Hopkins gave the nuns a heroic role in his poem but the real truth, as eyewitness accounts made clear, is more prosaic. Here's the text of my article in the Daily Express telling the full story
At six o’clock in the morning of Tuesday 7 December, 1875, a small boat washed ashore at Sheerness in Kent. It contained three men: two were dead, but the third was still alive. He explained in broken English that his name was August Beck and he was the quartermaster of a German transatlantic liner, the SS Deutschland, which had hit a sandbank in the Thames estuary. As far as he knew, the passengers and crew were still on the wrecked ship, at the mercy of the elements.
The rescue mission that followed would be a media sensation. The loss of 62 lives would lead to national soul-searching over the lack of coastal lifeboat provision.
Meanwhile posterity focused on five Catholic nuns on board, whose deaths were commemorated in verse by an obscure priest called Gerard Manley Hopkins. His revolutionary composition was way ahead of its time and was not published until long after his death – the centenary of publication is next year – when it was finally recognised as a masterpiece.
The tragedy, and Hopkins’ attempts to tell the world about it, are the subject of my new novel The Hopkins Conundrum, which binds together the real events with a fictional modern narrative. As my novel shows, the nuns’ reaction to terror was less heroic and more human than history and literature have assumed.
The Deutschland, based in the port of Bremen, was one of the largest and most luxurious of the North German Lloyd line’s Atlantic fleet. She could carry 800 passengers, but most travellers avoided the winter months and there were only 113 passengers aboard – with a crew of 99 – when she sent out for New York on the afternoon of Saturday 4 December. Amid reports of bad weather, Captain Edward Brickenstein decided to wait before entering the North Sea, whose relatively shallow waters are notoriously dangerous.
After anchoring in thick fog, he continued in the morning. But the fog gave way to a gale, and in blizzard conditions the ship went badly off course. Hopelessly lost, she ran aground on the Kentish Knock, a submerged sandbank far out in the mouth of the Thames Estuary, just before dawn on Monday 6 December. Trying to reverse off, she broke her propeller and ended up stuck even faster.
An ill-fated attempt was made to launch lifeboats but after three of them were dashed clean away – Quartermaster Beck was to be the only survivor – this was abandoned. With the closest land 25 miles away, the only option was to fire rockets and hope they could be seen through the terrible weather before the tide rose and submerged the badly leaking ship.
The nearest light vessel saw the rockets and tried unsuccessfully to contact passing shipping. Rockets from the lightship were also seen at Harwich, on the Essex coast, but there was no way of knowing the nature or location of the wreck.
It was not until the weather improved on 7 December that the steam tug Liverpool set out. When it reached the Deutschland, 69 passengers and 85 crew were still alive, most of them clinging or tied to the rigging. But scores of others had been swept off into the roaring sea.
Among the dead were five Franciscan nuns, in their twenties and early thirties, who had been travelling to the United States from their convent in Prussia. After the government of Chancellor Bismarck had passed a series of hostile laws targeting the Catholic Church, they were emigrating to run a mission hospital in St Louis. Their story quickly became a focus of public attention. Thousands followed the cortege from their funeral in East London, where Cardinal Henry Manning, leader of England’s Catholics, gave the oration.For him, their role had been one of noble sacrifice. “When at length a means of escape was at hand, they allowed others to take their places and save themselves,” he said.
His remarks were widely reported, and one of those reading them was Hopkins, a young priest living at a Jesuit seminary in North Wales. He embarked on a massive poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, which he dedicated to the “happy memory” of the dead nuns. He also gave the nuns a heroic role. In the lines “Sister, a sister calling/A master, her master and mine!” he focused on one of their number shouting majestically into the night. Later in the poem he implied that she had given the other passengers heart.
The real truth, as eyewitness accounts made clear, is more prosaic. The nuns were simply too terrified to go on deck – and a stewardess nearly drowned trying to persuade them. Only one, their leader Sister Henrica, attempted to climb out of a skylight when she saw that drowning was otherwise inevitable .In a hideous twist, she was swept away as she did so. According to the witnesses, another nun calling out into the night was begging God to make her death quick, and the cries were harrowing.No one who heard them ever forgot them.
Not that it should change our view of the poem or the tragedy. Sean Street, author of the definitive history The Wreck of the Deutschland, writes: “Hopkins’ many-layered work is today held to be one of the glories of English poetry, and one that presages many of the experiments and developments of the 20th century. In it, the details behind the inspiration – who the nun was, what she said, how she died – become unimportant. It is as a catalyst for genius that she has become an immortal part of literature.”
Unfortunately for Hopkins himself, the poem was too complex for his own age. Its bizarre rhythm – with line lengths ranging from four to 23 syllables – and often baffling syntax and vocabulary made it incomprehensible to his contemporaries. It was not until 1918, nearly 20 years after Hopkins’ own death, that his old university friend, the poet laureate Robert Bridges, published the poem. Its power has haunted most people who read it – even if they also struggle to understand it.
In the meantime, an inquiry was held in London into the causes of the shipwreck, and the blame was laid squarely at the feet of Captain Brickenstein for letting the Deutschland veer so badly off course.
But the lack of adequate lifeboat provision in Harwich also became a matter of national shame. “On the face of the evidence taken yesterday at Harwich, we are sorry to say that the loss of life would seem mainly attributable to gross neglect on the part of an important English seaport,” wrote one newspaper editorial. As a result of the scandal, donations poured in, and a lifeboat station opened in the town the following year.
Even then, tragedies still happened. Just five years later, the lifeboat itself was overturned in a gale, killing her captain. The treacherous waters of England’s east coast had shown once more that they were the real masters.