Event: Shipwrecks 1847, 1851.
‘A great to do here. A steamer lost on the Goodwin yesterday, and our men bringing in no end of cattle and sheep. I stood a supper for them last night, to the unbounded gratification of Broadstairs. They came in from the Wreck very wet and tired, and very much disconcerted by the nature of their prize – which I suppose after all will have to be re-committed to the Sea, when the hides and tallow are secured. One lean-faced boatman murmured, when they were all ruminative over the bodies as they lay on the Pier, “Couldn’t sassages be made on it?” - but retired in confusion shortly afterwards, overwhelmed by the execrations of the bystanders.’ Letter to Henry Austin, 8 September 1851.
While staying in Fort House, Broadstairs in 1843, Dickens wrote to his American friend Cornelius Felton describing the Goodwin Sands, ‘whence floating lights perpetually wink after dark, as if they were carrying on intrigues with the servants. Also there is a big lighthouse called the ‘North Foreland’ on a hill behind the village’.1 The Goodwin Sands, about 7 miles off the coast of Broadstairs, were notoriously dangerous in stormy weather. Dickens’s study looked directly over the sea and the lifeguard station under the windows would have provided a constant reminder of the perils associated with this attractive coastline. Dickens was fascinated by storms, and vividly described the scene in 1851 after ‘a steamer laden with cattle going from Rotterdam to the London market, was wrecked on the Goodwin – on which occasion, by the bye, the coming in at night of our Salvage Luggers laden with dead cattle which were hoisted up upon the Pier, where they lay in heaps, was a most picturesque and striking sight.’2
The last chapters of David Copperfield had been written in Fort House the year before, and it is tempting to think that the Yarmouth storm in which Ham and Steerforth both drown may have been inspired by Dickens’s observation of the Goodwins in tempestuous weather. David himself avers that ‘I have started up so vividly impressed by it, that its fury has yet seemed raging in my quiet room, in the still night. … I have an association between it and a stormy wind, or the lightest mention of a seashore, as strong as any of which my mind is conscious.’3
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.
House, Madeline, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, eds. The Pilgrim Edition: The Letters of Charles Dickens. Volume 3: 1842-1843. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Graham, Kathleen Tillotson and Nina Burgis, eds. The Pilgrim Edition: The Letters of Charles Dickens. Volume 6: 1850-1852. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.