Most people haven’t heard about the first major White Star Line disaster, which occurred nearly 60 years before an iceberg ended the maiden voyage of arguably the most famous ship of the modern age. I hadn’t until a curator at Warrington Museum in the north-west of England told me the source of the porthole lying, minus its ship and unnaturally dry, in a display case. He advised me to read the survivors’ stories and, after a lot of crying (me not him), these became the subject of my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014).
It seems clear, after reading contemporary accounts and comments and researching the lives of the people involved as much as the internet allowed, that there’s good reason for this disaster – which was reported with horror and ghoulish attention to detail (headless bodies, hacked off finger etc.) around the world at the time – to have been forgotten just a few generations later. A cover-up.
|'Death - The Poor Man's Friend' (John Leech, Punch, 1845)|
Built with unwise haste to transport people and goods to the Australian Gold Rush, the Tayleur left Liverpool 160 years ago with much hype only to sink two days later after crashing into the base of a cliff in the middle of the day. More than half of those on board died despite being close enough to land for some of the travellers to jump to safety. The statistics of the survivors are shocking: 3% of women and 4% of children were saved compared to 59% of the men. But that wasn’t what appalled the Victorian public.
To them, it was the death of a dream of safety on the waves, of Victorian Britain’s might and power over the ocean and the forces of nature herself. The RMS Tayleur was the largest ship of her type in the world at the time, both monstrous and luxurious, with airy berths and two flush toilets provided for the approximately 700 travellers on board. She was heralded as the ship to board – safe, clean, and the very pinnacle of modernity. In a time of several shipwrecks a day in British and Irish waters alone, high mortality rates and miserable living conditions for many on land meant the hope of health and a fortune drew thousands to the goldfields overseas, and a ship like the White Star Line’s Tayleur seemed the safest bet to get them there – making a fortune for the shipping companies and their associates at the same time.
Unfortunately, the Tayleur’s revolutionary iron hull meant her compasses didn’t work. The ropes were too new, unseasoned and stretchy and too thick to fit through the pulleys and control the sails. The masts were improperly positioned, the crew unfamiliar with each other and the ship. And when the captain ordered the anchors dropped in a final desperate effort to swing the ship away from the island rising ‘like a mountain from the sea’ both chains snapped ‘like a carrot’ leaving the Tayleur to wreck and sink at the foot of an island off the coast of Dublin.
|The RMS Tayleur|
There was much skulduggery in the aftermath, including a mysterious 'Mr Jones' who made the captain and crew leave the inquest before it even began. The whole story is unlikely to be unravelled after so many years and the admitted burning of papers by at least one of the rich men involved. But this brave (or foolhardy) journalist's words indicate the Tayleur was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the media was complicit in her fate:
'A skinflint shipowner will withdraw every advertisement he can influence, and cut off your American news, if you presume to challenge the seaworthiness of the Tayleur; what business is it of yours if two or three hundred emigrants go to the bottom? You are not one of them!' (Elgin Courier, 28 April 1854)
Although the shipwreck was rarely spoken of in the years after the tragedy, resources such as the British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) and Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.co.uk/) have meant the travellers involved can be acknowledged 160 years later. Sadly, those responsible for the disaster and the cover-up escaped justice long ago. But the heroes of the wreck can be remembered with pride once again.
Thanks, Gill! The story of the RMS Tayleur is endlessly fascinating, yet heartbreaking too.
'The Sinking of RMS Tayleur' by Gill Hoffs is available from bookshops or online at
If you have any information on the RMS Tayleur, you can contact Gill at firstname.lastname@example.org or @GillHoffs on Twitter