RNLB Mary Stanford (ON733)
RNLB Mary Stanford was the Ballycotton Lifeboat from 1930 to 1959. Many lives were rescued and awards accumulated. She performed what many regard as the most famous rescue: the Daunt Lightship rescue on 7 February 1936. She is the only lifeboat to be awarded for gallantry (boat as distinct from the crew).
Two RNLI lifeboats carried the name RNLB Mary Stanford. The first, RNLB Mary Stanford (ON 661) was the most tragic. She capsized in Rye Harbour on 15 November 1928, taking the entire 17 man crew, practically the whole male fishing population of the small town of Rye, to their deaths. This lifeboat had been funded by a London businessman, in memory of his late wife. After this tragedy, their son, John Frederick Stanford offered to fund another lifeboat. This RNLB Mary Stanford (ON 733) became the most renowned.
The RNLI established a lifeboat station in Ballycotton in 1858. (1) There is a long history of life saving at Ballycotton. The first to be acknowledged by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was when they awarded a silver medal in 1826. (2) On 21 December 1825, the vessel Britannia was wrecked in Ballycotton Bay. Her Master, the only survivor, lashed himself to a rock. There he remained for seven hours. In spite of the danger, a local man, Dennis Crowen rowed out and rescued him and then sheltered him in his cottage for four days.
There were many early rescues by coastguards (3). For example, on 13 December 1850, in a violent storm, the Mountaineer was being driven onto rocks at Dunmanus Point. The coastguards rowed out to assist, and got on board. Then their boat was smashed on the rocks. Fortunately the Mountaineer was carrying a cargo of timber and although damaged, remained afloat. Using their local knowledge, the coastguards were able to steer the Mountaineer to mud flats and beach her. The rescue of the 28 crew of the Mountaineer resulted in the award of one gold and five silver Lifesaving Medals to Lieutenant Goss and the men of Dunmanus Coastguard Station. (4)
The need for a purpose-built lifeboat was evident. The boat was delivered in time for the visit of Prince of Wales Albert Edward in 1858. The lifeboats prior to the Mary Stanford were all powered by oars and sail. As ships became larger the need for a motorized craft was realised. On 12 December 1928, the RMS Celtic was wrecked at Roche’s Point, Cobh. She was the largest ship in her day, one of the “Big Four”, the first to exceed 20,000 tons, dwarfing the Ballycotton Lifeboat, which came to the rescue. The Mary Stanford was named on 7 July 1930 by the First Lady, wife of President Cosgrave. The cost, £11,000, was donated by Mr. J.F. Stanford, of London. (5) There was a previous lifeboat, named “Mary Stanford“. Two years earlier, it had capsized with the loss of all 17 crew in Rye Harbour, England. (6) The new Mary Stanford would be more fortunate. She would save many lives, including the famous rescue of the Daunt Lightship. Not only would her entire crew receive gallantry awards, she would be the only boat, in lifeboat history, for a boat to be awarded. (7)
Daunt Lightship Puffin
Daunt rock has always been a hazard to shipping. The first lightship was stationed there by the Irish Lights Board in 1864 following the wreck of the City of New York on the rock. Lightvessel Puffin took up this duty. There was a severe gale on 8 October 1896 and the Puffin vanished. (8) The wreck was not found until 5 November 1896, a month later. (9) The remains of the crew were never located. In folklore they remain at their post, as a “Ghost ship”, appearing to warn of impending danger. (10)
On 7 February 1936 a south-eastern gale, with rain and snow, developed into a hurricane. Mountainous waves were crashing over the pier and breakwater transforming the harbour into a seething cauldron, the spray was flying over the lantern of the 196ft high lighthouse (11); “stones, some a ton in weight, were being torn from the quay and flung about like sugar lumps” (12). At 8am next morning an SOS was received: the LV Comet, on station at Daunt rock, had broken from her moorings and was drifting dangerously. Without waiting for orders, in horrendous conditions, Coxswain Patrick (“Patsy”) Sliney took Mary Stanford to sea. Comet was not at Daunt rock, she was riding at anchor a quarter mile away. Other ships arrived, but dare not approach the Comet in such conditions. Lightships, are not ‘lightweight’, they are heavy: built for endurance. Comet was being tossed around by the waves, were it to hit another ship, that ship would suffer serious damage.
Mary Stanford made several attempts to get a steel cable aboard the Comet. Every time they did, a terrible wave crashed the ships further apart and the cable snapped. When darkness fell, Mary Stanford headed for Cobh to get stronger cables. The Innisfallen and a Royal Navy Destroyer tender stood by. The Lifeboat crew had been, all day, without food. They ate, slept for three hours and received a change of clothing. Early next morning (Wednesday) Mary Stanford returned to Daunt rock. The sea was just as stormy. It was now enveloped by a thick fog. It was impossible to effect a rescue. The lifeboat remained in the storm all day and all night. The Commissioners of Irish Lights vessel ILV Isolda had arrived and stood by while Mary Stanford went to Cobh at 7am to refuel, and promptly returned.
That evening, the storm increased. Comet drifted closer to Daunt rock. When she was 60 yards from the rock, as darkness approached, the Coxswain decided the only option was to try and get alongside and for the crew to jump for the lifeboat. He knew the dangers. On the first attempt, one man got on board, on the second attempt no one jumped; a third time, and five men were safe. The lifeboat went in a fourth and fifth time, and again no one was able to make it. Two men were still on board, clinging to the rails, too exhausted to jump. On the sixth attempt, as the Mary Stanford came alongside, the two were seized by the lifeboat crew and dragged aboard. (This moment was depicted on the postage stamp) (13)
They then went to Cobh and disembarked the rescued at 11pm and then returned to Ballycotton. Mary Stanford had been away for 79 hours. (14) The crew had only three hours sleep during the 63 hour rescue (from leaving Ballycotton to disembarking Comet’s crew at Cobh), they were all suffering from colds, saltwater burns and hunger.
A Gold Medal was awarded to Coxswain Patrick Sliney, Silver Medals to Second Coxswain John Lane Walsh and Motor Mechanic Thomas Sliney, and Bronze Medals to Crew Members Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney and Thomas Walsh. Even the boat Mary Stanford received an award – the only time this has happened in lifeboat history. This rescue became legend. It was depicted by marine artists (15). It featured in popular books (16). When a postage stamp was issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the RNLI, this rescue was chosen. The design of the stamp was based on the painting by Bernard Gribble, (17) which depicts the last two lightshipmen being pulled on to the lifeboat.
Mary Stanford had many other rescues to her credit. The years of the Emergency (as World War II was known) were difficult. There was a serious risk from drifting mines. On 27 January 1941 a mine exploded on the Baltimore shore, demolishing the curate’s house and smashing the windows in the church.
Rescues which merited medals were:
- On 30 January 1941, there was a strong wind, thick fog and drifting mines. The eight man crew of the SS Primrose of Liverpool were rescued just as she was sinking. Bronze medal awarded
- On 23 December 1943, the Irish Ash was in difficulties. This rescue took 30 hours. They managed to bring the ship to safety in Cobh. One silver and two bronze medals were awarded.
Some rescues involved the Cliff Rescue Team. On 1 February 1947, the Irish Plane was driven onto rocks below cliffs, west of Ballyshane. The Mary Stanford was called out. Attempts to pull the Irish Plane off the rocks failed as she had been holed and started to breakup. As the lifeboat couldn’t get close enough, because of the rocks, the crew of the Irish Plane were rescued by the Cliff Rescue Team.
- Leach, Nicholas (1 May 2005). The Lifeboat Service in Ireland. The History Press. ISBN 0752435094.
- Leach, Nicholas; O’Driscoll, Brendan (June 2009). Ballycotton Lifeboats – 150 Years of gallantry. Landmark Publishing. ISBN 978 184306 472 5.
Lifeboat RNLB Mary Stanford “back home”. Picture credit to the The Mary Stanford Project
Mary Stanford retired on 16 September 1959 and she was replaced by Ethel Mary. Lifesaving continues at Balycotton, there have been many callouts, including the 1979 Fastnet race. Two Gold, seven Silver, and eight Bronze medals have been awarded to Ballycotton lifeboatmen.
Since March 1998, Ballycotton has been served by Trent Class lifeboat Austin Lidbury.
The Daunt Lightship Comet survived. After she was sold, she became Radio Scotland, a pirate radio station.
Coxswain Patsy Sliney retired in 1950, he had taken part in the rescue of 114 lives and was awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals .
Mary Stanford served as the pilot lauch in Limerick port. She remained in a backwater of Grand Canal Dock, with other heritage boats. In 2014 the destruction of these boats was announced. The people of Ballycotton and others rescued the Mary Stanford and ‘brought her home’. They continue fund-raising for her restoration.
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