affect a rescue, and at 4.30AM North Forland Radio received the following message. “Steamer. Alice of Riga. Leaking. Danger. Drifting SW to W 8 miles from Dungeness 04.30” The Rye Harbour Coast Guard Station was informed at 04.50 and the Lifeboat maroons were fired. This put into action the most devastating chain of events to befall the small village of Rye Harbour. As soon as the maroons were fired most of the village was awakened and could hear the ferocity of the raging storm outside. Fred Southerden recalled, as a lad he had heard his brother Charlie tumble out of bed, Fred called to him saying that he had ‘only heard one maroon’. Charlie replied “best go someone may need help”. Such was the will and spirit shown by all of these volunteers that morning both crew and launchers. The locals that can remember that fateful morn, to this day tell of how difficult it was to stand up in the wind, let alone make the 1 ½ miles journey against the wind and rain to the Boathouse out on the Shore.

The maroons were fired just after 5 am, it was practically low water and it took three attempts to get the boat away, the time now was 06.45, as the boat went away. All of the crew by now would have been wet through. It was just beginning to break daylight, when at 06.50 Rye Coastguard received the message saying that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued by the Smyrna.

Frantic efforts were made by the Signalman to recall the Lifeboat all to no avail, with the blinding spray and driving rain coupled with all of the action going on in the Lifeboat, keeping her head to sea with the oars while the mast and sails were raised. A very intensive time, no wonder the flares were not seen.

At around 09.00 the mate of the S.S. Halton saw the Lifeboat 3 miles (2 km) W.S.W from Dungeness and all appeared OK. The Lifeboat was also seen by a boy sailor on the Smyrna a bit later on. About 10.30 a young lad, Cecil Marchant, collecting drift wood at Camber saw the Lifeboat capsize. As he looked out to sea he saw it happen in a bright ray of sunlight. He ran home and told his parents what he had seen, and promptly got a clout for making up stories but just to be on the safe side his Father reported it to Jurys Gap Coastguard. Soon rumours were going around Rye Harbour Village that the boat had ‘gone over’, the Vicar thought that he had seen this from an upstairs window at the Vicarage. By 12 noon it had been confirmed as the Lifeboat could be seen bottom up floating towards the shore. Within ten minutes Rye Harbour Coastguard was informed and the maroons were fired to assemble the launchers. The Vicar went out on to the beach and broke the news to the launchers. One young woman Elsie Downey had been asked by her blind mother repeatedly to go to the huts (by the Flag Pole) for news of the boat. Elsie’s Brother Arthur and cousin Morris were both in the boat that day. Her mother then asked her to run to Rye (there was no bus in those days) and tell her sister Lou the bad news. It is said that over 100 men were rushed to the shore where the upturned Lifeboat lay. No effort was spared in trying to revive the bodies washed ashore. A tank was brought along from Lydd Camp to right the Lifeboat. Over the next two hours the bodies of the crew were washed up. A total of 15 on that day, they were taken to Lydd for formal identification.

Eva Southerden, 15 at the time, remembers her father William, returning home that night and breaking down in tears as he told his wife he could not see Charlie (Charlie was found later that night). Henry Cutting’s body was washed ashore at Eastbourne three months later. The body of John Head has never been found. Speculation was rife as to the cause of the capsize. It was said that the Lifejackets were water logged and had drowned the crew due to the weight The main point of conversation was what “was the Lifeboat doing in the position where it capsized”. It had no need to be there, it is most unlikely that it was making for Rye Harbour, as the Boathouse is 1 ½ miles to the West, also in these prevailing weather conditions, it was usual for the Lifeboat to shelter East of Dungeness or go into Folkestone.

The popular view was that either John Head or Henry Cutting, or indeed both had been washed out of the boat and that the Lifeboat was actually looking for them. This scenario could be the answer as to why the Lifeboat was in that position, but we shall never know. On the evening of the following day an Inquest was opened at Rye Town Hall, with the Rye Borough Coroner Dr. T. Harrett presiding. The sea worthiness of the Lifeboat and competence of the crew were called into question, but it was emphatically stated that the boat and her crew were absolutely efficient. After evidence of identification and eye witness accounts were given, the Inquest was adjourned until the following evening. On the following evening, accusations were made about the suitability of the Lifejackets. They were said to be perished and worn. As a result they had become water logged and would weigh a man down and drown him. In response the RNLI stated KAPOK N o 3 Lifejacket was adopted by the RNLI in 1917 and were delivered to Rye Harbour in September of that year. The Lifejackets were tried in a heavy gale on the 30th October 1917, and later voted 11 – 6 by the crew as being the most preferred type. The Coroner recorded a verdict of death by accident. In response to the accusations, the RNLI asked the Board of Trade to hold a full enquiry into the disaster. On Tuesday the 20 November the funeral was held. 15 of the crew were buried in a communal grave on that day. When Henry Cutting’s body was found at Eastbourne 3 months later, it was bought back home to be interred in the communal grave with his fellow crew members. Sadly, John Head’s body was never recovered.

Hundreds of mourners from all over the country attended the funeral. Members of the Latvian Government were among the dignitaries present, recognising that the men had lost their lives going to the assistance of a Latvian Vessel. The crew of the Mary Stanford had grown up together, worked and laughed together and were buried together. The Board of Trade Court of Enquiry sat at Rye Town Hall on December 19, 20 and 21 and the following January 1, 2nd and 4th and after all their deliberation the court finally announced:

“As there were no survivors of the crew, the cause of the Lifeboat capsizing is a matter of conjecture, but from the evidence available we are of the opinion that whilst attempting to make the Harbour on a strong flood tide and in high and dangerous breaking sea, she was suddenly capsized and the crew were thrown into the water, two men being entangled under the boat. The broken water and heavy surf caused the loss of the crew”.

The Mary Stanford was eventually taken to RNLI depot at Poplar in east London, where she was dismantled and broken up.

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