This is a long overdue review of a very interesting book. I knew nothing about the subject at all - and I confess to never having heard of the tragedy of the Tayleur before coming to this book. Reading the preface, though, I didn’t feel too bad; nor had Gill Hoffs until a visit to Warrington Museum a few years ago.
It’s surprising how little known the ship is really, given the parallels with the Titanic. Both were White Star Line ships, touted as the best of the best, and both sunk on their maiden voyages. The Tayleur may lack the glamour of the Titanic, but it is a compelling and awful story in its own right.
Hoffs (I do feel a bit weird about using surnames in my non-academic writing, but I’m going with it) has balanced the big story of the ship’s disastrous voyage with the stories of individuals on board and the details of life on-board. Some fascinating lives emerge. I was particularly taken with bad boy Samuel Carby, sentenced to ten years transportation in 1841 for stealing a hunk of sheep’s flesh – well it was a second offence. He’d served his time then returned to England to marry his sweetheart Sarah, get to know his now 13 year old son, and take them back to Australia and a better life.
There were many on-board the Tayleur for whom the challenges of life on the other side of the world were still preferable to the poverty and starvation they faced at home. The social details Hoffs weaves into her book are sobering and enlightening. I found aspects of life on the ship such as the rules the passengers were expected to obey and the rations they received especially interesting. Other things – women’s clothing, for example – took on an unexpectedly deadly cast as I read on.
I also enjoyed the use of good sizeable chunks of primary sources, both heading up the chapters and within them. They effectively set the scene, add detail, and give that firsthand insight that is invaluable. The eyewitness accounts of the chaos as the ship sank are heartbreaking: ‘And now began a scene of the most frightful horror’.
The story of RMS Tayleur is fascinating. The ship was so full of promise. It had a new design, stronger, faster, more luxurious, and a captain whose name was enough to draw crowds. But from the day of the launch there were bad omens and signs that not all was well. Of course, it is easy to be wise with hindsight, but it does seem that some issues ought to have been addressed before she ever took on her passengers. The fact that half of them survived actually feels quite remarkable in the circumstances.
The Sinking of RMS Tayleur gives a good insight into the tragedy itself as well as the wider social background of the period. Despite its terrible subject matter, I enjoyed the book a great deal. It is very easy to get drawn into, and I whizzed through it in a couple of sittings. It is some months since I read the book, but I can still remember vividly certain parts, and I’m sure some images will stay with me indefinitely.
My thanks go to the author and Pen and Sword for sending me a copy of the book. It is available in Hardback and as an eBook.