Coastal communities by definition always have a close relationship with the sea & the lighthouse. Before the coming of railways and modern roads, the majority of goods transported between the industrial north of the country and the trading ports of the South went by sea. These goods passed Happisburgh offshore, coming in close to try to avoid the Happisburgh Sands, a major navigational hazard which has caused many shipwrecks.
The nine mile stretch of the Happisburgh Sands, seven miles offshore, provided a good living for locals, through salvaging from wrecked shipping. Some fishermen supplemented their income this way, and in some communities such as Happisburgh, they organised themselves in a team of ‘beachmen’ to share any bounty. An incidental aspect of the beachmen’s trade was that they often saved lives of sailors from the wrecks.
The coastguard station was established here in 1820. Before the current ‘all weather’ lifeboats were invented, the method of rescuing survivors from wrecked shipping was to call out the rocket brigade, who would fire a line to the wrecked ship using large rockets, and then use a breeches buoy to bring survivors back to shore.
Current coastguard teams, including the one still stationed at Happisburgh, still practice rope drills.
From 1951 until 1969, Don Cox was stationed at Happisburgh as a Coastguard. He had quite an effect on the village. He was instrumental in rebuilding a ramp at Town Gap, teaching local children how to sail, and in getting an inshore lifeboat stationed at Happisburgh. He single-handedly made several rescues, including a rescue from a crashed aircraft.
A Lifeboat Station was first established at Happisburgh in 1866.
Before the advent of motorised tractors, the boat was launched and recovered using a 10-horese team, provided by local farms. At one time the team was provided by Love’s farm. It is said that on hearing the bang of a maroon, some horses would jump out of their fields and make their own way to the ramp, often beating the crew.
• 1886-1887 ‘Huddersfield’ Donor – Town of Huddersfield
• 1887-1906 ‘Huddersfield’ (Self-righting) Operational No. 140, as above.
• 1906-1907 Temporary lifeboat.
• 1907-1926 ‘Jacob and Rachel Vallentine’ (Self-righting ‘Rubie’) Operational No.580.
• Donor – S Valentine of London.
The station was closed in 1926 and reopened in 1965 following the introduction of inshore lifeboats.
• 1970 D class lifeboat D72 was placed on service
• 1972 D class lifeboat D213 provided by the Biggleswade Round Table, Bedfordshire.
• 1987 D class lifeboat D327 provided by the Leicester branch of the RNLI
• 1994 D class lifeboat D468 ‘Colin Martin’ provided in memory of Colin Howard Martin
• 2003 D class lifeboat D601 ‘Spirit of Berkhamsted’ provided by the Berkhamsted branch of the RNLI
The current boat – D607 one of the latest IB1 semi-rigid inflatable boats – was donated by the Berkhamsted branch of the RNLI. Due to the loss of the ramp at Happisburgh, the boat is temporarily housed in a portacabin at Cart Gap, 1mile down the coast.
In these days of radio, radar and satellite navigation, it is not deemed necessary for the Coastguard to maintain a visual watch, and the lookout at Happisburgh is now closed.
Concerned about the danger to all who use the coast for pleasure or business, teams of volunteers up and down the coast man coastal surveillance stations to keep a watch on comings and goings, ready to notify the Coastguard or other authorities if anything occurs.
Happisburgh Coast Watch is based in a portacabin on the site of the wartime coastal battery and radar station, a few yards up the coast from the old Coastguard lookout. It is manned from 8am-4am 7days a week, and holds ‘declared facility status’ with Yarmouth Coast Guard.
The Norfolk coast has always been treacherous for seafarers, and Happisburgh Sand, nine miles long and seven miles offshore, has been disastrous for hundreds of vessels and claimed countless lives.
Of the many ships lost, the names of few have been remembered, but among them is HMS Peggy, a 141 ton sloop. In December 1770 she took on board newly conscripted press men (those conscripted by press gangs) at Newcastle. Two days later, as she sailed along the Norfolk coast, the wind changed as darkness fell, and amid squalls of snow she was driven towards the shore, eventually grounding near Town Gap. Waves beat over her, and it was not until low tide that villagers could bring wagons along the beach to take 59 survivors to safety and shelter. 32 of the crew perished and were buried in Happisburgh churchyard. When a brig was sent from Yarmouth to pick up the survivors, 14 of the press men armed themselves with clubs and refused to embark. The Captain had no means of forcing them to obey, and had no option but to let them go home rejoicing.
The most famous loss was HMS Invincible, a Third Rate 74 gun, who sailed out of Yarmouth in March 1801 to join the Baltic Fleet under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with Lord Nelson Second in Command, shortly before the Battle of Copenhagen. A strong tide and fresh wind forced her off course, and she struck Hammonds Knoll, a sandbank just east of Happisburgh Sand. The crew laboured all night to save her, cutting away the masts and pumping continuously, but at daybreak on 17th March she went down.
A smack fishing for cod rescued some of the crew, but out of 590 men, some 400 perished, including her Captain – the last to leave his ship. During the next few days many bodies were washed ashore, and at Happisburgh, cart loads were gathered up and taken to a mass grave in the churchyard. The loss of lives from HMS Invincible was greater than the casualties at the Battle Copenhagen.
For many years no memorial marked the place, but on 24th July 1998 a simple stone given jointly by the Ship’s Company of the present HMS Invincible and the Parochial Church Council was dedicated to the memory of all from the earlier Invincible who died at sea.
The seabed off Happisburgh became so littered with wrecked vessels that in 1904 Trinity House, fearing more disasters, sent a team of divers to blow them up. Thanks to improved navigational equipment few ships come to grief off these shores today.