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The lost story of the victorian Titanic

Ian Harvey
Dashed on the rocks: 360 perished when RMS Tayleur, the most modern ship of its time, sank off the Irish coast
Dashed on the rocks: 360 perished when RMS Tayleur, the most modern ship of its time, sank off the Irish coast
Dashed on the rocks: 360 perished when RMS Tayleur, the most modern ship of its time, sank off the Irish coast

Dashed on the rocks: 360 perished when RMS Tayleur, the most modern ship of its time, sank off the Irish coast

One of the worst shipwrecks in history took place over 160 years ago.  Reading this, many people probably think it could only be the Titanic; that the Titanic sinking is the worst shipwreck of all time.  However, that is not the case.  The ship that sunk decades ago was called the RMS Tayleur.

The story starts out with the ship making its voyage through the ocean on a day so gloomy that it was hard to see what was ahead.  Within a split second, there was an alarming sound followed by a thud that shook the ship entirely.  Considering it was during the night, many of the passengers ran up to the deck in their pajamas to see what was going on, only to realize there was water seeping in and the boat was sinking fast.

After the passengers realized the ship was going down utter chaos quickly followed.  Women were crying and screaming for help.  There were fathers that strapped their children onto their backs and others that ran back to the lower decks to retrieve their families and their belongings.  To add to the chaos, people fought for the last remaining life jackets.  Just a matter of hours later, the ocean was scattered with bodies.  The ship was nowhere to be seen, having sunk completely.

Again, just like the Titanic, builders had promised that the ship was bigger, faster, and safer than any other ship.  The RMS Tayleur was one of the largest merchant vessels in Britain at the time.  The passengers were also ensured that they had one of the best captains around.

In total, the disaster managed to take 360 lives out of the 650 crew members and passengers.  The January 1854 sinking had shaken the faith of many.  Most of the people who were on the ship had plans of making a new, better life for themselves in Australia.

Apparently, there were many rumors that the ship was off to bad start before launching off on its journey.  The head engineer of the ship, Charles Tayleur, had been absent due to his wife’s death. Many saw this as the first warning of what would happen to the ship.

Another bad omen people witnessed was when the captain, John Noble, fell 25 feet from the forecastle into the ship’s hold.  Although he said he was not hurt, he was badly shaken from the fall.  Due to that, a different captain had to take the ship from Warrington, where it was built, down the Mersey to Liverpool, where it would eventually begin its journey to Melbourne, Australia.  It would later prove to be an issue because Noble was not initially able to get a feel for how the ship handled.

Yet another odd thing about his voyage was that the design was untested.  It was also not customary that ships would undergo sea trials right before the main voyage.  The RMS Tayleur was powered solely by sail and the three masts were further apart than normal, which may have caused the ship to be unbalanced and hard to handle.  Also, the rudder was quite small for the enormous size of the ship; this would have made the ship hard to steer and change directions. To add to all of the imperfections, the compass had three different readings due to interference from the iron hull.

A view of the wreck site from the top of Lambay's cliffs. The small boat is tethered to what remains of RMS Tayleur

A view of the wreck site from the top of Lambay’s cliffs. The small boat is tethered to what remains of RMS Tayleur

Some might wonder why in the world was the ship even allowed to set sail. Many believe that Tayleur was under an immense amount of pressure to finish the design and wanted to set sail as soon as possible.  But this voyage seemed doomed from the beginning.  Adding to the design issues and bad omens, a majority of the crew members were not at their posts when the ship took off, due to the fact that they were hungover or still drunk from the night before.  What’s worse is that more than half of the 70-men crew were inexperienced and some couldn’t speak English.  Captain Noble even admitted that of the 70 men, he could only really rely on about fifteen.