Waves crashing over rocky outcrops
© Historic England MF001449
© Historic England MF001449

The Wreck of the ‘Deutschland’

In a snowstorm on 6 December 1875 the Deutschland emigrant ship, outward-bound from Bremen, in Germany via Southampton for New York, struck the infamous Kentish Knock offshore sandbank at the entrance to the Thames Estuary.

She broke her back on the sands and foundered with the loss of about 57 passengers, both men and women; the conditions which had caused the wreck in the first place also preventing her from being seen from shore, and thus assistance being given. In the immediate aftermath of the wreck the captain accused passing ships of failing to answer his vessel's signals of distress.

The earliest known shipwreck on the Kentish Knock was in the 17th century, but it is very probable that there were earlier wrecks for which the documentary evidence has not survived.

The fate of the passengers

The loss of any emigrant ship had a strong international dimension and was accordingly extensively reported in English in both the 'Times' of London and the 'New York Times', for there was a sad irony in the deaths of passengers who had taken ship in search of a better life. Five Franciscan nuns from Salzkotten (now in Nordrhein-Westfalen, western Germany), named Barbara Hultenschmidt, Henrika Fassbender, Norbeta Reinkobe, Aurea Badziura and Brigitta Damhorst, died in the wreck. They were fleeing religious oppression at home as a result of anti-Catholic laws enacted as part of Otto von Bismarck's 'Kulturkampf' ("culture struggle") aimed at building centralised and unified German state resisting outside influences. One reader moved by the story in the London press was the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote a moving and highly romanticised poem based on the incident, 'The Wreck of the Deutschland'. As Hopkins put it: 'Rhine refused them: Thames would ruin them'.

Differing perspectives

The 'New York Times', in the best traditions of Victorian melodrama, focused on the "weirdness of the scene". The newspaper contrasted the nuns' "terror-stricken conduct", frozen with terror, and "deaf to all entreaties", with the "plucky" behaviour of the stewardess who tried to encourage them to leave the saloon for rigging as the water rose around them. One of the nuns was heard to cry in a voice heard above the storm "O my God, make it quick, make it quick". Hopkins, however, saw these words as an example of courage in the fate of extremity, and as the active seeking of the soul reaching towards God:

She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
  Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails,
   Was calling, "Oh Christ, Christ, come quickly",
 The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

The aftermath

Questions were asked in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the wreck: Bismarck's policies may have led to the nuns' exile, but he was forced to rush through new measures in 1877 to ensure the safety of German ships at sea. For their part, the British authorities had published annual statistics and conducted official inquiries for wrecks within territorial waters since the 1850s as well as British ships lost overseas. An inquiry was opened at Harwich to address criticism from survivors and crew that rockets had been fired from Harwich in answer to the signals of distress from the vessel, raising hopes of rescue, but no one had come until much later. Following a second wreck in the area, a lifeboat was sent to Harwich without waiting for a station to be built. To this day, the exact identities and numbers of those lost remains uncertain, discrepancies in the passenger lists being compounded by language difficulties.

The wreck today

In recent years a possible location for the wreck has been investigated on the Kentish Knock, finds including broken crockery with the crest of her owners, the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company. Hopkins' poem picked up on a detail of survivors' reports that the ship's screw propeller had parted from the vessel as the captain attempted to reverse her off the Kentish Knock: "the whorl and the wheel/Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with". His eye for this important detail was borne out by the archaeological investigation, which could find no evidence of the screw propeller near the principal wreck site. This factor alone would have sealed the fate of the Deutschland, leaving her helpless as the waters washed over her.