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Littlestone RNLI remembers three crew who died at sea 130 years ago

Today marks 130 years since three lifeboat volunteers lost their lives at sea during an attempted rescue operation.

The tragedy happened on March 9, 1891 during a huge storm off the coast of Kent and involved members of Littlestone Lifeboat Station.

Littlestone crew funeral on March 17, 1891. All pictures: RNLI/Gavin Munnings
Littlestone crew funeral on March 17, 1891. All pictures: RNLI/Gavin Munnings

Members of the coastguard, along with fishermen, were already dealing with a wreck at Dengemarsh and had managed to save eight of the crew using a rocket line fired from a Lyle Gun to shoot a line across the wreck.

But a more serious incident was taking place at No2 Coastguard Station at Lade, where two schooners Echo and Hugh Barclay had been sighted in trouble during a severe snow blizzard.

The crew of the Littlestone lifeboat, Sandal Magna, were alerted and despite the terrible weather conditions, there was no lack of volunteers.

On the first attempt to launch, the lifeboat was swept back ashore by the huge waves as though it was a toy boat.

The second and third attempts were no better with massive waves crashing onto the beach.

Mayors certificate given to the crew of the Sandal Magna
Mayors certificate given to the crew of the Sandal Magna

The launchers pushed on, and on the fourth attempt they managed to get the Sandal Magna afloat.

However, after a short while she capsized, throwing Coastguard Bennet from the boat.

She righted herself quickly and Bennet was grabbed fast by his crew mates and hauled aboard.

Another huge wave crashed into the boat and this time swept out Coastguard O’Ryan who was rapidly swept out of sight of the others.

The Coxwain, Coastguard Clifton, could no longer control the boat and the crew hung on for their lives.

Littlestone circa 1890
Littlestone circa 1890

The next wave hit them hard and again, overturned the lifeboat which swept them all into the unforgiving seas.

Three of the Coastguards drowned; William O’Ryan, Samuel Hart and Thomas Sullivan, chief boatman in charge of the station.

Unaware that things had gone badly the launch crew, last sighting the lifeboat on course to rescue, went to the station for shelter from the weather so it was quite a while before the full extent of the tragedy was known.

The three lifeboat men were laid to rest in New Romney churchyard and the gravestones can still be visited to this day.

The remainder of the crew were Coxswain Clifton, 2nd Coxswain Walker and coastguards Horton, Bennet, Furber, Guy, Jackson and Cowell.

The Mayors of Lydd and New Romney with their respective corporations presented the crew of the Sandal Magna with a certificate recognising their heroic efforts to save lives at sea.

Lyle Gun used to fire a line over a stricken vessel
Lyle Gun used to fire a line over a stricken vessel

William Furber, one of those who survived the tragedy, was appointed second coxswain in 1895 and coxswain the following year.

He served in that role for nearly 14 years and went on to celebrate his 100th birthday in July 1949.

Gavin Munnings, from Littlestone Lifeboat Station, said: "Today we remember the crew lost on March 9 1891 for their determination and courage while attempting to saves lives in the tremendous storms of that day."

"Each year volunteers from Littlestone honour those who died that day during the Remembrance Service on November 11."

Sources: Edward Carpenter, Wrecks and Rescues off the Romney Marsh Coast and R J Piddock, The Sandal Magna and her Noble Men

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