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Medal, awarded by former US president Thomas Woodrow Wilson to lifeboatman James Pay, to be auctioned

By Marijke Hall

James Pay, who was chief coxswain of the Kingsdown lifeboat, received the medals after leading a heroic RNLI crew in the rescue of 52 people on board the American steamer SS Sibiria on November 20, 1916.

The stricken ship was aground on the Goodwin Sands as waves battered its sides due to a gale.

A rare early 20th Century US gold presidential medal presented by president Thomas Woodrow Wilson to James Pay, chief coxswain of the Kingsdown Lifeboat, and an RNLI silver medal awarded to Mr pay.

A rare early 20th Century US gold presidential medal presented by president Thomas Woodrow Wilson to James Pay, chief coxswain of the Kingsdown Lifeboat, and an RNLI silver medal awarded to Mr pay.

It was the second vessel to get stuck on the same stretch in 24 hours – the first was the Val Salice, from which 30 people were saved by the north Deal lifeboat.

Just three hours after they were rescued, another distress call was made, this time for the Sibiria.

Deal author David Chamberlain, an expert on the history of the Goodwin Sands, says the vessel had become stranded close to the Val Salice.

“By this time the gale had worsened and the seas were breaking in force over the Goodwins,” he said. “It was left up to the north Deal lifeboat Frances Forbes Barton, along with the Ramsgate lifeboat, to attempt to save the men from the 3,535ton vessel.

“The Frances Forbes Barton made four attempts to get alongside the 357ft ship.

“On the fourth try, she sustained serious damage to her masts and sail and the boat nearly capsized.

“With several of her crew badly hurt she returned to Deal.

“The Ramsgate lifeboat did not fare any better and, with casualties to the crew, also returned to port.”

James Pay, chief coxswain of the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargreaves

James Pay, chief coxswain of the Kingsdown lifeboat Charles Hargreaves

The naval authorities from Dover stepped in, suggesting the Kingsdown lifeboat be launched and the Charles Hargrave was subsequently towed out to the Sibiria.

“The crew of the Kingsdown lifeboat comprised men from the other two Deal boats,” said Mr Chamberlain.

“Although the Charles Hargrave was the smallest of the three local lifeboats, the cox, James Pay, managed to add the 52 survivors off the Sibiria along with his 16 crewmen.

“They paid a price for the rescue with the mountainous seas hitting her broadside on and filling the lifeboat, sweeping her crew on the deck, injuring them.”

Once ashore, two Kingsdown pubs, Zetland Arms and the Victory, accommodated the American crew until they could be repatriated.

Following the heroics, a rare gold presidential medal was awarded to Mr Pay by Thomas Woodrow Wilson, in recognition of his brave services.

Silver medals were also awarded by the RNLI to Mr Pay, for outstanding gallantry and tremendous skill, courage and resourcefulness; and to coxswain William Adams, of the Deal lifeboat; to coxswain William Stanton; and second coxswain Robert Holbourn, of the north Deal reserve lifeboat; and to coxswain William Cooper; and second coxswain Thomas Read, of the Ramsgate lifeboat.

Mr Pay’s gold and silver medals, in a leather case, are being sold at The Canterbury Auction Galleries on Tuesday, April 4, at 10am and are expected to fetch between £5,000 and £7,000.

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