The loss of the Titanic is a much written about tragedy that has been covered several times in films and novels, yet not many people have heard of another White Star Line disaster: the sinking of the RMS Tayleur.
The wrecking of the RMS Tayleur made headlines nearly 60 years before the Titanic. Both 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. In fact, in the year of the RMS Tayleur disaster, 893 ships were wrecked in Great British and Irish waters, with a death toll of at least 1,500. Despite the risks, people continued to flood into Liverpool on their way to a new life. “That was the level of desperation and starvation these poor people were reduced to,” says the author.
On 19 January 1854 the Tayleur, a large merchant vessel, left Liverpool for Australia; packed with hopeful emigrants, her hold stuffed with cargo of a huge cargo including 15 tons of wire fencing, seven ploughs, bottled beer, Sicilian wine, 30 blank gravestones and a piano. One theory put forward is that the ship’s revolutionary iron hull prevented its compasses from working. Bad weather meant the ship became lost in the Irish Sea, a storm sweeping the 650 people aboard towards a cliff. The captain ordered the anchors dropped but the chain snapped and the ship headed to the rocks. He tried to swing the ship broadside to the rocks so the passengers would have a chance to escape but this just meant their jagged edges cut into the ship.
With no beach or shore at the base of the cliffs, the passengers had just a rocky niche to aim for and many of them were drowned or crushed in their efforts to get away. In less than an hour, more than half those who had boarded the ship were dead – only three out of the 70 children are known to have survived.
The reason so little is known about the disaster today is that there was a massive cover-up, the author claims. “In the aftermath there was a lot of hushing up so people would still use the White Star ships. At the inquest there was all sorts of foul play going on including a mysterious Mr Jones who claimed to be a clerk who’d come over from Liverpool out of pure curiosity. When the inquest began he pulled the captain and more senior crew away and claimed they’d never been there.”