Lifeboat takes to the streets

The Pricisilla MacBean lifeboat is lowered into dry dock
Priscilla is hoisted through the trees

Priscilla MacBean, the 1921 Eastbourne lifeboat rescued from rotting in a field, was dragged through Hastings Old Town on Saturday [November 15] by firefighters and bonfire boys in an incredible and moving spectacle.

The restored lifeboat is the sister ship of Rye Harbour’s Mary Stanford, which capsized in 1928 with the loss of all its 17 crew members. Rye News has already covered the story of Priscilla’s life , recovery and restoration, masterminded by Hastings men Dee-Day White and Tush Hamilton. Last weekend marked the latest though perhaps not the final chapter in Priscilla’s history. With a year of restoration work complete, supported extensively by local people and businesses, Priscilla looked  her best as she was hauled to a permanent dry dock on Old London Road.

Hooray and up she rises

The day began at 9am with the stories of Priscilla MacBean and Mary Stanford, state of the art self-righting lifeboats, which unfortunately did not work well in the short, choppy conditions of the English Channel. Priscilla MacBean was sent north to patrol the Solway Forth, while Mary Stanford remained in Rye and her story ended in tragedy.

A crowd of several hundred people had gathered around Priscilla on the Stade and the boat made an excellent stage. The Rev Robert Featherstone, vicar of All Saints in the Old Town, read the names of the Rye Harbour lifeboat crew and dedicated the boat as “a sign of remembrance, sacrifice and renewal”.   Fiona Harrison, a soprano who specialises in historical performances, gave a poignant and powerful rendition of Eternal father, strong to save, sometimes known by the last line of its first verse “For those in peril on the sea”.  She sang brilliantly in windy conditions without backing music; many people joined in, notably moved by thoughts of the anniversary of the Rye Harbour disaster, which was to be commemorated in the annual service of remembrance the following day.

Spectators applauded two of the descendants of the Rye Harbour coxswain Henry Head. His grandson Bill Head and Nathaniel Clarke, his great, great grandson were besieged by photographers. Rye Harbour, Eastbourne and Hastings current and past lifeboat crew members attended in force.

Hooray and up she rises

After the short ceremony concluded, the ambitious, eccentric and almost superhuman task of transporting Priscilla through the streets of Hastings began. The Blue Watch of Hastings fire brigade had been enlisted along with Hastings Bonfire Society to undertake the laborious and exhausting work. Priscilla was covered with ropes, which were mainly for keeping her steady as a jeep pulled her.  The volunteers had to move inch by inch, using plastic slats, which had to be taken from under the back of the boat and moved to the front to enable her to be dragged forward.

People in cars and buses  and householders peering out of windows, looked on in astonishment as Priscilla and her attendants made stately progress through the streets.  Hundreds of people in pirate costumes, RNLI uniforms, police officers, local dignitaries in their robes of state, a man dressed as Popeye, together with some more conventionally dressed spectators accompanied the procession on the 45-minute journey.

Hooray and up she rises

Perhaps inevitably, a round of sea shanties broke out as Priscilla neared a giant crane, completely blocking the road, which was to lift her into position. This part seemed to be the most extraordinary of all, in an already bizarre day. Somehow, the operator, with a lot of help from the people on the ground, managed to get the restraints around Priscilla. As she was hoisted into the air, swung around and gently lowered into dry dock, spontaneous cheers broke out from the crowds.

Early in the morning

Is this the end of the road for Priscilla? Will this be her final resting place?  Her story might seem to have concluded happily, but Dee-Day White and Tush Hamilton (of fish roll fame), are not planning to take it easy after their year of hard work. The plans for Priscilla’s next sortie are still in their infancy and, at the moment, confidential. But it seems more than likely that Priscilla will ride again!


Photos: Seana Lanigan