One of the most tragic shipping accidents off the coast of England occurred in December 1875 when the transatlantic steamer ‘Deutschland’ ran aground on a sand bank in the Thames Estuary. The steamer, on its way to America, was far off course on the night of 7th December when the notorious sand bank was encountered. Although not far from land the ship was left to the mercy of the sea for 30 hours before another vessel came to its assistance. In the meantime 16 crew members and 44 passengers had drowned, including five Franciscan nuns from Germany.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote what is possibly his most famous poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ a year after that disaster. Moved by an account in ‘The Times’ of the shipping disaster off the Kent coast and the bravery of the five German nuns, Hopkins penned the immortal lines with which he is often associated today. ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is a work of high complexity, full of allegory and symbolism and is today regarded as one of the great poems in the English language.
I was reminded of Hopkins and the five German nuns who perished on the Deutschland when a few Sundays ago I visited Leyton in East London and on the way passed through Stratford. The latter place is the home of the 2012 Olympic Stadium but in 1875 was to where the bodies of the nuns were brought to the local Franciscan Church before being buried in St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Leyton. Leyton, once home to thousands of Irish emigrants, is the location of a vast Catholic cemetery serving several parishes in that part of London.
I decided to pay my respects at the graveside of the Deutschland casualties and so passed through housing estates which were once Irish, but obviously were no longer so, before reaching St. Patrick’s Cemetery. The Irish connection was immediately noticed when I overheard Irish accents from a small number of people conversing at the entrance gate to the Catholic cemetery. My quest for the grave of the Deutschland nuns seemed unlikely to succeed as I surveyed the vast acreage which was St. Patricks. As it was Sunday there was no one on duty to guide me and questions asked of a few people attending graves enlisted no useful information until I encountered three ladies who appeared to me to have the bearing and serenity which I associate with nuns. No they were not members of any religious order but one of them did recall attending the centenary commemoration for the deceased nuns in St. Francis Church, Stratford in 1957, following which she herself sought out the last resting place of the nuns. My search was over and I soon stood at the graveside of the four nuns whose remains were recovered from the stricken Deutschland. The fifth nun’s body had been swept away and was never found. The grave memorial is located in a central part of the cemetery given over to members of various religious orders. Nearby were the graves of the Sisters of Mercy of Walthamstow. The grave which I sought had a stone monument with the inscription:-
‘Pray for the repose of the souls of
Franciscan Sisters from Germany, who lost their lives
Near Harwich in the ship wreck of the “Deutschland”, December 7th,
1875. Four were buried here, December 13th R.I.P.’
The words ‘not found’ were added after Henrica Fassbender’s name.
My journey was prompted by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who died of typhoid in Dublin in 1889. A relatively frequent visitor to Monasterevin, Hopkins is remembered each year in the Hopkins Summer School founded by poet Desmond Egan many years ago. Coincidentally Hopkins, who immortalised the German nuns of the Deutschland disaster, was born in Stratford, the place to where their bodies were brought prior to burial in Leyton’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery.
When Hopkins died in Dublin in June 1889 he was not known as a poet. It was the English poet Robert Bridges who arranged for his work to be published. On the centenary of his death a plaque was unveiled to Hopkins in Westminster Abbey. It read, ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. 1844-1889 Priest and Poet. “Immortal Diamond” buried in Glasnevin Dublin.’
Today Hopkins, who in his lifetime was a recluse, is acclaimed as a poet of the first order and his work of 35 stanzas, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is for many his greatest masterpiece. The nuns of the Deutschland will never be forgotten thanks to Gerard Manley Hopkins.