The Fate of HMS Invincible – 1801

Before we proceed with what happened to the Royal Naval ship HMS Invincible some 219 years ago take particular note of Hammond’s Knoll, a 6-mile (9.7 km) long sandbank off the coast of Norfolk, England, just off Happisburgh. This is an innocent sandbank below high water when the sea behaves itself; but when the weather is foul and the tide is low, it is best to stay alert and be on guard – it can be dangerous. At low water, the sandbank has only a depth of about 6 fathoms at each end, and 3 fathoms in the centre. Nowadays, the Hammond’s Knoll is marked by lighted buoys at its north and east ends – this was not the case on the 16th March in the year of our Lord 1801.

Invincible (Hammonds Knoll)
The East Anglian coast is recognised as dangerous when the weather and sea choose to be foul. Many ships have been lost to gales over the centuries – some say the number runs into thousands. Storms in this part of the world seem frequent and ferocious either side of Autumn and Spring, wrecking and shifting the many sandbanks and shoals as they rage. In winter months particularly, the prevailing off-shore westerly wind would, more than likely, become a north-easterly, thrashing down from Scandinavia and the Artic. battering the lee shoreline. Ships which managed to sail a safe course through those ever shifting sands would still risk being smashed by the wave’s force, overwhelmed or driven ashore.

In the days of sail, the sea lanes up and down the eastern coast were far busier than they are today. Any storm would, as likely as not, have created a havoc of torn canvas, tangled ropes, broken masts and dead bodies. No ship, whether they be on Government business or commercial trading, were immune from possible disaster. Even the large fishing fleets that once thrived on herring could be lost; in fact, in 1789 around 130 fishing smacks and coasters were wrecked between Southwold and Cromer – one of more than a few such instances. With so many storms over the years the losses have been many, with coastal churchyards well used with graves and memorials for those who did not come home safely. These included resting places for members of the Royal Navy.

Britain once prided itself on having the greatest navy in the world and her sea battles were renowned, but East Anglian seas were even a challenge to military ships. Amongst those who did fall foul of the seas off Happisburgh, two stand out; the first was HMS Peggy which, in short, was wrecked on 19th December 1770 with thirty-two of its men losing their lives. They were buried in Happisburgh churchyard while their ship, the Peggy, was to remain on the beach for many years thereafter.

Invincible (HMS Peggy)
The wreck of the HMS Peggy

The HMS Invincible disaster was the other instance of a Royal Naval ship going down. She was a 74-gun, Ramilles Class third-rate ship, thirty-six years old in the spring of 1801 and battle-wearied, but nevertheless a stirring sight when fully rigged.

 

Invincible 1
HMS Invincible

Launched at Deptford in March 1765, the HMS Invincible had served in the American War of Independence. Her battle honours included Cape St Vincent 1780, Chesapeake 1781, St Kitts 1782 and the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she was badly damaged and lost fourteen men. In 1797, she took part in the invasion of Trinidad which captured that island from the Spanish. So by 1801, HMS Invincible, which had a proud record of service, was back in British waters. By March of that year, and with the war against France in a protracted state, fear remained that the French would seize the powerful Danish navy and use it against Britain. Therefore the British Baltic fleet, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and with Nelson as his second-in-command, was directed to sail to Copenhagen and make sure the Danish fleet could not fall into French hands.

 

Invincible (Hyde Parker)
Admiral Sir Hyde Parker (1739–1807) after the painting by Romney

HMS Invincible was to be part of this fleet so it was ordered to sail from Chatham, with its crew of around 600, and meet up with the fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker which was already in the Sound preparing for the planned attack on the Danish fleet – to be known later as the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. HMS Invincible sailed on its journey under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty.

Invincible (Copenhagan)
Painting of the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. National Maritime Museum

During its way north, Invincible, with the ship’s newly appointed, thirty-fout year old, Captain John Rennie, put into Yarmouth to collect final orders and stock up with ordnance, stores and ammunition. She was by then a 1,631 ton war ship, as prepared as she could be for the battle ahead. Her state of readiness meant that on the 16th March she was able to leave Yarmouth Roads and, with a master and pilot aboard, set a course towards the notorious area of shifting sandbars off Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk.

The Master and Pilot clearly thought that they could navigate through the shoals safely, but a rising wind and the strong tide forced the ship off course. Within an very short time, at 2.30pm to be precise, she struck the sandbank of Hammond’s Knoll where the effect of wind and waves tore down the masts and began to break up the ship. The crew did all they could to save the ship. They jettisoned provisions and when the mizzen mast went they cut away the mast, hoping that the ship would float off the sands at high water. Whilst all this was going on, Invincible repeatedly fired a distress signal with its guns. For a while, it looked as if the crew’s efforts of jettisoning every they could would work for the Invincible moved slightly into deeper water. But, as she did so an even heavier swell and stronger wind caused the ship to lose its rudder. Unmanageable, she was driven back on to the sandbank. There she remained whilst the only thing left for the crew to usefully do was to man the pumps and try to keep as much of the ship as possible above water.

Invincible (Ship in Storm)

The wreck was only a few miles offshore and its distress signal, by way of frequent firing of the guns, was eventually answered by the collier Hunter, on her way into Yarmouth – but unfortunately she, for one reason or another, ignored the Invincible’s plight. Only the Yarmouth smack The Nancy, fishing for cod under its skipper, Daniel Grigson, came to Invincible’s aid. He offered whatever assistance he could. However, by midnight, it was clear to all on the royal naval ship that nothing could be done to save it and the order was for two of her boats to be lowered with Totty, the Purser, four midshipmen and some seamen in one and seamen in the other. They made it safely to The Nancy and then made a second run only for one of the boats to capsize as it approached The Nancy for the second time. Those men who had been thrown into the water were, fortunately, picked up by a Collier which had also answered the distress signal from the Invincible.

Invincible (Rescue)2
To the Rescue!

Both The Nancy and the Collier remained on rescue watch throughout that Monday night to pick up survivors, although neither were able to offer any assistance to Invincible herself. Then, after dawn had broken, the final act of this tragedy was played out. Those on the rescue ships were nothing more than spectators to the death throes of the Invincible as she shifted gradually into deeper water before slowly sinking. As she lowered herself below the surface waves, those on its forecastle made a last desperate attempt to survive by leaping into the sea before trying to get on board the last of the ship’s launches. Some made it but others were beaten back by those safely on board who feared that the launch itself would also capsize if overloaded. The weapons they used to repel greater numbers were the launche’s oars.

When the Invincible finally disappered into the depths, it took with her about 400 crew. Out of a full complement of 600 and, bizarrely, 50 passengers despite the fact that the ship was scheduled to go to war, one hundred and ninety persons were saved. Not included in this number of survivors was Captain Rennie who, duty bound, was the last man to leave his post; when he did so he was not only wet and extremy cold but suffering from exhaustion. He tried to swim to a launch but gave up. At that final moment before he drowned he seemingly had accepted his fate when he lifted his hands and place them over his face before sinking calmly beneath the water. Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty reported Rennie’s loss in his Report for the Court-martial which was to follow, calling him ‘a truly zealous and intelligent Officer’. That same Report also described the last moments of the HMS Invincible :

“At daylight on Tuesday morning, I observed that the Invincible had not a single Boat, either alongside or astern of her, and the tide ran so strong that it was impossible to get the fishing Smack to her, but the moment the tide slacked … she stretched under the Invincible’s stern, endeavouring by all possible means to work up and get alongside of her; but before that could be accomplished the Ship went down in thirteen fathoms Water, and out of 600 persons that belonged to the Invincible they have not been above 190 saved and now living; several who were picked up by the launch died very soon afterwards. I am extremely grieved to inform you that Captain Rennie was among the number of those drowned; by his death the service has lost a truly zealous and intelligent Officer … The horror of the scene at the Moment the Ship went down far exceeds all power of description.”

Amongst those who had reached The Nancy, and were later landed at Great Yarmouth, were those who were still to die as a result of the experience. In total, more than 400 were lost, compared to the 256 who were to die at the Battle of Copenhagen. On his way home from his triumph, Nelson still made time to visit “his men” from the Invincible lying injured in Great Yarmouth hospital.

For days after the wreck, bodies were washed up all along the coast. Most were brought on carts to Happisburgh churchyard, where they were buried in a huge, unmarked communal mound grave in unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. Of all those lost only six received a proper burial in the Holy Trinity & All Saints churchyard at Winterton the 20th day of March, 1801. Their names unknown

Invincible (St Marys Church)
St Mary’s Church, Happisborough.

But the story of the Invincible did not end there because an attempt was made by a Mary Cator in 1913 to erect a memorial as a reminder to the lives lost. She raised money by subscription but when it was found that there was no official record that proved that bodies from the Invincible were buried in the mound, she returned the money raised. Then in 1924, Mary Cator’s persistence to ensure that an appropriate memorial existed in St Mary’s churchyard paid off. This was the year when the church bells were re-hung and Mary gave a treble bell on which was inscribed ‘In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisboro in 1801‘. A memorial at last! – but the story did not even end there.

Invincible (Dedication)
The unconsecrated land where the dead were buried was later incorporated into Happisburgh churchyard, then in 1988, the remains of many of the Invincible’s crew were located by chance in their original mass grave during the digging of a new drainage channel. There was found a disordered mass of bones less than three feet below the surface. These remains were reburied with proper rites; then, ten years later, in 1998, a memorial stone was erected to their memory by the Ship’s Company of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, together with members of the Nelson Society,, the Happisburgh parochial church council and a descendant of Captain John Rennie. This was a final recognition of all those who had died on HMS Invincible in 1801, summed up by St Mary’s Rector, Reverend Doctor Richard Hines as being: “interpreted as a gesture of Christian faith that even in their most desperate moments those who perished out in the cold North sea did not perish beyond the love and presence of Almighty God” The Memorial’s inscription came from Revelation and reads ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it’.

Invincible (Memorial)
HMS Invincible Memorial at St Mary’s Churchyard at Happisburgh, Norfolk Photo: © Lynda Smith – 2004

Transcript of Memorial Lettering:

On 16 March 1801, HMS INVINCIBLE
was wrecked of Happisburgh when
on her way to join the 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 Ship’s Company lie buried here.
“And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it…..”
Revelation 26:13

This memorial stone was given jointly
by the Parochial Church Council and
The Officers and Ship’s Company of
HMS Invincible. 1998.

FOOTNOTE:
The compulsory court martial that followed Invincible’s sinking was held on the HMS Ruby at Sheerness. It absolved the Amiral and the Captain (posthumously) of culpability in the disaster, but posthumously blamed the harbour pilot and the ship’s master, both of whom had been engaged to steer the ship through the reefs and shoals of the dangerous region – they should have known the location of Hammond Knoll, especially since it was daytime and in sight of land.

The only amusing side to this story concerns the many casks that were seen floating on the sea after the HMS Invincible went down. Some 150 were brought ashore by the customs officers and were found to contain brandy. Others casks escaped and were to be picked up by delighted villagers; many of whom drank themselves into oblivion – one even died from his excesses!

THE END

Sources:
The Loss of HMS Invincible in 1801

http://www.axfordsabode.org.uk/pdf-docs/invinc01.pdf


http://www.happisburgh.org/history/sea/losses-at-sea
https://rna-norwich.org.uk/2017/03/hms-invincible-memorial-service-2017/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

The Last Norfolk Duel

Just off the B1149, Norwich to Holt Road at Cawston, Norfolk stands a stone urn. It marks the scene of the last duel fought in Norfolk.

Last Duel ( Henry Hobart, 4th Baronet)
Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Baronet (1657–1698) was an English Whig politician and baronet. Photo: Courtesy of the National Trust

Early on a Saturday morning in August 1698 Sir Henry Hobart of Blickling Hall, 4th Baronet and former MP for Kings Lynn, met at with Sir Oliver Le Neve, a lawyer from Great Witchingham, at Cawston Heath. In a time when a gentleman’s honour was a matter of life or death, they fought a duel that proved fatal. Behind this Tale lies a sub-plot of Norfolk politics, plus an unlikely victory for a left-handed underdog!

Henry Hobart owned Blickling Hall and its Estate; his ancestor the 1st baronet, having made his fortune through the law, spent a fortune building his magnificent mansion near Aylsham. Despite the family of Old Commonwealth Hobarts being stubborn and supporters of republicanism, it continue to thrive over the generations. Young Henry, 4th baronet and the other half of this said Duel, had been knighted by Charles II in 1671 aged just 13. In adulthood he became a politician after serving as William of Oranges Gentleman of Horse at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; he also represented the borough of Kings Lynn in Parliament. As a member of the Whig party, he prospered in the political climate of the 1690s.

Oliver Le Neve, by contrast, was of more humble station. He was Tory-supporting lawyer, a country sportsman, fisherman and well-known local drinking man – every inch the Tory king and country squire. Oliver was, to his credit, also easy going and better-liked, an attribute that was eventually to stand him in good stead. His personality was in striking contrast to that of Henry Hobart, the court sophisticate, renowned as a swordsman but also argumentative, dictatorial and headstrong, with a record of disputes with his neighbours.

So what was the argument?

In 1698 a bitter political battle broke out in Norfolk. Hobart had splashed out heavily on an election campaign spending enough to increase his family’s already impressive debts but had been defeated. He attributed his failure to rumours circulating about his conduct in Ireland during the 1690 Boyne campaign. It seems accusations that Hobart had been a coward were circulating and Hobart blamed Le Neve. Hobart issued a challenge by letter and in person, but Le Neve denied being the author of the rumours. He wrote to Hobart:

“I am ready and desirous to meet you when and where you please to assign… for the matter shall not rest as it is though it cost the life of your servant, Oliver Neve”.

Who won?

Former soldier, renowned swordsman, versus fisherman lawyer – but left-handed! – what betting man of the time would have noticed this for they had their money on Hobart. However, neither man had engaged Seconds and the only witness was apparently a servant girl hiding in the bushes. Nevertheless, the Duel went ahead and, according to rumour, Hobart wounded his opponent in the arm but, unfortunate for him, his sword got caught up in Le Neve’s coat. Le Neve took advantage with a quick reply, thrusting his sword into Hobarts stomach. This was to prove a mortal wound, after the baronet had been carried back in agony to Blickling. He died the next day, leaving a widow, heiress Elizabeth Maynard, and a five year old son. The widow’s anger was less intense and possibly satisfied when she later remarried; her son inherited, the family regained its fortune and her son eventually become Ambassador to Russia.

Last Duel1
People would duel to settle a point of honour. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

What happened next?

Because no Seconds were involved, the Duel was deemed illegal and Le Neve fled to Holland, fearing that the Hobart’s powerful and vengeful family would secure a murder conviction for him. There he stayed until the heat had died down then, having lived under a series of assumed names, he returned to stand trial. Oliver was duly acquitted at the Thetford assizes in April, 1700, a verdict that maybe had much to do to a favourable jury and his good reputation with his neighbours, all of which came to his aid at the right moment – Who knows?

Le Neve, settled back into his country squire life and, apart from fishing, horse-racing and gardening, his main occupation was his prized pack of hunting beagles – supposedly the best in England. He also maintained his positions of Justice of the Peace and a captain in the militia. Tragedy though marred his final years. His second wife Jane, who he married just a few weeks before the duel, died in 1703 and he remarried a few years later, again for money. He chose a London heiress, but she died soon after the marriage.

Last Duel (Peter_Le_Neve)
Peter Le Neve who inherited his brother’s Great Witchingham Estate. (Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)

Oliver Le Neve died of apoplex on 23 November 1711 at West Harling, shortly after the death of his only surviving son, Jack. As for Oliver Le Neve, he was buried with his first wife Anne Gawdy at Great Witchingham. Because his sons had predeceased him, his Estate passed to his elder brother Peter who in his Will intended the Estate to pass back to his three nieces, Oliver Le Neve’s daughters—Isabella, Anne and Henrietta. However, after legal battles, with accusations by the Le Neves of conflict of interest, the state was taken through reversion of the Will by the trustees of a John Norris, whose grandfather, a Norwich lawyer of the same name, had acted as trustee for the young Oliver Le Neve. The three daughters of Le Neve were ejected from the estate. These three surviving daughters by Anne Gawdy inherited the Gawdy Estate at West Harling instead. They, in turn, erected a chancel marble wall monument to their parents in St Mary’s Church at Great Witchingham.

Last Duel ( St Mary's Church, Witchingham)1
St Mary’s Church, Witchingham, Norfolk. The last resting place of Oliver Le Neve and his wife, Anne Gawdy. © Copyright Adrian S Pye and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The monument inscription reads:

Last Duel (le_neve_oliver-memorial)
(Photo: copyright owner unknown – see Notice below.)

“Under the earth near this stone lyeth the dust of Oliver le Neve Esq late of this parish one of the Justices of the Peace and Captain of a Foot Company of the Militia of this County Second son of Frances le Neve gentleman Citizen and Draper of London and of Avice his wife daughter of Peter Wright and sister and heir of Peter Wright of London Merchant he died on the 23rd day of November Anno Domino 1711 and was buried on the 26th of the same month leaving behind him by his first wife Anne only ye daughter of Sir John Gaudy of West Herling in this County Baronet (who lyeth by his side) three daughters and co-heirs Isabella Anne and Henrietta Le Neve who caused this Memorial to be set up As also what remains of Elizabeth his second wife daughter and co-heir expectant of Robert Sheffield of Kensington in Middlesex Esq grandson of Edmund Earl of Mulgrave long since deceased she died suddenly on the 8th day of November 1707 without child and was buried here on the 12th day of the same month.
Tam Math quam Mercurio [As much a man of war as commerce]”

How did duelling work and how long was it in fashion?

The practice grew out of the medieval legal tradition of trial by combat. As long as the rules were followed, the courts usually took a lenient view. Participants were meant to issue formal letters to one another and appoint seconds to make sure fair play ensured. It was considered a disgrace if a man did not answer a challenge, so Le Neve had little option but to fight if he wanted to retain his reputation. Sometimes when opponents met an apology was offered and both parties went away with honour and life intact.

Gradually, society’s attitude to violence changed. By the mid 19th century it had gone out of fashion but that did not stop the Duke of Wellington, when Prime Minister, fighting a duel in 1829 with Lord Winchilsea. On that occasion both men deliberately fired wide, and Winchilsea grudgingly apologised. Honour was satisfied. By the Victorian era courts took a less lenient attitude to duels, and the practice died out.

Last Duel (Stone Urn)
The stone urn which marks the scene of the last duel to be fought in Norfolk. Photo by kind permission of Christopher Weston.

POSTSCRIPT: A stone urn marking the Norfolk Duel was later put up in the garden of the Woodrow Inn which, in time, became the present Woodrows petrol station – the monument itself became known as the Cawston Heath Duel Stone and, having been previously moved, is now maintained by the National Trust. You can find the stone urn just yards from the Woodrow garage. Henry Hobarts home at Blickling is also owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

Last Duel ( Witchingham Hall)1
The former Le Neve family home, Great Witchingham Hall, was bought by turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews in the 1950s

THE END

Sources:
http://www.thekingscandlesticks.com/webs/pedigrees/23020.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-cawston-duel-stone-and-a-ghost-of-blickling-hall-1-5244880

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.