The public's fascination with disasters, even when cholera was quietly carrying off thousands, was not particular to the period in which Dickens wrote David Copperfield — witness the celebrity of J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship — "Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, typhoon coming on" — in 1840. But in that Turner masterpiece inspired by the artist's indignation a great force of nature is destroying an abomination — the power of God is unleashed upon an example of a barbarous institution, the African slave trade. However, even to the profoundly religious in nineteenth-century Britain most shipwrecks must have seemed senseless, a manifestation of the sheer power of the nature in relation to the puniness of humanity's much vaunted "modern technology" and imperial trade. Moreover, Dickens's entitling the fifty-fifth chapter "Tempest" rather than "Storm" suggests that the novelist intended an allusion to the Shakespeare tragi-comedy in which Providence enacts nemesis on Prospero's enemies by forcing them ashore to face his judgment. In David Copperfield the southeastern gale which destroys the schooner from Spain or Portugal on the Yarmouth Denes is Providence's — and the novelist's — vehicle for exacting poetic justice upon the seducer of Little Em'ly, the privileged scion of the upper classes, James Steerforth.
Although Charles Dickens may have had no particular shipwreck in mind when composing the David Copperfield instalment containing the great Yarmouth tempest and the destruction of Steerforth's vessel, scanning the pages of The Illustrated London News for 1849-50, one can readily appreciate that reports of such shipwrecks, especially on England's coasts, whether of British, American, or continental vessels were unfortunately far from uncommon in those years, even though records were being set for the fastest time for the passages between New Zealand, Australia, California, New York, and English ports such as Portsmouth and Liverpool. These include — often with great loss of life in the case of the emigrant ships — in a single year alone the wreck of H. M. S. Mutine (21 December 1848), The Tigress (21 January 1849), the steamer Forth (13 January 1849), the brig Newcastle (21 February 1849), the yacht Artemis and the emigrant ship Floridian (28 February 1849), the emigrant ship Hannah (29 March 1849), the emigrant ship Maria (10 May 1849), the steamer Empire (17 May 1849), the emigrant ship Charles Bartlett (27 June 1849), the brig St. John (7 September 1849), the Mischief (22 October 1849), and the Ann Gales (8 December 1849). Dickens need not have actually witnessed any of these wrecks, of course, in order to compose his account of the Yarmouth wreck, for newspaper accounts by "eye-witnesses" were legion, and shipwrecks in general were favourite subjects for the illustrated press. In particular, the wrecks of The Tigress so close to a major city and Floridian with such loss of life were vividly realized in the pages of The Illustrated London News, which was certainly a possible source for both the novelist and his illustrator.
Broadstairs, Kent. Click on thumbnail for a larger image, information about Dickens in Broadstairs, and photographs of places he stayed while there.
The wreck that occurred closest to the time at which Dickens wrote the storm chapters for the October 1850 instalment, when he was staying at the seaside resort of Broadstairs, Kent, on the English Channel, would be that of the steamer Orion (18 June 1850). However, wrecks that most closely resemble that described in the seventeenth monthly instalment of David Copperfield, Chapter 55, "Tempest" (Sept., 1850) include that of the brig Vine, lost off Whitby (14 January 1850), the H. M. steam-packet Onyx at Ostend (6 February 1850), the steamer Royal Adelaide on the Tongue Sand, in a great gale off Margate, with 300 lives lost (30 March 1850, "shipwrecks all along the coasts"), and H. M. steamer Cuckoo off the banks of Jersey (15 May 1850). From a purely artistic point of view, the wrecks of the emigrant ship Floridian, the brig Vine, the East Indiaman Tigress, and the Indiaman Sarah, all so well illustrated and reported upon in the ILN, are particularly relevant.
Wreck of "The Tigress." ILN 3 February 1849.
Wreck of the "Tigress," off the Round-Down Cliff, Dover. 
On Sunday night week, the East Indiaman the Tigress, went on shore to the westward of the Shakespeare Cliff, Dover; in a few days she became a total wreck, and portions of her cargo strewed the beach as far as the South Foreland. The prospect of booty attracted hundreds of the lower orders, men, women, and children, to the shore, eager to possess themselves of floating pieces of the wrecked ship, spices, cocoa-nuts, or anything else that came in their way, to make lawful prize; and, unfortunately, in one or two instances, despite the vigilance of the officers of customs and coast-guard boatmen, casks or puncheons of rum, which had been washed ashore, were stove in, and the contents carried off in the crows of hats, in boots, or any available article at hand; and a disgusting scene of drunkenness ensued — men, women, and children lying on the beach, huddled together in the worst state of intoxication so that many of them were nearly drowned by the rising of the tide, whilst others were rendered so insensible through the drink, that they were removed on shutters. 
Wreck of the "Floridian," Emigrant Ship, on the Long Sands, off Harwich.
Nearly 200 Lives Lost. [ILN, 10 March 1849.
We have to record this week one of the most frightful catastrophes that, probably, ever occurred on the English coast, viz. the total loss of a large emigrant ship, on the Long Sands, near Harwich, with nearly 200 souls on board, during the tempestuous and fearful weather on Wednesday (last week [i. e., 7 March]). The gale commenced in the early part of Wednesday morning, the wind blowing from the soth-west; and, as the day advanced, the violence of the storm increased, and continued till between six and seven o'clock in the evening. Aheavy snow-storm followed, and lasted till midnight.
During the prevalence of the storm on Thursday several vessels were wrecked on the Long Sands: among them was a Dutch Indiaman, named the Dyle, Captain Laws, bound from Antwerp to Havannah, the crew of which (with the exception of one poor fellow) were picked up by her Majesty's revenue-cutter Scout, and landed at Harwich. A large schooner shared a similar fate on the same sands, with the loss of every soul of her crew. Seven or eight total losses are also reported as having happened on the adjacent shoals, but these do not form the extent of the disasters. Her Majesty's revenue-cutter, Petrel, has communicated the melancholy intelligence of the appalling loss of an emigrant ship on the same sands, and that nearly 200 beings perished with her. Only four of the many on board survived, and these the Petrel rescued. . . . .
The ill-fated vessel was the bark Floridian, 500 tons burden, Mr. E. D. Whitmore, master, from Antwerp. She was the property of Mr. E. D. Hulbert, of New York, and had been chartered by a German company for the conveyance of emigrants to the United States. The number of emigrants that had taken a passage by her at Antwerp, and had gone on board before she weighed anchor, is stated to have been from 176 to 200. They comprised young, respectable German agricultural labourers, with their wives and families, and many mechanics. Amongst the number on board were from 50 to 60 women, and between 20 and 30 children. The ship was worked by a crew of nearly 20, part of whom were Englishmen, commanded by a Captain Whitmore; a surgeon being on board to attend the emigrants. It was late on Thursday when the Floridian put out to sea. The course taken after clearing the Flemish banks was westward for the Straits of Dover. The weather continued favourable up to 12 o'clock, when it changed for the worse,with hail and snow.
Daybreak on Wednesday brought fearful weather; the wind had sprung up terrifically, with a great fall of snow, and a heavy rolling sea. The ship kept on her course, the intention being to make for the South Foreland light; but at three o'clock P. M. she struck with such terrific force, that her planks and false keel immediately rushed up alongside. A scene of horror instantly presented itself on deck — the emigrants hastened on the deck in frantic dismay. Within a few moments of the vessel striking, the sea broke into her hull, blowing up the hatchways, and sweeping many of the poor creatures overboard, while others were drowned in their berths, being unable to rise from the effects of sea sickness. Captain Whitmore, perceiving the inevitable destruction of his ship, gave orders to his men to launch the boats. The first boat broke adrift the moment it was launched, and, it is said, capsized directly with two men who were in it. The moment the second boat was lowered, the captain jumped into it with Mrs. Whitmore (his wife). This led to a desperate rush towards the craft. Some 20 or 30 poor creatures, men and women, leaped from the quarter-deck of the foundering ship into the boat; the result was, that it also instantly capsized, and the whole party were precipitated overboard and lost. The crew took to the rigging, to which they lashed themselves, and upwards of 100 of the emigrants congregated on the quarter-deck. Here they had not been more than an hour before the ship broke in two, amidships. The mainmast fell over the side with a fearful crash and a [151/152] tremendous sea carried away the whole of the quarter-deck with the mass of human beings on it. A frightful shriek filled the air, and the next moment the unfortunate creatures were struggling in the deep. By great efforts eight or ten were rescued by the men who had secured themselves in the rigging. The moment the ship broke in two, her cargo, mostly merchandise, floated out and intermingled with the drowning sufferers. For some time men, women, and children were to be seen floating about on the packages. Ere night, however, all had disappeared.
Loss of the Brig "Vine," of Bristol, at Whitby. ILN 26 January 1850.
An exciting scene occurred at Whitby on Monday, the 14th [of January, 1850] inst., when the brig Vine, of Bristol, laden with oats, sprung a leak off the pier, and, either through ignorance of the time of high-water or a want of knowledge of the port he was about to enter, the master attempted to take the harbour about one o'clock P. M., the tide then being very little past ebb, when the vessel, as a matter of course, struck upon the sands, about 200 yards from the entrance to the harbour. The crew left the vessel by the life-boat, except the master, Captain John Honey, who, we understand, is part owner, who refused to leave the vessel. As the tide rose, the wind, which was blowing strong from the S. E., increased to a complete gale, and the sea ran very heavily, which soon stove in one side of the vessel and dismasted her. The master still stuck to the vessel, and the storm increased. . . . 
Wreck of an Indiaman. ILN 16 February 1850.
"Wreck of an Indiaman." mdash; From a Picture by Mr. Daniell. 
The scene of desolation which our great marine painter, the late Mr. Daniell, has here so fearfully portrayed has, it is feared, been paralleled in the calamities of the past week.
On Sunday night last, another violent gale from the W.S.W. visited London and its suburbs, and, up to ten o'clock on Monday night, continued with alarming force. The wind guage at Lloyd's [of London, Marine Assurance Agents] fully illustrated its fury, the pressure on the face attached to the apparatus on the summit of the Royal Exchange being, in the course of Monday evening, no less than from 12 lb. to 13 lb., sufficient to excite no ordinary uneasiness for the safety of the shipping.
Among the losses reported is the wreck of a fine West Indiaman, and, it is feared, the loss of all on board of her. on Tuesday, the Sarah, Bridges master, bound from Jamaica for London, made the Margate-roads, and in the course of the forenoon was taken in town by the Trinity steam-tug. As the day advanced, the gale sprang up with destructive fury. The ship and the tug laboured sorely; and between three and four o'clock in the afternoon, when running through the Prince's Channel, the towing hawser snapped asunder, and the ship got adrift. The tug immediately brought up, in the hope that the weather might moderate. The wind, however, continued to increase until it blew a perfect hurricane, and about midnight the steamer was driven from her anchorage. She lost cable and anchor, and was compelled to run for safety. The Sarah was then lost sight of, and from the tempestuous weather that prevailed during the following twenty-four hours, and the fact that nothing has been seen of her since, although she was right in the track of vessels trading to and from the river, coupled with the circumstance that a quantity of West India produce has been picked up in the vicinity of where she went adrift, as also pieces of wreck apparently of the same class of vessel, there is little doubt that she perished, with all hands. Several casks of rum have been seen floating about; and Mr. Cullum, the master of the General Steam Navigation Company's ship Soho, reports having passed part of the wreck of a ship, a quantity of cocoa-nuts and pimento cakes, about a dozen miles to the eastward of the North Foreland, and consequently almost in the very place the Sarah is suspected to have been lost. Whether this wreck belonged to the Sarah or not, however, it is evident that a large ship was lost in the neighbourhood. At present the number of the crew has not been ascertained, nor whether there were any passengers on board.
Modern navigational devices, improved charts, steel-hulled ships, and better trained navigators, together with modern communications technology and improved weather forecasting, have resulted in a sharp decline in the loss of shipping in the twentieth century, aside, of course, from the periods of global conflict that resulted in the loss of so many lives in the navies and merchant marine services between 1914 and 1918, and again between 1939 and 1945. When compared to the foregoing newspaper accounts, Dickens's narrative of Steerforth's shipwreck seems particularly vivid and detailed, its verisimilitude being assisted by the reader's strongly apprehended sense of the narrator's voice, movements, and feelings throughout the tempest.
- A Transcription of Charles Dickens's "A Bundle of Emigrants' Letters" (30 March 1850)
- The wreck of the "Tigress," off the Round-Down Cliff, Dover
- Loss of the Brig Vine, of Bristol, at Whitby
- Wreck of an Indiaman
- The Shipwreck as Paradigm
- The reality of shipwreck
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts-on-File and Checkmark, 1999.
Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.
Last modified 23 September 2010