Now lost, but originally in the graveyard, about 40m south of the church. The original plinth remains in situ.
The Loss of HMS Hero (1811)
HMS Hero (74), commanded by Captain James N Newman RN from Catisfield, was one of the fourteen or so Royal Navy warships that, in 1811 had been engaged in the annual protection and escort duties in the waters of the Kattegat, the Great Belt passage, and the Baltic Sea. For several years this spring/summer deployment to Scandinavian waters had been necessary to ensure safe two-way passage of British transport ships to and from the region. In these transits, especially that between Denmark and Sweden, the cargo ships would be continually threatened by enemy warships, particularly by Danish gun-boats and privateers which were taking a heavy toll of British convoys. Being shipped out to the Baltic region were military personnel, munitions, equipment and provisions; being transported back to England was Scandinavian timber, tar, hemp, flax and other materials vital for the navy's shipbuilding and repair programmes at this time. Each year the transports and their escorting warships would return to Britain in the autumn, early December at the very latest, to escape the effects of the severe Arctic winter. Being ice-bound in foreign waters far from home for several months was not a pleasant prospect; being at home with family and friends at the festive season was. Then in each following January and February the Merchant Navy ships would again load at British ports, form up in convoy, and set sail for the north under the watchful protection of the Royal Navy. This year 1811 the return home would be very different.
In early November the returning ships had started to assemble at Hano Bay, Sweden. From here, already late, the convoy departed on the 9th, sailing west towards the island of Lolland and the southern end of the channel known as the 'Belt', the sea passage that leads north to the waters of the Kattegat and beyond. However, the convoy was hampered by a succession of contrary gale force winds which resulted in many ships being lost or damaged some severely, with one 98-gun British warship having to be towed. Consequently the fleet's progress north was severely slowed, and interrupted several times, it taking about ten days to reach Vinga Sund, a little south of Gothenburg. Further delay then followed, not only due to more repair work but also to a further succession of storm force gales. It was not until Tuesday 17 December that the convoy still including HMS Hero finally departed Vinga Sund, bound for the North Sea and England. By now many ship commanders were doubting the advisability of proceeding so late in the year, but some were convinced otherwise.
The leader of the convoy, HMS Victory, arrived at Spithead on Boxing Day 1811, much later than expected due to adverse winds and exceptionally severe winter storms that had raged across the whole Scandinavian sea area and the adjoining North Sea. The Victory [Admiral Saumarez] was accompanied into Portsmouth by HMS Dreadnought [98 guns], HMS Vigo  and HMS Orion , together with several smaller 5- and 6-rate warships. His Majesty's ships St George , Cressy  and Defence  had also departed Vinga on the 17th but by the 26th these three vessels and a brig-sloop had not yet arrived at Portsmouth. However, it was known that they had become detached from the convoy off North Jutland due to the fierce on-shore gales and snow squalls that had ravaged the area for days. The reason for this was that the St George was severely handicapped by having to sail under jury rig masts and a temporary steering device this damage having been caused earlier by a ship to ship accident on 15 December. The severity of the storms had also caused some scattering of the 120 strong convoy, after which many transports never did sight their escorts again. But there was no news at all about HMS Hero or her charges, about forty transports, a small navy frigate and a brig-sloop, although this group had left Danish waters at least a day later than the main fleet anyway.
Apart from his overdue vessels, Admiral Sir James Saumarez did know that a prize ship a captured Danish privateer was at this time on her way to Portsmouth under the command of a midshipman with his prize crew of six seamen, all men belonging to HMS Hero. She had left Skagarrack waters at the same time as had the Hero but because of her much smaller size she would take longer in the passage home. In any case, news of her passing through the Strait of Dover had already reached the Admiral therefore he was confident she would arrive at Spithead within the next eight hours but, he must have wondered, why would the privateer arrive before the powerful Hero? As expected, the prize ship arrived at Spithead on Friday, the 27th.
On 28 December, a Royal Navy vessel off Holland reported that she had come across a number of pieces of wreckage, positively identified as being parts of a British 3-rate warship. And it was assumed these pieces to be from HMS Hero. Then, within a day both the Danish and Dutch press reported that a maritime catastrophe had occurred in recent days in the North Sea in which many ships had come to grief, including numerous British merchant and Royal Navy vessels. It was said that thousands of lives had been lost.
Soon came more reports, both official and by others in the Dutch press, of the loss of HMS Hero. Apparently, she had progressed about 300 miles farther south-west than had the St George and the Defence but, it was thought, due to a serious navigational error in conjunction with the bitter, storm force-11 gale [60 mph and more] was driven onto a notorious sandbank some 6 miles off the coast of Holland, near Texel island. This occurred early on Christmas Eve and she was accompanied in this extremely dangerous situation by an 18-gun brig-sloop, HMS Grasshopper [Cdr. Fanshaw RN]. The two vessels were stranded about a mile apart, barely in view of each other through the succession of heavy snow squalls that were sweeping across the sea area.
More than two years later, in April 1814, at the court-martial for the capture of his ship by the enemy, Commander Henry Fanshawe gave his account of the events leading up to the strandings of the brig-sloop and the Hero on the Haak Sand, and of their subsequent loss. He said that at around 3.30 a.m, Tuesday 24 December, all hands were turned up in a rush in the Grasshopper and presumably in HMS Hero at about the same time. In the darkness, both vessels had suddenly found themselves in badly broken sea, a sure sign of shoaling waters and sandbanks, which they thought to be those of the Smith's Knoll bank some 45 miles off Cromer on the Norfolk coast.
By this time the Grasshoppers commander could just see a blue distress lamp glowing at about a mile off, SW by S, which he assumed to be HMS Hero. And occasionally in that direction a signal gun was being fired. Fanshawe's description of the appalling conditions, made worse by intermittent, blinding snow squalls, makes it clear that it was a long and very anxious wait for the seamen of both ships until Christmas Eve dawned. However, in the darkness he was still assuming that both vessels were anchored up close to the shoals but relatively safe. Still, he found the Hero's distress signals somewhat worrying, particularly as she was repeating them at regular intervals throughout the night.
At daybreak, on 24 December 1811, Commander Fanshawe in the Grasshopper was dismayed to find that his brig was trapped, not off East Anglia but 125 miles farther east within the vast sandbank known as the Haak Sands, off the coast of Holland. This large and perilous hazard is about six miles off Texel island and is outside the narrow entrance to the sheltered waters of the Waddensee. At the time, Texel belonged to Holland, Britain's enemy. Apart from having been driven off course by the severe gales of the past three or four days, it was only too obvious there had been some serious course setting errors made by HMS Hero's navigation officers.
As well as dismayed at being trapped in such a threatening situation Fanshaw said he was also alarmed to see, between the blinding snow squalls, the Hero a mile or so off to the south. In dawn's dull grey light he saw that the seventy-four was well over on her larboard beam ends, stranded, dismasted and helpless, also on this menacing sandbank. She was being pounded mercilessly by enormous waves and boiling surf and with her bow pointing north-east her upper deck was facing full square to the battering nor'nor'west gale. The high, cresting seas were thundering directly into her port side. Commander Fanshawe said he could just see that several hundreds of the Hero's people had gathered both at the poop and at the bow, this because the central waist of a stranded vessel often collapses first under continual pounding of the sea.
The Hero and Grasshopper were two more of many hundreds of vessels that have been caught by the Haak Sand over the centuries, notorious from time immemorial for the taking of sailors' lives. Even from about a mile distant the brig's men could see that the 74's situation was desperate yet another victim of the sands. And with the barometer remaining steady at very low pressure this terrible weather could persist for many hours to come. The end of the large man-of-war and all 550 or more on board seemed to be inevitable; and there was still great danger that the brig-sloop would also be destroyed and all her men lost.
At his court-martial Fanshawe said that the Hero had hoisted her flag of truce, as he had also done on the Grasshopper. And, all through that long Christmas Eve day both vessels were intermittently firing distress guns to alert the inhabitants of Texel island and the nearby naval port of Den Helder, their hope being that despite Britain being at war with Holland [within the wider Napoleonic War] vessels of the Dutch naval squadron and local boatmen would come to their aid. By mid morning he could see several ships emerging from the Marsdiep channel but it was all too clear they were striving with little success to reach the British vessels in the face of the fierce, head-on gale force wind and a turbulent sea state. And to make matters worse, they were fighting against a strong flood tide, the surging waters of which was tending to force them back into the Waddensee. Only one ship, a Dutch navy lugger, managed to get anywhere near the Hero or the brig, but even then the heavy surf between her and the two British warships made getting alongside in either case impossible.
In the fading afternoon light Fanshawe saw that HMS Hero was starting to break up, appearing to split apart across her midships with every pounding wave, seawater doubtless pouring deep into her hull. The main mast together with its top and t'gallant masts had collapsed overboard. The fore and mizzen lower masts were leaning drunkenly to one side, both having already lost their topmast assemblies together with yards, spars and rigging, most of which was now heaped on the vessel's stricken deck, a confused mass of wood, metal, rope and hawsers. At the front of Hero the bowsprit assembly and all its rigging had torn away, and there too the ship's once-proud figurehead was fast disintegrating under the constant onslaught of the sea. Occasionally the commander and his officers could see figures, agitated and gesticulating, running frantically in every direction, many climbing the stump remnants of the masts and along the few remaining lower yards that had been flung about at grotesque angles.
Neither did the raging sea have any mercy for the Hero's stern where the fine and gilded architecture that surrounded the captain's rooms, the wardroom and the ship's offices, was being smashed to pieces, bit by bit. Above this, the poop deck could be seen to be suffering badly too, its wood planking and deck fittings peeling off and flung away by the screaming gale still roaring in from the north-west. Through his telescope Fanshawe noticed several 9-pounder guns careering unchecked across the quarterdeck, likely to be causing severe if not fatal injuries and certainly breaking through the vessel's side timbers. It could be easily imagined what danger and damage any dislodged 18- and 32-pounders were doing on the lower gun-deck. The area of safe refuge for the cowering, distraught souls aboard would, he knew, be shrinking fast, below both at fo'c'sle and stern, and on deck.
Commander Fanshawe said he could occasionally see through the thickening gloom of late afternoon some figures still trying desperately to launch boats, spars, wooden fittings, anything that would float and support a human being; but generally failing in their attempts to do this. He said the few boats they did get away quickly became swamped or overturned in the frenzied surf, spilling people out into the freezing sea, to certain death. Other men were leaping, arms and legs flailing, directly into the furious waters, committing themselves to the sea. To him there seemed very little hope of anyone reaching shore alive, to safety. And none would.
Commander Fanshawe explained to the court that his deepening anxiety led him to discuss with his officers the options open to them. It was agreed to cut cable and sail the only way out before the north-westerly gale to the safety of the Texel and the Marsdiep channel into which, inevitably, the Grasshopper would be escorted by the Dutch warships. With tide turning and nightfall fast approaching, and the storm apparently increasing in ferocity, Fanshawe gave the order to proceed. The warship moved forward slowly at first until continual soundings were showing they had finally escaped from the danger of the sands.
It must have been in the early hours of Christmas Day that HMS Hero finally expired torn apart by the angry elements, almost totally disintegrated. The planking of her upper decks and hull had been ripped off, her bow section broken away from the waist of the vessel, her three masts and their yards felled and swept overboard. The rampant sea had had virtually unrestricted access into the depths of the warship's hold, there to search out and destroy the few remaining souls who had taken their last refuge down there. By dawn everyone on board, about 560 people, had perished her commander, Captain James N Newman, his officers, seamen and boys, Royal Marines, and the few women and children. There were no survivors.
During the 72 hours following the departure of the convoys from Skagarrak waters on 22 December some 2,500 British servicemen blue-jackets, and marines had fallen victim to the cruel North Sea. As well as the loss of the St George, Defence and Hero there were several brig-sloops, a frigate and about ten transport ships wrecked. It was a major maritime disaster, ranking as one of the worst sea tragedies to afflict the Royal Navy in its long history.
This is an edited version of the research carried out by John Seagrove, a descendant of Midshipman John Seagrove who brought the prize vessel back to Portsmouth, and published here by kind permission of the author. The full document can be accessed on the History In Portsmouth website