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The Lifeboat

Based at Martello Tower 27, the first lifeboat was built by William Plenty and owned by the RNLI. The station was known as Dymchurch No.27 Tower and the crew were all members of the Coast Blockade. It was several years before Dungeness, Littlestone and Hythe received their first lifeboats.

On 27th August 1832, the lifeboat was launched in a full gale to aid the vessel Osiris. Floundering between Littlestone and Tower 27. The lifeboat crew managed to rescue all the men aboard the ship. For this remarkable feat the coxswain F.S. Henshaw received the RNLI Silver Medal.

On 1st October 1835 the brig Industry washed down the bay completely out of control dragging her anchor in gale force conditions. All the crew were saved by the gallant men from the Dymchurch Station. The Chief Boatman, Lt. John Summerville RN, received the Gold Medal for his courage and leadership.

The lifeboat was again in service on 13th October 1835 when it was badly damaged attempting to assist a pilot cutter caught in a full gale with heavy rain and sleet. A replacement vessel, designated and built by Paxton came into service on 3rd December 1836. Within a fortnight, on 16th December she was called into service in very bad weather to assist a collier aground on the Newcome Bar. Eleven men were saved before the vessel began to break up.

A few weeks later another small ship drifted onto the same sand bar. After standing by for four hours in very heavy swell, the lifeboat was able to come alongside. Despite being seriously damaged in a collision with the stricken ship the lifeboat managed to rescue the crew and return to the station. After being sent away for repair she never returned. Instead she was sold to the other side of the world to serve as a coastal lifeboat in Australia. This signalled the end of the Dymchurch lifeboat station.

The Coastguards continued at Tower 27 for another three years. In 1840 the sea, which had long been threatening began to take control. The decision was made to demolish the tower and in the following year it was pulled down.

With the tower gone the Coastguard continued to work from home at the St. Mary's Station. One duty was to help man the Littlestone lifeboat when they were short of crew. One occasion when this happened was on 6th March 1891 when two coastguards and a Chief Boatman were summoned to make up the crew of the Sandal Magna. Two schooners, The Echo and the High Barley of Fleetwood were caught in an easterly gale with heavy snow showers. It was some of the worst weather ever recorded along the coast and the ships were in serious danger.

After three failed attempts to get the lifeboat afloat the crew finally managed to get her away. The vessel immediately overturned throwing a man into the boiling seas. No sooner had the lifeboat been righted and the crewman hauled aboard when she capsized again. Coastguard William Ryan was swept out of sight and lost.

When the boat overturned for a third time all hands were thrown into the sea. All but two managed to wash ashore, some within three-quarters of a mile of the lifeboat house, others as far along the coast as Romney Hoy, quite close to where the greens and beach huts are to be found at Littlestone. Chief Boatman Thomas Sullivan and his colleague Samuel Hart were buried with full ceremonial honours in New Romney churchyard. This was also the last resting place of four victims from the schooners. The body of William Ryan was never recovered.

On a lighter note, it appears the coastguard station was provided with a donkey for carrying supplies and water. Apparently they were standard issue for remote stations. One animal was so bad tempered they wanted to get rid of him and in 1839 the following order was issued:-
‘The board having ordered the disposal of the donkey at No. 27 Tower, I have to direct, in the first place, that the one now at the station be exchanged for one at Lydd Station, as complaints of the latter have been made to me of his being of vicious habits. As soon as this takes place, the commanding Boatman of 27 Tower will sell the donkey of Dymchurch by Public Auction.’

In 1887 the first groynes or breakwaters were constructed to counteract erosion by the sea. The precaution was to no avail as the sea first claimed the green, complete with flagstaff and then the cottages. This left only a few outbuildings and one cottage which had no connection with the coastguard station. These buildings were on the land that was later to be purchased and built on by Rugby School. The cottage which stood near the sea wall was demolished in the late 1940s.

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