White Star Line’s ‘First Titanic’: RMS Tayleur

The Tayleur. Sank on her maiden voyage January 1854

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.

The Tayleur Medal. Awarded for bravery in sea rescue.

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.

Artefacts found at the wreck site of the Tayleur

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.

Incredible coincidence.

A list of passengers of the Tayleur can be seen here





List of recipients of Tayleur Fund Medals here


Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Ireland, Irish Australian

19 responses to “White Star Line’s ‘First Titanic’: RMS Tayleur

  1. I’d never read the full story of the Tayleur… thank you for that. How terrifying it would have been… and how poignant that things like this can still happen…

  2. There are so many interesting coincidences surrounding the Titanic but I never knew about the Tayleur. Really interesting post, thank you for posting it. Marie

  3. J. G. Burdette

    Never heard of the Tayleur. Thanks for ‘enlightening’ me. It’s sad all those people died.

  4. Marie – thank you for your comment. Glad you found it interesting!

  5. It’s great to see a picture of the Tayluer,my dad Rory Breslin was a diver in the Irish subaqua and dived on her,he brought up some delph and also the bell,which we had in our sitting room for a number of weeks before it went to the musuem,thanks for this

    • OH !What a wonderful story – so glad you could appreciate such historic objects for a while in a real family home! Thank you for visiting and for such a great piece of information! A

  6. John N Collins

    A voice below says many survivors had the courage to take a later voyage to Melbourne. My wife’s great-grandfather and his brother were among these. We have only recently discovered the brother’s descendants, who have enjoyed good fortune. Her own family has done the same. Her mother used to tell her and her siblings of how the two brothers had made it to shore by a rope and helped others to safety. Several of the surviving accounts appear to endorse such a happening. A third brother was with these two, survived, but went back home. Home was Trois Rivieres in Quebec province of Canada, where the family had migrated to around 1650 from Poitiers, France. So last year, to mark my wife’s retirement, we did a sentimental trip to Poitiers and La Rochelle, the emigrants’ exit port to French Canada, and so on to Quebec and Trois Rivieres to meet some of the French-speaking relatives. Just had a lovely Christmas letter from the matriarch.

    • It is quite remarkable – and no small sign of extraordinary courage -that, about one month after the disaster, at least 88 of the survivors left for Australia on another White Star line vessel, the Golden Era.How fortunate you are to have had a personal oral history of this tragic event. I am trying to reason why a family from Canada would have to travel to England to embark for Australia- was this the only available sea route for them?Glad you had a good retirement trip to France and so good that distant relatives can keep in touch! Thank you so much for your comment and for bringing my post to life with your family knowledge.

  7. m.hetherington

    Just watched on TV on the tayleur. So googled some. One said captain John Noble recovered and did many more successful journeys. Another said he never recovered, took to drink and died aged 36. Which is true?

    • Hello there. Thank you for dropping by to read my blog. My research was restricted to the event of the sinking only, so I am sorry that I cannot enlighten you further as to the fate of Captain Noble. It would be nice to think that he went on to safely deliver passengers across the seas! Kind regards. Angela

  8. Hi from Warrington, England! I actually wrote a book about this, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic'” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) which includes the most up-to-date list of people on board – though this is, of course, still not 100% accurate after all this time – and was on “Coast” discussing it. Captain John Noble died in Liverpool after several successful journeys following the Tayleur tragedy, while preparing for another journey, and is buried there. I visit his grave and lay flowers on the anniversary of his death each year. He did die young, unfortunately. If anyone has further information about the people involved in the wreck I would really appreciate hearing from them. My email address is gillhoffs [at] Hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk.

  9. Reblogged this on A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND and commented:

    173 years ago on January 19, the RMS Tayleur, White Star Lines biggest fastest ship, departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage that was to end in disaster days later. From the archives.

    • John Biggar

      Thank you for posting this. I’ve seen the artefacts from the Tayleur in the Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire, but had no idea of the story behind them. The coincidences with the Titanic are remarkable! Interesting too that it was the Dún Laoghaire lifeboat that benefitted from the fund, rather than an RNLI station on the northern side of the bay.

      • It is a fascinating story! I had not noticed that the funds went to the south RNLI rather than other one. I wonder were both In existence at the time or why that could have happened? Any thoughts? I would love to go to the museum myself..it’s on the bucket list for this summer! Thanks for dropping in!

  10. Martin

    I’ve recently learned the story of my great/great Grandfather surviving the disaster and then travelling out to Australia on the golden era; one of the 88. The details here have been a great intro for me and I’ve been chasing articles all over the www trying to find more, in particular the passenger list to see if other family members were also involved. However the link to the passenger list seems to have been hijacked.

    • Hi Martin! What amazing, of terrible history to have in your family. I am pleased that you found the article helpful and disappointed that the link to the passenger list is broken. What a terrible shame! Perhaps it was in someone’s interest to buy the site and remove the list? Who know! Are you in Australia? The local or state Library may be able to get you some books published on the disaster that have passenger lists. Apologies for delay in responding…my comments were not working for a number of days. I will keep looking for you and let you know if anything comes up. Thank you so much for getting in touch. Kind regards , Angela

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