The Mary Stanford Lifeboat House

The Mary Stanford Lifeboat House

By Jacqueline Stanford

I have known the area around Rye for many years, but when house-hunting a few years ago, I was surprised to see a book about the Mary Stanford Disaster, as my name is Jacqueline Mary Stanford. I read with interest the terrible story of what happened in 1928 that decimated the small village of Rye Harbour and caused such ripples of grief in the pool of the world. In 2006, I moved to Winchelsea Beach and last year it was my privilege to become a Parish Councillor for Rye Harbour. I have enjoyed getting to know the families, and it was therefore inevitable that the history of the area would become part of what I could help them maintain.

This year is the 80th anniversary of the tragic Mary Stanford lifeboat disaster when those 17 brave men gave up their lived and “touched the face of God”, and their families lives were changed forever. One cannot help but to be moved by the photographs of the line of 15 flag-draped coffins being carried along Harbour Road and into the church yard, the 16th body being placed there later and the 17th, and youngest, never found.

Maybe it is fitting therefore that this year we have begun a Project to protect the old lifeboat house and have asked English Heritage to recognise it as a building of historical significance for the people of Rye Harbour, Winchelsea Beach and surrounding areas. The building isn’t of architectural merit per se, standing alone in such a remote area, but we believe it is one of the last of its kind in existence.

The Lifeboat House was built in 1882 and the RNLI provided £255 from donations to build it. The builder was a Mr. M Anne who used early pre-cast concrete in its construction, and this was one of two boathouses built to service Rye Bay – the other one being the Rye Lifeboat station which had been transferred to Camber, on the east side of the River Rother in 1865.

Rye Lifeboat station closed in 1901 – resulting in the boathouse being demolished. On 10th March 1910, Winchelsea Lifeboat Station’s name was changed to Rye Harbour Lifeboat Station in recognition of the Lifeboat being exclusively crewed and launched by Rye Harbour residents who lived 1.25 miles (as the crow flies) from the boathouse. Today with the new lifeboat station is situated at the quay at Rye Harbour. The old building has become known as the “Old Lifeboat House”, or the “Mary Stanford Lifeboat House” in recognition of the last lifeboat that was launched from it, and the bravery of those young men who lost their lives going to help others.

(Mary Stanford Lifeboat (courtesy RNLI Archive)
(Mary Stanford Lifeboat (courtesy RNLI Archive)

The Lifeboat House was built for an “oar pulling and sailing” type lifeboat. The Mary Stanford was placed on service at Rye Harbour in 1916, where she remained until she capsized on 15th November 1928 – this is the biggest loss of life from a single lifeboat in the history of the RNLI.

When the Lifeboat House was decommissioned, ownership passed from the RNLI in 1929 who sold it to the Kent Catchment Board, which then became Kent River Board, then Southern Water and finally to the Environment Agency who is the present owner.

During the Environment Agency ownership, the Lifeboat House was used by Rye Harbour Nature Reserve as an education facility for schoolchildren who came not only to learn about the Mary Stanford Disaster, but also to explore the local area for wildlife.

However, because of the state of the building from a health and safety point of view, it sadly had to be closed in 2003, and a temporary fence was placed around it to prevent entry. Since then the fabric of the building has continued to disintegrate, and fall into disrepair.

(courtesy Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House)
(courtesy Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House)

For a building that plays such an important part in the lives and memories of the people of Rye Harbour and beyond, this has become a very sorry state of affairs indeed and the decline has been much commented upon by the many visitors to the Nature Reserve who come from all over the country. Local residents believe a building having such historical and memorial significance should be looked after for future generations, and also as a reminder of the immense contribution of life saving and of the Lifeboat Service generally. However, if the building cannot be saved then it should be left for the sea to take it as it did those brave crewmen’s lives.

I can report however that this building is not alone and has many friends. A Group has been formed – “Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House” – and we are working closely with English Heritage, the Environment Agency, RNLI at Rye Harbour, and the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve to secure the future of the building that so many see as a landmark on this part of our beautiful East Sussex coastline. The Friends of the Mary Stanford Lifeboat House are concerned that unless something radical is done the building will soon be beyond repair, will fall away completely and be lost to the next generation of locals and visitors to the area. So fund-raising has begun and benefactors sought who would lend their weight and money to this Project. If you would like to join the Friends, donate money, or both, please make contact by using the details displayed below.

Lifeboat House
Lifeboat House

If you have any memories or photographs you would like to share it would be great to hear from you. (Photographs would be scanned onto a computer and returned without damage.)

Once the building is restored and to breathe new life back into it, material devoted to the history of the Lifeboat House and the Mary Stanford Lifeboat will be put on display with the help of the RNLI; the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve will once again be able to use it as a classroom for visiting school children etc. as it is such a perfect place to tell the story of the history of the lifeboat and the story of those brave crewmen.

Jacqueline Stanford, Dabchick Cottage, Morlais Place, Winchelsea Beach, TN36 4LG

[email protected]

A Membership Form can also be downloaded from

“Rye’s Own” July 2008

Another Jimper Story from the “Rye’s Own” Archive to brighten up your Christmas All articles, photographs, films and drawings on this web site are World Copyright Protected. No reproduction for publication without prior arrangement. (Hard Copy Back Numbers Still Available) © World Copyright 2015 Cinque Ports Magazines Rye Ltd., Guinea Hall Lodge Sellindge TN25 6EG.