Heroes and Rogues on the ‘Victorian Titanic’

The wrecking of RMS Tayleur made headlines around the world almost 60 years before the Titanic. Both ships were run by the White Star Line, both were heralded as the most splendid ships of their time – and both sank in tragic circumstances on their maiden voyages.

RMS Tayleur WreckingThe wrecking of RMS Tayleur. 

Source: Image courtesy of Gill Hoffs

On 19 January 1854, the Tayleur, the largest merchant vessel of her type in the world, left Liverpool for Australia. Packed with approximately 580 emigrants, her hold stuffed with cargo, the iron clipper was all set to race a wooden White Star Line vessel to the Antipodes. Two days into her maiden voyage, the ship crashed into a cliff in the middle of Dublin Bay.

Among the hundreds of travellers on board were a number of interesting characters.

The Alleged Embezzler’s Wife

A middle-aged woman, who admitted to having £3,000 stitched into her stays (an undergarment like a corset), was married to a bank employee in the Liverpool area who was alleged to have embezzled a large sum from his workplace. Many of the men and women on board ships of the time (and certainly the RMS Tayleur) sewed their cash and valuables into their clothing, adding to the weight of the garments, especially when coins were being taken overseas. The weight and constrictive nature of their clothing contributed to the high death rate among female passengers on the Tayleur (41% of the men died compared to 97% of the women). 

The Bank Robber

A young Irishman came unstuck after losing all he possessed on the Tayleur and writing home for more cash. He was linked to the theft of a bag of money left outside a bank, and it turned out he had said he was sailing for America when really he was making for the Australian Gold Rush.

The Ex-Convict

After drunkenly slaughtering a sheep with his friend, a young father was transported to Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) and pardoned in time to make his fortune in the Australian Gold Rush. He returned to England in search of his long-lost fiancée and son, married his sweetheart, and was taking them and a cargo of shoes (to sell to other immigrants) back to Australia when the Tayleur sank.

Australian Gold RushMany emigrants on the RMS Tayleur were looking to make their fortune in the Australian gold rush.

Source: australiangeographic.com.au

The Wreck Survivors

Shipwrecks were horribly common at the time of the Tayleur tragedy, with an average of 2 or 3 vessels wrecking in British and Irish waters every day. At least one family and several individuals had survived a previous shipwreck before embarking on another journey on what was hailed as the safest and most luxurious emigrant vessel in the world.

The Gifted Mariner

The captain of the Tayleur was headhunted for this prestigious post after a previous record-breaking voyage. His logbook had been used as a teaching aid for other mariners and he was highly regarded in a time of rogues and drunkards, presented with silver-plate presents by his passengers, and hailed as kindly and dedicated to his work.

The Globe-Trotting Doctor

The second son of a clan chief in rural Scotland, this doctor received his exam results while in Lima, Peru, and had already worked in Australia for a while before travelling back to Fife to persuade his wife to accompany him to Melbourne with their two little boys and maidservant.

Some survived, some died, and some were heralded as heroes. To find out more about their fates and the circumstances that lead to such horrific loss of life, read “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” from Pen & Sword Books (http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Sinking-of-RMS-Tayleur/p/6053/) or email gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk for further details.

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