A shipwreck which killed dozens of crew members left the residents of a town devastated.

On January 26, 1800, the HMS Brazen wrecked, resulting in the loss of all but one of its 120 crew members. The whole town was ready to rescue any survivors - but bodies quickly started to pile up.

As Jeremiah Hill floated towards the shore clutching some broken timbers, he probably realised he was one of the lucky ones.

But he was the only lucky one to survive the wreck of the HMS Brazen, a patrol boat assigned to protect the Sussex coast from French privateers.

Just three months after it had been commissioned, the sloop was wrecked just west of Newhaven.

In the early hours of January 26, 1800, the Brazen’s crew of 120 was reduced to just one.

“The wreck, when it was discovered, about seven in the morning, exhibited a most melancholy and distressing scene,” the Naval Chronicle reported at the time.

“Many of the crew who had got onto rafts, and on different parts of the ship, were seen struggling with the contending billows.

“The lieutenant and purser, who were excellent swimmers, stripped and attempted to save themselves by that means.

“But having swam until they were exhausted, they sunk and were seen no more.”

The Brazen had been assigned to protect the coastline between the Isle of Wight and Beachy Head after privateers had been harassing fishermen.

Weeks after the boat was commissioned in October 1799, Brighton’s naval defence commander Captain Andrew Sproule had warned of the coastal clashes.

“The number of privateers who have lately appeared near this coast have so entirely prevented the fisherman from going to sea that many of them are almost in a starving condition,” he wrote to another captain.

“Last night two privateers chased two light colliers from Littlehampton. “One of the privateers made several attempts to board her.”

Under the command of Captain James Hanson the Brazen was under orders “to cruise till further notice for protection of the trade and annoyance of the enemy”.

A day before the sloop met its end, the Brazen had captured a French ship, sending seven men to take it into port in Portsmouth.

So when the patrol boat sailed close to Newhaven’s cliffs on January 26, it was slightly understaffed to deal with the problem.

An anonymous letter written by someone who had interviewed survivor Jeremiah detailed the moment the Brazen crashed on to the rocks.

“Hill, on that night, had the mid-watch, and was relieved about two in the morning,” it read.

“At five he was alarmed by the striking of the ship and hastened on deck with his jacket and trousers in his hand.”

The crew tried to cut the sails in hope of the masts falling overboard.

But the ship was almost instantly on its side from the violence of the waves.

Jeremiah clung to the main mast before spotting a gun platform he was able to ride to shore.

By this time Newhaven townsfolk were out in their droves, ready to rescue any survivors.

They used a primitive lift to hoist Jeremiah up the cliff face to safety. But he was the only one to save, “the seaman whom providence so especially favoured” as one letter described him.

As Captain Sproule’s ships converged on the wreck, Newhaven residents recovered the bodies floating back to shore.

“One or two are now alive upon the wreck,” the captain wrote.

“But from the violence of the gale I fear there is little hope of them, all the rest are certainly drowned.”

As the bodies piled up, the seamen were taken to St Michael’s Church to be buried, where a memorial still stands.

But Captain Hanson never made it to the grave, his remains forever missing. “Captain Hanson’s widow, who is far advanced in her pregnancy, has expressed a strong desire to see the remains of her husband,” the Naval Chronicle reported.

The disaster having shaken Newhaven to the core, the townsfolk discussed how to avoid another tragic wreckage.

Three years later, they raised enough funds to buy a rescue lifeboat for the town. And two centuries later, the RNLI station in the town still stands.