On Monday 16th March 1801, HMS Invincible, a third rate 74 gun ship of the line, sailed out of Great Yarmouth, with recently appointed Captain, John Rennie at the helm. Also on board, with his flag flying, was Rear Admiral Thomas Totty. The ship had stopped off in Yarmouth to pick up orders and now sailed heavily laden with ordnance, ammunition and stores, along with her crew of 590 men. She was on her way to join the Baltic Fleet, where Admiral Nelson was second in command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, for the Battle of Copenhagen.
With pilots embarked, who were thought to be well acquainted with the passage through Haisbro (Happisburgh) Gat, a strong tide and fresh wind forced Invincible off course. At 2.30pm she struck Hammond’s Knoll, a sandbank just east of Haisbro (Happisburgh) Sand. Some provisions were jettisoned to lighten the ship and in the late afternoon, when she was labouring against a rising swell, her masts were cut away. It was hoped that she would float off at high water, which she did manage to do but, having lost her rudder and with a heavy swell and freshening wind, she struck sand again. The crew laboured on the pumps throughout the night to try and keep her above water and her guns were sounded at frequent intervals as a signal of distress.
The only help came from The Nancy, a smack fishing for cod, who came to the aid of the stricken ship. Her skipper, Daniel Grigson, anchored nearby and at midnight, when all hope of saving the Invincible was gone, took aboard Admiral Totty and those of the crew who were little more than boys. Invincible’s own boats were lowered safely but were swept out to sea, with these men being picked up later by a passing collier.
The Nancy stood by all night, hoping to rescue the remainder of the crew at daybreak, but to the horror of all on board, as the sky lightened, the Invincible went down. All who could jumped onto the launch. Captain Rennie, the last to leave his ship, attempted to swim to the launch, but overcome with cold and exhaustion and when almost in reach of the oars, lifted his hands to the sky, placed them over his face, and then sank calmly beneath the waves. He was a brave and competent officer, much respected by all under his command.
Out of 590 men, some 400 perished. During the next few 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 St. Mary’s church.
Soon after the Battle of Copenhagen (at which 256 men were lost, compared with about 400 from the Invincible), Nelson visited ‘his’ men lying injured in Yarmouth hospital.
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 of Happisburgh 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 the burials having taken place. Mrs Cator had no way of proving the authenticity of the burials, and all donations were sadly returned.
It was not until 1988 when a drainage trench was dug to take rain water from the Church roof that many skeletons were found, laid out in rows, some as shallow as 3 foot below the ground, evidently buried in haste. There was now little room for doubt that this was indeed the burial site for the lost 119 sailors who drowned on that terrible morning.
The aircraft carrier HMS Invincible was contacted and told of the story about her predecessor, and the lack of a memorial. Her Captain and ships company responded with much interest. On Tuesday 24th July 1998, St. Mary’s church was filled to overflowing. Many had come from far afield, including a direct descendant of Captain John Rennie, the Second in Command of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible along with eight members of her crew and members of the Nelson Society.
In bright sunshine and with a fresh wind, the congregation gathered on the burial mound, within sight of Hammond’s Knoll, where prayers of dedication were said. A bugler from HMS Invincible sounded the Last Post and Reveille. The men of HM’s Late Ship Invincible had at last received a fitting tribute to their memory.