Saturday 21 December 2019

"Rhine Refused them, Thames would ruin them" The Wreck of the Deutschland, St Patricks Catholic Cemetery, Leytonstone

Pray for the Souls of Barbara Hultenschmidt Henrica Fassbender (not found) Norberta Reinkober Aurea Badziura Brigitta Damhorst.
Franciscan Nuns from Germany who were Drowned near Harwich in the wreck of the Deutschland Dec 7th 1875. Four of whom were interred here Decr. 13th. RIP

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round
Gerard Manley Hopkins – The Wreck of the Deutschland

We last week reported the stranding and wreck, on the Kentish Knock, some 25 miles from Harwich, of the North German Lloyd Steamer Deutschland, bound from Bremerhaven to New York. The Official Gazette of the German Empire publishes the list persons saved and missing, both of the crew and passengers. Forty-eight male passengers, women and children, and 86 of the crew were saved. Forty-four passengers are missing, including the bodies landed, but not yet identified. It is estimated that of the crew twenty perished.
Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 17 December 1875

In December 1875 the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was studying at St Beuno's, near St Asaph in North Wales. He had given up writing poetry when his religious superior asked him to write a poem to commemorate the loss of 5 nuns from Salzkotten in the foundering of the German ship the SS Deutschland. The nuns were fleeing religious persecution in Germany to begin a new life in the United States in the Saint Boniface Hospital in Carondelet, a town in Missouri south of St. Louis, where nineteen sisters of their order were already working as nurses. Hopkins dedicated his famous (and difficult) poem to “to the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875,” and based many details in his ode on incidents described in the newspapers. Before being buried together in St. Patricks Cemetery, Leytonstone, the bodies of the nuns were taken to the church of St Francis of Assisi on the Grove in Stratford. Hopkins had grown living across the road from the church, at number 87. 

The inquest on the victims of this disaster was opened yesterday afternoon at the Cups Hotel, Harwich, before Mr. W. Codd, coroner for North Essex. The foreman of the jury was Captain John Whitmore, shipowner, of Harwich, and former captain of merchantmen. There were 13 bodies, only one of which was named. It was that of a little girl, Pauline Gmelch, aged two years and eight months, who was brought ashore dead in her mother's arms. The other bodies were identified by Carl Lukermann, the chief steward of the Deutschland, as passengers, but he had not been long enough acquainted with them to learn their names.

She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;

Captain Edward Brickenstein said the steamer left Bremen on Saturday, 4th inst., for New York, having on board about 107 emigrants and crew numbering all told; he did not know exactly how many passengers there were because the register of the ship was lost; the vessel was anchored in the river that night, and proceeded on her way the following morning; about half-past nine o'clock the wind was blowing freshly from the N.E., and snow fell at intervals, the wind afterwards increasing to a strong gale; at four o'clock on Sunday morning speed was reduced to nine and half knots per hour, by one half; the lead was heaved every half-hour, and about seven minutes before the vessel struck gave 17 fathoms water; when he saw the breakers through the snow ordered the engines to be reversed ; the propeller broke before the vessel had even changed her way, and then, the wind being dead astern, she drifted on to the sand; the boats were cleared and rockets fired; the water began making its way over the ship, and some lives were lost; an attempt was made to get out the boats, but they were carried away; there were lifebelts on board for more than 500 persons ; the rockets were unanswered on Monday night, and on Tuesday morning, 28 hours after the Deutschland got on the sand, the tug Liverpool took off 136 surviving passengers and crew ; but he believed that more lives might have been saved by a lifeboat on Monday night, deaths occurred through the passengers and others dropping from the rigging into the sea.

They fought with God's cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman's wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble

'Waiting for succour' The Penny Illustrated Paper, Christmas Double Number 18 December 1875

It is sad anyhow to know that these 200 fellow creatures remained for some 30 hours so close to the English coast, passed by English vessels during the day, and their signals of distress seen and answered from the land at night, and that, notwithstanding, many of them perished just the last. Their situation first became perilous on Monday night or rather Tuesday morning. At 2 a.m., Capt. Brickenstein, knowing that with the rising tide the ship would be water logged, ordered all the passengers to come on deck. Most of them obeyed the summons at once; others lingered below until it was too late; some of them, ill, weak, despairing of life even on deck, resolved to stay in their cabins and meet death without any further struggle to evade it. After three a.m. on Tuesday morning a scene of horror was witnessed. Some passengers clustered for safety within or upon the wheelhouse, and on the top of other slight structures on deck. Most of the crew and many of the emigrants went into the rigging, where they were safe enough as long as they could maintain their hold. But the intense cold and long exposure told a tale. The purser of the ship, though a strong man, relaxed his grasp, and fell into the sea. Women and children and men were one by one swept away from their shelters on the deck. Five German nuns clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister, a gaunt woman six feet high, calling out loudly and often, "Oh! Christ, come quickly!" until the end came. The shrieks and sobbing of women and children are described by the survivors as agonising. One brave sailor, who safe in the rigging, went down to try and save a child or woman who was drowning on deck. He was secured by a rope to the rigging, but a wave dashed him against the bulwarks of the vessel, and when daylight dawned his headless body, which was detained by rope, was seen swaying to and fro with the waves: In the dreadful excitement of these hours one man hung himself behind the wheelhouse, another hacked at his wrist with knife, hoping to die comparatively painless death by bleeding. was nearly eight o'clock before the tide and sea abated, and the survivors could venture to go on deck. At half-past 10 o'clock the tugboat from Harwich came alongside and brought all away without further accident. Most of the passengers are German emigrants, and is only right to add that they have received here from the first the utmost kindness and sympathy.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope's end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do…?

Divers are much wanted at the wreck, as there is a very general impression prevailing that all the bodies have not yet been taken off. A proper officer is also wanted to take charge of the property on board. It was impossible to form any idea of the rank or position the people who were brought ashore tonight. One body was that of well-to-do passenger, and another was that of one of the sailors. Nine of the bodies are those of women, but the clothes are so soiled by immersion in the water, and the light in the dead-house is so dull, that is impossible to form any opinion as to their position. There is a remarkably placid expression resting on the features of all the dead, most of whom resemble persons sleeping. Great credit is due to Mr. Inspector Guy, of the borough police, for the arrangement he has made for the reception of the bodies, and for the decent manner in which they have been laid out. The medical officers who have charge of the sick passengers (who are staying at the various hotels in the town) report that they are all progressing as favourably as can be expected. A German lady whose little child died in her arms on the way from the wreck, and who for several hours was so ill that her life was despaired of, was so far recovered this afternoon as to be permitted to see the body of her child. It is now hoped that no fatal results will ensue to those who were frostbitten, the medical skill of the locality being able to cope with all the cases which have come under their notice.

The drowning of the nuns in the Wreck of the Deutschland - Garrick Palmer 1975

Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling "O Christ, Christ, come quickly":
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

Five German nuns clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister, a gaunt woman six feet high, calling out loudly and often, 'Oh! Christ, come quickly!" until the end came.

Essex Newsman - Saturday 18 December 1875

Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth

Today the four Franciscan nuns who, with another, were lost in the Deutschland were interred in St. Patrick's Catholic cemetery, Leytonstone, near London. The bodies, as soon as it became known to the Franciscans at Stratford that they had been recovered, were taken charge of by one of the order and removed to the pretty little church belonging to the brotherhood at Stratford. The church had been draped, the alter, the pulpit and other portions of the scared edifice presented signs of mourning. In front of the altar were deposited the four coffins and no restriction whatever was placed on the free entry of the public, who were allowed to circulate as they pleased close by the temporary resting place of all that was mortal of the four unknown but honoured corpses. Long before the hour announced for the solemn dirge for the repose of the souls of the departed – eleven o’clock – the little church was crowded to the door, and when his Eminence cardinal Manning, accompanied by the officiating priest, entered, the crush in the body of the sacred building was very great. Immediately after coming in front of the altar, the Cardinal indicated to two of the Franciscans in attendance as to the coffins that he wished the lids removed, and that was at once done, his Grace pausing at the foot of each coffin and gazing for a few moments on the pale and placid countenances within. The bodies were dressed as they were in life, the hands folded tenderly in front, and it was remarked that although almost a week had passed since they met with a violent death the countenances were as sweetly composed and the complexions as clear as if they had merely slept. The coffins having been closed and the palls restored, four crosses of evergreens and lillies were placed one on each coffin by four sisters of the order, a solemn requim mass (Corem Archiepiscipo) was sung and at the close of this His Eminence the Cardinal archbishop delivered an impressive funeral oration.……  The large congregation then slowly left the church, but lingered with thousands of others in the streets adjoining until the bodies were removed. They were taken direct to St Patrick’s cemetery, about a mile distant, where they were interred in the presence of a vast concourse.
 Dublin Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 14 December 1875

The nuns in open coffins at St Francis of Assisi in Stratford, photographed by Henry Friedmann

On Monday the four nuns lost in the wreck were interred in the Catholic cemetery Leytonstone. A solemn dirge for the repose of the souls of the four sisters was sung in the Franciscan church at Stratford, and after mass the large congregation was addressed by Cardinal Manning, standing at the side of the coffins. He said he was at loss to find words for the occasion. If there was no man - there touched already that most beautiful though most mournful sight no words of his would move him. Why should they mourn why lament, for those noble souls whose careers, devoted to God, had been brought this suddenly to a close? What did they or the church know of the past of the four sisters? They had a home, peaceful and happy and fruitful in good works, in the great Fatherland in which the Catholic faith had struck roots so deeply that no storms can shake it. They were labouring  in peace-ministering consolation to the sick and dying, and training little children in the holy fear and love of God. Why was their Fatherland no longer a home to them? He would not answer the question. It would be a note of discord, and their hearts would hardly bear it. Nevertheless, that home was home no longer to them, and they were constrained by hard necessity to go forth as strangers from their own land, and embark on shipboard to meet the perils of the wintry sea. The Cardinal then gave a graphic account of the wreck of the Deutschland and of the long suffering of the deceased, who, devoting themselves for the great change which awaited them, furnished holy example to the others who were also lost in the wreck. The service for the dead was then proceeded with by the Cardinal, and the four coffins were removed and interred in the presence of vast concourse of persons.

Essex Newsman - Saturday 18 December 1875


  1. That was quiet a sad story not only of the Nuns but the passengers of the ship that was lost. Hard to understand why it could hav etaken so llong to rescue them. Good to see their headstone is still there and they can be remembered
    Have a good Christmas

    1. Sorry Bill, I've only just seen your comment. Death at sea must have been horrendous, not least because you must often have known you were probably going to die.
      Hope you had a good Christmas and all the best for the new year.