So19 talks with GILL HOFFS

The tragic wreck of the RMS Tayleur made headlines nearly 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. But the eras, passenger lists, and reasons for the foundering of the two ships were very different, making both the similarities and the contrasts—as well as the pathos of the story itself—thought-provoking indeed. Today, Angela Buckley—whose own book was featured on So19 last September—interviews Gill Hoffs about The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic, published by Pen and Sword Books in 2014. (We've linked the publisher's page for the book, but American readers should know that can be purchased in the U.S. as well.) Born and raised in Scotland, Gill Hoffs earned her BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow and built a career working with special-needs children. She won the Spilling Ink Nonfiction Prize in 2011 for her piece Black Fish, and her first book, Wild, appeared in 2012. Gill lives in the north of England with her husband and son. More information on Gill can be found on her website and Twitter feed. Angela Buckley, who chats with Gill today, is the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada; you can find out more about Angela and her book in her own Society Nineteen interview here. With thanks to both, So19 is pleased to present two fascinating authors talking about ships, survivors and stories. —SF

AB: I understand that your research into the sinking of RMS Tayleur began at your local museum with a display of chipped crockery and a brass porthole complete with barnacles. What drew your attention to these artefacts, and why did you decide to investigate their history?

GH: Warrington Museum and Art Gallery (to give it its full title) is located within this beautiful old building in the Warrington town centre, on the floors above the library, and is crammed full of 1930s cabinets and all manner of oddities.  Cannibal cutlery, fertility statues with outsized genitalia, and a two-headed mermaid, are just a few of the curios on show, and yet the porthole caught my eye.  It seemed a really strange thing to have on show in this inland town.  It wasn’t unusual enough to merit being collected and then donated by a long-dead bigwig (like the cursed Tibetan carving of a monk’s head, for example), but there wasn’t an obvious connection to the local area, either. 

A curator saw me looking and told me about the shipping industry that had once flourished on this stretch of the Mersey.  He advised me to Google the RMS Tayleur, the source of the porthole I had been admiring, and read the accounts of the survivors.  I did, and it kind of destroyed me for a while.  They were so awful, graphic and pained, and full of dreadful details.  I tried to think of other things, to rid my brain of the mental images conjured up by the accounts, but in the end the only thing that gave me peace was investigating the shipwreck and memorializing the people involved as best I could.

AB: As we’ll talk about in a bit, the book is set on board the emigrant ship. Did you have to learn about shipping? How did you transform the technical information into such a powerful and evocative story?
GH: Although I grew up in a fishing village on the west coast of Scotland, I knew sod all about shipping or sailing.  Luckily I know people who do, and they kindly helped me with the technical side of things.  My focus was very much on the social history of the situation and the people involved with this disaster.  Wherever possible I let them tell the story through the accounts they left behind, so instead of getting bogged down in the technical details (which can be a bit dry) I mainly had the captain, crew, and passengers with sailing experience explain that information instead.  Their accounts of drunk crewmen tying themselves up in sails at the top of the masts to get out of work, compasses leading them astray, and “waves rolling mountains high” take you on board that ill-fated ship in a way that explanations of the physics of magnetism wouldn’t. 

There was an enormous cover-up at the time of the tragedy. I felt it was crucial to finally give these unfortunate individuals a voice and a platform to be heard and remembered.  Using online resources—primarily the BritishNewspaper Archive—I read the newspapers (and accounts of other shipwrecks) that they would have read to get a sense of their world, their concerns, their humour, and their hopes.  I tried to include the juiciest quotes and facts, things that caught my interest or surprised me, and give the reader a glimpse of their ancestors’ lives. 

Focussing on what made me feel—whether that feeling was anger, despair, or, like them, hope—helped me pare the history back from an unwieldy mass of facts and accounts to a coherent and heart-breaking narrative, one that made me sob over my laptop on more than one occasion.

AB: When RMS Tayleur left Liverpool in 1854 bound for Australia, there were hundreds of emigrants on board. What drove so many people to leave the UK in the 1850s to seek a new life overseas?

GH: If you were anything other than well off, the UK wasn’t a great place to live at that time.  Disease, prejudice, and overcrowding made life difficult if not outright unpleasant for many.  Some of the (supposed) great and good would pay for the poor-but-able to emigrate to reduce the pressure at home and/or colonise elsewhere: at least ¾ of the 111 Irish on board the Tayleur had their passage paid, as did 1/3 of the Scottish and English passengers. The newspapers were full of accounts of what must have seemed like paradise to the people scraping a living in inner city cellars, or deciding whether it would be less awful to commit suicide or enter the workhouse. 

Somewhere like Australia, where you could eat fruit plucked straight from the trees and bushes or shoot dinner without a gamekeeper taking pot-shots at you for poaching, where there weren’t the same restrictions based on social class and profession, and where you might find a lump of gold in a riverbed and make your fortune, sounded like a dream come true.  Vessels like the newly built Tayleur helped thousands attempt to turn their own dreams into a new reality.

AB: Was it difficult to find first-hand accounts of the wreck, and what conclusions did you draw from them?

GH: It was surprisingly easy, mainly due to the excellent online resource I mentioned above, the British Newspaper Archive.  Because there were so many survivors to quote about such a large number of fatalities, and the Tayleur had been so hyped in the press just a few days prior to the wreck, there was worldwide coverage of the tragedy for months afterwards. That was also a result of bodies being washed up as far away as Scotland throughout the summer, sparking new stories and responses from relatives and locals. 

Survivors were interviewed and, because of the circumstances of the shipwreck, able to relate their story using heart-breaking detail.  The thing is, the survivors couldn’t leave the cliff the ship wrecked on until after everyone in the water was dead.  They were forced to cling to this near vertical cliff as the waves washed their friends and family from the rocks around them and fellow travellers screamed in the water below, falling silent only as they died.  They could not avoid bearing witness to their gruesome and desperate deaths.  The 290 who made it to safety were traumatized, battered, and clearly deeply affected by what they had seen and heard. 

As often seems to be the case, this horrific event brought out the best in many of those involved. I was heartened by the bravery and selflessness shown by strangers and tried to bear this in mind, especially when I found evidence that the shipping magnates had known all along that this vessel was likely doomed and had put pressure on the media to keep quiet about the dangers.  Horrifying stuff.

AB: One of the mysteries of the story is that of an anonymous baby, known as the Ocean Child. Can you tell us more about him and what happened to him after the shipwreck?

GH: This was devastating to research.  I mean, even though he’d have been long dead by now anyway—the shipwreck took place in January 1854—I still found this hard to think about while researching the wreck, and his story still makes me well up a bit. 

One of the last people to leave the wreck was an old German man.  A huge wave had swept the deck, washing dozens overboard, as he started to clamber over the side.  He looked back over his shoulder and saw a baby lying alone there on the deck.  Babies’ clothes then were more like christening robes than the form fitting outfits we use now, and there were probably air pockets between the layers of fabric that helped the infant stay afloat.  This amazing old man went back, picked up the baby, climbed off the ship and up the cliff with a broken arm while holding the baby by clenching the clothes between his teeth—what a guy! 

The baby was one of 14 known to have been on board the ship. When he was saved, he was well dressed, still breastfed, and completely alone.  Whoever was with him had died in the wreck.  The survivors didn’t even know his nationality, and he became known in the press as “Ocean Child.”  After being fostered by a succession of generous, well-intentioned people, he was eventually identified as ten-month-old Arthur Charles Griffiths of Herefordshire.  His grandmother retrieved him from Dublin and he was placed with a wet nurse near her home, but unfortunately he contracted dysentery and died a few days after his first birthday. Poor wee mite.

AB: You recount the stories of many of the individuals on the ill-fated vessel. Which ones touched you the most, and why did their experiences stand out?

GH: Arthur, the “Ocean Child,” was definitely one of them.  A brave young Yorkshireman, Edward Tew, who risked his life for an ultimately doomed little boy was another.  Then, of course, there was the Carby/Bunnings family, who were the only family to survive the shipwreck intact.  Samuel Carby was an ex-convict from Lincolnshire, said to be the inspiration for Magwitch in Great Expectations. He was transported to Tasmania after getting drunk and slaughtering a sheep with a friend while celebrating his impending marriage to the mother of his baby.  He made a fortune in the Australian Gold Rush and returned to England for them; when RMS Tayleur was going down he ran below decks to rescue them.  His wife and son were lying in their berth feeling rotten with seasickness. Instead of grabbing possessions such as the corset his wife had stitched 200 gold sovereigns into, he took his family and got them up to the top of the cliff. 

Another family who really stuck with me was that of the ship surgeon, Dr. Robert Hannay Cunningham.  He was a lovely man, bringing his wife and two young sons from Fife to the practice he’d set up in Melbourne. Even after losing his four-year-old, then his toddler, then his wife, he still kept going, trying to save others, and it killed him.  I visited his childhood home and hoped it would help me make my peace with his death, but it all still really bothers me.  The book was my attempt to exorcise the whole story from my head, but it didn’t work.  I think it’ll always be with me, somehow.

AB: The captain of the ship was John Noble. What kind of man was he? To what extent was he responsible for the outcome of the wreck?

GH: As his surname would suggest, he was a thoroughly decent man.  A gifted mariner and kind, considerate, intelligent human being, he did his absolute best to prevent the tragedy. Instead of blaming foreign members of his crew, as the press and public wished him to, he stuck by them.  I think he had awful luck with this voyage, and I know he took it to heart. He  turned to drink afterwards in an effort to cope, which shortened his life considerably. 

AB: There are obvious similarities between the sinking of the Tayleur and the Titanic, 58 years later. Can you share what the parallels are and how the tragedies of both ships affected sea travel in the subsequent decades?

Both were run by the White Star Line (though I should point out that the WSL’s name, pennant, and goodwill were sold on a few years after the Tayleur tragedy), both were heralded as the largest and safest ships of their type at the time, and both sank in unusual circumstances on their maiden voyages with huge death tolls. 

There were token changes in legislation after the Tayleur tragedy, but nothing particularly effective.  It was cheaper to let people die.  After all, they paid before they left the port, not upon a safe arrival at their destination.

AB: The Sinking of RMS Tayleur is a deeply moving book. What has been the most poignant experience for you in the re-telling of this emotional story?

GH: Thank you. It was a moving book to write.  While writing and researching, it was finding the newspaper advertisement detailing the physical description of the “Ocean Child” that was the most poignant. He was near enough identical to my own son, with big blue eyes and blond curls, and only a few years younger than my son, so I could easily picture that baby and all his needs. 

After publication, I think it was when I visited the wreck site. The first time I went it was on a boat. The weather was gorgeous until we got to the actual area above the wreck, when the sky darkened and it was quite depressing and grim.  But when we sailed away it immediately brightened up again.  Very odd. 

When I went back to film the story for BBC’s “Coast” I spent some time at the top of the cliffs, above the wreck.  I read out every single name from the passenger and crew lists I’d compiled at the back of my book—since there are about 700, this took quite some time—and thought about the survivors limping over the rocks I was sitting on, through the wind and rain, having lost everything except their lives.  I got really sunburnt but it was worth it.

AB: You’ve recently announced the forthcoming publication of a second book. Can you give us a sneak preview?

GH: Yes!  I’m delighted that Pen & Sword will be publishing The Cowardice of Captain Stinson: The Lost Story of the William & Mary and How 200 Victorians came back from the Dead in September 2016. 

Although this shipwreck happened just a few months before the sinking of the Tayleur, it’s a very different story, and whereas my main emotion when writing about the ‘Victorian Titanic’ was sadness, with the William & Mary it was pure fuming rage! 

Very briefly, the loss of the emigrant ship William & Mary made news around the world not once but twice in 1853.  First, when her American captain reported the vessel lost before his eyes in the shark-infested waters of the Bahamas and the death of over 200 left on board; then again when the truth emerged—a tale of abandonment, desperation, and the incredible heroism of a wrecker and his crew.

Now, over 160 years later, the book reveals the terrifying events that drove one man to murder passengers with a hatchet and others to abandon their family and friends, while one wrecker risked his life for total strangers.

By the way, readers should feel free to get in touch with me at @GillHoffs on Twitter if they have any questions or further information about either ship. I love hearing from descendants!

AB: Thank you!

RMS Tayleur sailing proudly, above, and on the brink of capsizing, below.