The Norfolk Coast has always been treacherous for seafarers, and the Haisbro Sand, about nine mile off Happisburgh, has been the cause of disaster hundreds of vessels and claimed countless lives. Before the coming of the railway, when roads were in poor condition, much of the domestic traffic of the country was carried by little sailing ships – barque’s, schooners, sloops and barges – travelling up and the coast from the Thames to the Humber and Tyne.
ABOUT THE YEAR 1692 a fleet of 200 sail colliers were returning from London to Newcastle. They had left Yarmouth Roads when they were caught north-east storm off Winterton Ness. Some 140 of their number were lost. That same night another fleet laden with coal and coming from the north was also wrecked, as were vessels from Lynn and Wells bound for Holland with cargoes of grain. More than 200 sailing and above 1000 people perished that night.
20th December 1770 HMS PEGGY, a 141 ton sloop under the command of Captain Richard Toby, had taken on board newly conscripted press men at Newcastle two days earlier. As she sailed along the Norfolk coast the wind changed to NNE and as darkness fell, and amid squalls of snow, she was driven towards the shore. Orders were given to throw the casks of beer and water overboard, to cut away the mainmast and let the sheet anchor go. But it was too late – at 7am. the Peggy grounded near Town Gap. Waves beat over her, and it was not until noon when the tide had ebbed, that John Shepherd, Bailiff of the Manor of Happisburgh, together with a number of villagers could bring horse-drawn wagons along the beach. All 59 survivors were taken to safety and found shelter, but 32 members of the Ship’s Company perished and lie buried in Happisburgh Churchyard.
When a brig and two beach boats were sent from Yarmouth to collect the survivors, 14 of the press men refused to embark. They had armed themselves with clubs, and the Captain, unable to force them to obey, had no option but to let them go home. As much of the stores as possible were salvaged, hut the wreck of the Peggy remained half buried on the sand at high water mark for many years.
The most famous loss was HMS INVINCIBLE on Monday 16TH March 1801 HMS Invincible, a Third Rate 74 gun, had sailed out of Yarmouth heavily laden with ordnance, ammunition, stores and nearly 600 men on her way to join the Baltic Fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Admiral Nelson shortly before the Battle of Copenhagen. Rear Admiral Thomas Totty was on board Invincible with Captain John Rennie, recently appointed to his first command. Although the pilots were thought to be acquainted with the passage through Haisbro Gat, a strong tide and fresh wind forced Invincible off course, and at 2.30pm she struck Hammond’s Knoll, a sandbank just east of Haisbro Sand. The crew laboured throughout the night to save the vessel. All masts were cut away and the pumps manned continuously.
The only help came from The Nancy, a smack fishing for cod. Admiral Totty hoarded her with the youngest crew members, and she stood by. Invincible’s own boats were launched hut were driven out to sea. At daybreak on March 17th as The Nancy attempted to rescue the remainder of the crew, Invincible went down.
Some of the men in her boats were picked up later by a collier, but out of 590 men, some 400 perished including Captain Rennie. During the next days, bodies were washed up along the coast, and at Happisburgh cart loads were gathered up and taken to a mass grave on the north side of the church. For many years no memorial marked the spot where 119 men were buried. This was a cause of concern to Mrs Mary Cator who resided in the parish during the first part of the 20th century. In 1913 she started a county-wide collection to raise funds for a suitable stone. Unfortunately, objections were raised as there was no written record of t.he burials which had taken place on glebe land. Mrs Cator had no way of proving the authenticity of the burials, and all donations returned.
It was not until 1988 when a drainage trench was dug to take rain water from the Church that many skeletons were found, evidently buried in haste. There was now little room for doubt. The present HMS Invincible, an aircraft carrier, was contacted and the Captain responded with much interest. On 24th July 1998 a simple stone given jointly by the Ship’s Company and the Parochial Church Council was dedicated to the memory of all from Invincible who died at sea.
18th FEBRUARY 1807 The Yarmouth Rev cutter Hunter was patrolling the coast keeping a for smuggling activities, when she was caught in a storm which dashed her onto Haisbro Sand, 9 miles out. She was then driven towards the shore and beached to the north of Cart Gap. All hands were lost – more than 40 men.
In the same storm 12 vessels were wrecked between Cromer and Gorleston, including HMS Snipe, driven ashore near Gorleston, There was great loss of among the crew and the French prisoners who were on board.
13th OCTOBER 1822 HMS Ranger, another Yarmouth based Revenue cutter and Hunter’s, replacement, patrolled much of the East Coast and was greatly dreaded by smugglers. On the evening of 13th October, Captain John Sayers ordered two small boats, each with a crew of seven, to put out and search inshore waters. While Ranger stood by, the wind increased and soon a furious gale was blowing. The crew could not hold her and she was swept onto a sandbank close to shore. Allegations were made that Happisburgh folk lining the cliff top paid no heed to the distress signals and cries for help from the desparate crew. These charges were denied, but it may well have been that certain villagers saw no reason why they should help their enemies who hindered their unlawful occupation. Next morning the wreck of Ranger was swept to the shore close to the spot where the remains of Hunter lay.
1870 The steamer Gladstone was wrecked near spot where HMS Peggy had foundered.
1875 The barque Young England was lost off Winterton. Six of the crew including men from Holland, Norway, Sweden and England were buried in Happisburgh Churchyard. Their grave is marked by a stone cross and anchor erected by public subscription “commencing with the Hasbro’ beachmen”.
JULY 1879 Not. all disasters are due to weather. The Yarmouth steam paddle tug Reliance fastest and most powerful of the Star Company’s fleet, struck the sunken hulk of Gladstone in a very calm sea. She took in water very rapidly and was beached at Cart Gap, becoming a total loss.
1881 The steamer Ludworth Castle was driven ashore in a gale and broke in half.
1884 A small brigantine, Edith, was wrecked close to the remains of the cutter Hunter.
1904 The sea off Happisburgh had become so littered with wrecked vessels that Trinity House, fearing more disasters, sent a team of divers to blow them up.
The schooner Angela of London was driven ashore near Cart Gap in a snow storm. Burning Flares alerted the crew of the Jacob and Rachel lifeboat and the Rocket Brigade. As it was impossible to launch the lifeboat in the extremely difficult conditions the Life Saving Apparatus was used. A line was fired on board, and after much effort, five exhausted men were brought to safety by breeches buoy.
During the 1939-45 War a number of ships were lost, including the Franklin which was sunk off Happisburgh. Six vessels were wrecked on Haisbro Sand in 1942.
30th JANUARY 1940 A report reached the Air Raid Warden’s Post at 3.30am that a vessel was on fire due to enemy action about 1 mile off shore. A further message reported that the ship had beached at Walcott Gap. Snow had been falling all night and had been drifting. The Life Saving Apparatus was loaded on a trailer by members of the Rocket Brigade who tried to make the journey by road. The snow was too deep, and only with great difficulty were they able to return and the equipment 1 ½ miles along the beach. It was still dark when they reached Walcott Gap and found the Tautmillar, a vessel of about 3700 tons. They made the deck by rope ladder, and found that the fire in the hold was dying down. One man, a Latvian unable to speak English and in a very exhausted condition, was found on board. Later, it was discovered that he had been knocked unconscious, when the Captain ordered all to abandon ship, he was left for dead.
A watch was kept on the vessel for three weeks by Rocket Brigade members until she was towed to Yarmouth for repairs. Sadly, the following year she was sunk by enemy action.
1989 Thanks to improved equipment, few vessels come to grief off these shores today, but in October the 3000 tonne trawler De Vrouw Melanic was returning from a fishing trip when she developed an electrical fault. She drifted on to a sand bar and was carried to the shore at high tide, becoming stuck fast on the beach at Cart Gap. Electricians boarded her to carry out repairs, and after several attempts she and her six-man crew were refloated with the aid of a tug. The De Vrouw Melanie had escaped the clutches of the North Sea – the one who got away.
Unfortunately her reprieve was short-lived. Two years later the company owning her was placed in the hands of the Receivers, and De Vrouw Melanie, once valued at £1,000,000 was sold for £360.