Like most people, I hadn’t heard of the RMS Tayleur until a visit to the museum in Warrington, England a few years ago. My eye was caught by a brass porthole, crusted with barnacles but still surprisingly shiny after over 150 years, fixed to the wall next to a pile of chipped crockery and an etching of a shipwreck. A curator noticed my interest and explained that just two days into the ship’s maiden voyage to Australia in early 1854, approximately 400 of the 700 people aboard died when the Tayleur crashed into an island rising ‘like a mountain in the middle of the sea’.
The scandal made headlines around the world, tapping into the worst nightmares of all those wishing to immigrate to the newly-discovered Australian Gold Fields. At the time sea travel was perilous: an average of two or three vessels wrecked in the waters around Britain and Ireland every day. The case of the Tayleur was particularly shocking, however, due to the high numbers lost, so few women and children being saved, and the newness of the ship.
The Tayleur had been crafted from metal rather than wood and was considered the most splendid ship of her time. John Noble, a 27-year-old hero of the Gold Rush era, had been chosen to captain this revolutionary vessel fresh from a record-breaking voyage to Australia and China. Orphaned at an early age, he and his brother had walked 45 miles from Penrith to Whitehaven when their father followed their mother to an early grave. There they soon found their way on to the ships thronging the busy port, and both worked their way up to the coveted position of captain. John showed such skill that his logbook was used as a teaching aid. He was at the top of his profession when the White Star Line’s Tayleur set sail for Melbourne in January 1854.
When the ship left port the weather was fairly typical for the season, wet and windy with grey skies, poor visibility, and a rolling sea. Unfortunately for the travellers, the iron hull interfered with the compasses; the Tayleur was a bodge-job with ropes too thick and stretchy for easy handling; there were no landmarks to gauge their position from; and the exhausted captain wasn’t at his best.
Several inquests were held but, predictably for the time, not one focussed on the health of the captain. I studied psychology at Uni and remember feeling queasy during slide-shows on ‘shearing’ and general head trauma. While reading an earlier news story, my mind kept circling back to those lectures. Four months prior to the wrecking, Noble fell 25 feet onto the Tayleur’s deck, leaving him ‘severely shaken’ – it could easily have killed him. Even if he didn’t actually bang his head on the deck when he landed, the swift movement would have most likely caused damage in ways the Victorian doctors could not have detected.
I wasn’t the only person to research Noble or the Tayleur, I didn’t think there could be any new reasons to put forward for the tragedy, certainly not from someone whose limited excursions on boats led to vomit and regret. But the more I read about the symptoms of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and the more doctors I discussed the captain’s symptoms with, the more my theory seemed to fit. As I discuss in ‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’’ (Pen & Sword, 2014), the effects of this would have been subtle until he was tired and experiencing stress, such as when preparing for this highly-anticipated maiden voyage.
Part of the reason for the tragedy probably lies with the effects of fatigue combined with a TBI on concentration and clarity of thought. Captain Noble hadn’t left the deck for the 48 hours the ship had been at sea, and was under extreme stress having found himself lost at sea in a massive ship which didn’t behave as it should. Bad weather combined with the incoming tide to rush the enormous ship towards the cliffs of a tiny island in sight of Dublin, Ireland. Only six women and children survived, along with several hundred men.
Noble was unquestionably a brave and intelligent man, yet seems to have struggled to function appropriately in the months following the accident, including in the hours leading up to the tragedy when better decisions could have saved lives. Once the Tayleur had wrecked, Captain Noble seems to have done his best to urge those around him to safety, and only left the ship himself when the water was rising around his waist. His second mate drowned by his side. The battered captain made it to the ledge at the base of the cliff then climbed the near vertical rock-face with the other survivors. When he reached the top his behaviour was all the more unusual. He asked his companions if they had any dry matches, as they shivered in the rain with not a tree in sight.
Captain Noble was castigated in the press but cleared as fit to resume command of ocean-going vessels following the inquests, which he did just a few months later. Articles in the papers belittled him, his wife left him, his hard-won reputation was stained with guilt, and a lesser man would have given up. But Noble carried on, trusted with other new ships and expensive cargos, earning a reputation for himself as a safe and kindly captain capable of swift but safe voyages. He rebuilt his life and took great pains to ensure that those trusting him with their safety and well-being made it to their destination in good health, persevering against the odds to make a positive difference to the people he met. Generations of people from all over the world – Britons, Chinese, and Australians in particular – have him to thank for their ancestors’ safe arrival overseas.
The story of the Tayleur is largely forgotten now, alive in a handful of books and Irish memorials, and sites ridiculing this brave and able captain online. This tragedy wasn’t the captain’s fault but an awful mixture of biology, a bodge-job, and bad luck. Hopefully my book will help restore Noble’s good name, and memorialise the forgotten dead.
The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic is available via Amazon