My Father And Shipwrecks

Article written by Derek St Clair-Stannard

“Rarely has the announcement of the passing of a leader of men occasioned such regret as the news which filtered through the county on Saturday of the death of Capt. Guy St.Clair, R.N., Chairman of the Kent Council, British Legion, and the District Officer of H.M. Coastguards at Sandgate.”

– thus began the Kent Messenger reporter in his account of the funeral proceedings of my father that took up a whole page of the edition of March 28th 1931. The reporter added that the coffin, with Coastguard Officers as bearers, was “draped with the Union Jack. It was the pall that hung at the National Cenotaph in Whitehall during 1927 and, on being replaced, was presented to the South Eastern Area of the Legion by the Curator of the Imperial War Museum.”

I sense that the position of District Officer, HM Coastguards, which my father held, was a bit of a sinecure. Admittedly, he was working in the days before the advent of radar; and there were quite a lot of shipwrecks on the coast off Dungeness to call him out. But it was the work of the British Legion which occupied most of his time. I fear he worked too hard at this, which may well have brought about his early death at the age of 52.

On the subject of shipwrecks I well remember, when living at No 127 High Street, Sandgate, rather grandly called in those days “Admiralty House”, a house which went with the job of District Officer, that cargoes from wrecked ships often got washed up on the beach. I recall my father gathering up tins of Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits for instance, white stiff shirts and motor-car tyres for which we children got 1/- for every salvaged tyre. Best of all, though, were the cases of apricot brandy which floated ashore. I’ll say no more!

Every Kent Branch of the Legion was represented at the funeral, including Women’s Sections. There were many tributes from comrades, even one from Douai, France. My father organised a sort of “hands across the Channel” ceremony on Armistice Day in 1929 when a huge bonfire was built on the Dover cliffs high above Folkestone.

Upon being lit by him the bright and glowing fire was immediately answered by the French Legion in Calais.

My father was also very keen on amateur theatricals. He loved the theatre and the fast emerging world of cinema. In fact, when he was Drafting Commander at Chatham Naval Barracks during WWI, he formed a concert party and put on pantomime. He was himself a very good Dame! One naval recruit applied to him to be kept in Chatham rather than being drafted abroad somewhere. He was, he said, the owner of a small picture house in the Town and wanted to keep it running. My father granted his request. This “recruit” subsequently rose to be head of Gaumont British Film Distributors. He never forgot my father’s gesture and, out of gratitude, I was always able to get free tickets to any London GB cinema from him.

Finally, I must mention that my father became a Governor of the Sandgate Branch of the Star & Garter Home then situated on Sandgate Hill and now the HQ of SAGA. The inmates of this home, I remember, were horrendously disabled military personnel – some had no limbs and yet managed to paint pictures by holding the paintbrush in their mouth. With my sister, Joyce, in his concert party, he frequently put on shows to entertain these unfortunate people, to make them laugh and, perhaps, get them to forget for a moment or two.