In the 1850s the Australian Gold Rush was in full swing with thousands clamouring for passage. From 1852 to 1857, 226,000 left Britain to seek their fortune – 60,000 of whom were Irish. It is estimated that in a single month in 1853, 32,000 people departed Liverpool for Australia’s gold fields. Large, fast ships therefore were urgently needed to meet demand on this route.
On October 4, 1853 thousands cheered as a new iron hulled ship slipped from her dry dock into the water for the first time, in Warrington on the River Mersey. The ship was named for the Tayleur family who owned the iron foundry that had previously built paddle steamers. (In the 1820s the Tayleur iron foundry in Warrington, England had produced sections for Telford’s famous Menai Straits Bridge, well known to tens of thousands of Irish emigrants travelling onwards from Holyhead in Anglesey, North Wales.)
The Tayleur, reckoned to be the biggest and fastest ship of her type, was chartered by the White Star line to ply the lucrative Liverpool to Melbourne route.
On January 19, 1854 the Tayleur departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage with up to 600 passengers plus crew on board. When sailing down the Mersey, the pilot noticed that the compass readings were slightly askew, but she continued on her way. Her route was to take her south along the west coast of Britain, but very shortly after departure she hit rough weather. On January 21 a squall developed and it proved almost impossible for the crew to steer the ship. Instead of travelling south, she had in fact been travelling due west and in the gale that blew up she found herself along the shores of Lambay Island, just 10 miles or so from Dublin, Ireland. Anchors were weighed but the lines snapped and she was dashed against the rocks. Some passengers managed to scramble ashore and climb the steep cliffs to safety but, in a short time, the Tayleur slipped under the waves with a loss of about 40o lives.
The Illustrated London News, on January 28, 1854 carried the following report:
”The most desperate struggles for life were made by the wretched passengers, great numbers of women jumped overboard, in the vain hope of reaching land; and the ropes were crowded by hundreds who, in their eagerness, terror, and confusion, frustrated each others efforts for self-preservation. Many of the females would get half way, and then become unable to proceed further; and, after clinging to the rope for a short time, would be forced from their hold by those who came after them. Three women only, out of 200, were saved. One of those had got part of the way across when her legs fell, and she hung for some time by her two hands over the foaming waves; her husband then came on the rope, and managed to assist her to the shore. Two men came on shore with children tied to their backs but of the whole who fell into the water not above five were saved. I saw one fine girl, who, after falling from the rope managed to get hold of another one, which was hanging from the side of the ship, and which she held on to for more than a quarter of an hour, the sea every moment dashing her against the side of the ship: but it was impossible for us to lend her any assistance. Someone got a spar out, by which several got on shore; but it soon broke; and now might be seen hundreds hanging on to the bulwarks of the ship, each struggling to get on shore. I saw one young woman hanging on the middle of the rope for some time by her two hands, but those pushing to get on shore soon sent her to her doom”.
Some 100 were buried on the island, others were buried where they were washed up on the mainland, but for many the sea was the last resting place. Of the 200 women on board, 100 were believed to be Irish. The style of dress that prevailed at that time – large billowing skirts – was considered to have been a contributory factor in the loss of so many females, together with the ferocity of the undercurrents and the high seas that bashed the ship off the rocks on Lambay.
A Board of Trade enquiry into the disaster found that several factors contributed to the disaster:
The iron hull had caused the compasses to read incorrectly and there were issues with the rigging and the sails that made it difficult to handle the ship in the high wind. The rudder was of a new design that had not been tested and there had been no sea trials carried out on this new type of ship – she had gone from being fitted-out straight into service.
Donations flooded in for the survivors. The residue of the fund was set aside to be ‘available at once for such shipwrecked strangers as may become future claimants on the generosity of the citizens of Dublin’ and so the Tayleur Fund Medal was inaugurated. The medal bears an engraving of the Tayleur and the inscription ‘TAYLEUR FUND FOR THE SUCCOUR OF SHIPWRECKED STRANGERS’. It was awarded to 44 people before the fund was wound up in 1913 and the residue donated to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) in exchange for a motorized lifeboat for the Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat Station.
The Tayleur was largely forgotten until the late 1950s when a sub aqua team went in search of the wreck. Local fishermen had reported that lobster hauled from a particular location had red undersides as though they had lived on a rusting wreck. The lead was followed and the wreck was located. In 1963 her bell was discovered and raised to the surface and is now in the Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire.
Many artefacts such as these patterned jugs and dishes have been recovered. One of her two anchors is displayed in Rush Co Dublin, where regular commemorations take place.
The White Star Line which had chartered the Tayleur would later get into financial difficulties. In 1868 Ismay bought the trade name and the logo at a liquidation sale. Almost 60 years after the launch of the Tayleur – the biggest fastest ship of her time – registered in Liverpool and proudly flying The White Star flag on her maiden voyage – another ship also registered in Liverpool – big, fast and unsinkable, would leave port flying The White Star flag on her maiden voyage and, like the Tayleur, just days later, would end up on the sea floor with heavy loss of life.
A list of passengers of the Tayleur can be seen here