The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville


23. H.M.S. Invincible Memorial

Happisburgh Norfolk

Britain has always been a maritime nation and countless shipwrecks, such as the Mary Rose in Portsmouth harbour, have occurred over the centuries. There are hundreds of naval memorials commemorating the loss of ships and seamen to be found in parish churches especially in naval ports and fishing

Quite by chance a few years ago whilst on holiday in Norfolk I visited the small village of Happisburgh half way between Great Yarmouth and Cromer. Whilst looking around the parish church I came across a booklet "The Tragic Shore" written by Mary Trett giving a detailed and fascinating account of a tragic shipwreck in 1801 resulting in the loss of 400 men.

H.M.S. Invincible a Third Rate 74 gun warship had sailed from Chatham carrying ordnance, ammunition and supplies for the Baltic Fleet off Copenhagen. Rear Admiral Thomas Totty was on board with Captain John Rennie commanding the 600 crew. Soon after leaving Yarmouth on 16 March the ship was forced off course by a strong tide and freshening winds and struck a sand bank, Hammonds Knoll east of Haisbro Sand and close to Happisburgh.

Some provisions were jettisoned but though the ship floated off at high tide she had lost her rudder and soon drifted back to the sandbank.

Captain Rennie ordered the guns to be fired at frequent intervals as a sign of distress. A local fishing smack the Nancy came to the rescue and anchored nearby. With difficulty Admiral Totty and a few of the boy seamen were taken on board. The Invincible lowered its boats but these were swept out to sea leaving 400 men still trapped on board.

Suddenly at dawn Invincible sank and all the men left on board including Captain Rennie were drowned. During the week following numerous bodies were washed up on nearby beaches. 119 bodies were found on Happisburgh beach. The bodies were brought up on carts and taken to glebe land close to the church where a mass grave was dug. No funeral service appears to have been held and the grave was not marked. After the Battle of Copenhagen Admiral Nelson, a Norfolk man himself, visited a few survivors still in Yarmouth hospital. 150 casks of brandy were also washed up on the beach and one villager Thomas Ansell drank so much that he died the following day.

Over 100 years later, in 1913, a Mrs Mary Cator who lived in Happisburgh suggested to the vicar that a subscription should be raised to build a memorial “to so many of Nelson’s gallant men”. The vicar agreed but sadly many local people objected and the project was abandoned. Mrs Cator did not give up and in 1924 she presented a new treble bell to the church inscribed In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisbro in 1801. Then in 1998 the long lost mass grave was accidentally discovered by workmen digging a new drainage trench near to the church. The skeletons were reburied and prayers were said. As a result a retired naval officer Peter Rope, who lived in the village, resurrected the idea of a permanent memorial and contacted the present day aircraft carrier Invincible. The Captain showed great interest and asked crew members to subscribe funds for a memorial in conjunction with the Parochial Church Council. Placed in the churchyard it was dedicated on 24 July 1998 with the chaplain and 8 crew members in attendance as well as descendants of Captain John Rennie and members of the Nelson Society.

The inscription on the stone reads On 16 March 1801 H.M.S. Invincible was wrecked off Happpisburgh when on the way to join a fleet with Admiral Nelson at Copenhagen. The day following the ship sank with the loss of some four hundred lives. One hundred and nineteen members of the Ships Company lie buried here. ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it.’ (Revelation 20.13)

This memorial stone was given jointly by the Parochial Church Council and the ships Company of H.M.S. Invincible 1998.

So nearly 200 years after the shipwreck the long forgotten drowned sailors were given the recognition they deserved.

John Symonds

Festival Edition 2014

Invincible Memorial, Happisburgh