As a writer, I spend most of my life in nightwear. My ‘uniform’ is soft, warm, and extremely comfortable but I do not expect it to save my life. However that is exactly what happened for a couple of the women on the RMS Tayleur, the so-called ‘Victorian Titanic’, which wrecked near Dublin in 1854.
Approximately 700 people set sail from Liverpool on Thursday 19th January 1854 amid much celebration. They were travelling on the White Star Line’s revolutionary new ship, the iron-hulled RMS Tayleur, the largest vessel of her type in the world at that time. Bound for the Australian Gold Rush, the men, women, and children on board could expect a journey of at least one hundred days before they reached Melbourne.
Unfortunately, the iron hull affected the compasses and a storm meant the ship was soon lost in the Irish Sea. Only 48 hours after they left Liverpool the Tayleur ran into a cliff on the island of Lambay. Half an hour after that, the ship sank beneath the waves. There was no beach and no chance of survival in the water, with enormous waves dashing people and possessions against the rocks, stripping them of their clothing, skewering them with shards of wood, and decapitating many.
|At Lambay, looking toward the wrecksite|
Despite the ship being so close to land that the first few to make it onto the island simply jumped onto the rocks, over half of the people on board died. Some made it onto the cliff only to be swept back into the turbulent waters by the stormy sea. Others were washed overboard or off the ropes and spars providing fragile bridges to the island. Many remained trapped below decks as the water flooded in, laid low with seasickness or looking after friends and relatives affected by this debilitating condition. Some women were shut into cabins to keep them out of the way as they were (understandably) upset about the situation – some may have had no option but to go down with the ship
Only three women out of over 100 survived. Ann Carty (34), Rebecca Chasey (28), and Sarah Ann Carby (37) made it off the sinking ship and climbed a steep 35 metre cliff in a storm in a state of near-nudity despite being shocked and injured. They were incredible but generally overlooked in the coverage of the tragedy then and afterwards, as was the demographic of the survivors. Less than 3% of the women and approximately 4% of the children survived compared to almost 60% of the men. Of these women, Ann immediately faded into obscurity and proved impossible to trace, Sarah’s relationship with her ex-convict husband and their son was widely discussed (they were the only family to survive the wreck intact), and Rebecca returned to her family in the Bristol area. The son of her former employer, who also survived the wreck, told the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette:
“The ship rolled dreadfully and the scene of terror and confusion on deck was of the most agonising character. … During the short interval of the striking of the ship and my getting on to the rock, I saw many heart-rending sights. I witnessed the death of poor Chasey’s husband and child. The poor fellow, with a manly devotion, insisted on his wife, who had just come from her berth, being got on shore first, and strapped his infant to his back for the purpose of following her. She was lowered down a rope into the water, and was hauled onto the shore by two or three men. He then got on to the line, and was descending it when the vessel gave a roll, the rope broke, and he and his child perished in the surge.”
Rebecca was quoted indirectly in the paper, perhaps because it was felt unseemly to have the widow address the public herself: “To make the descent from the ship, which was rolling and pitching under the influence of the breakers, was a work, she describes, of great difficulty, and she is almost induced to wonder how she could have mustered strength enough to accomplish it. … When she effected her escape, she had nothing on but her frock and bonnet, and everything of which she and her husband were possessed went down with the ship, leaving her, not only childless and a widow, but in a strange place without a penny in her possession.”
This was a time of deadly dresses, of crinolines and corsets and savings stitched into stays. Women on board the Tayleur would have worn at least sixteen layers of heavy and restrictive clothing, including petticoats ringed with stiffened horsehair. There are accounts of women surviving other shipwrecks around that time because their husbands cut off their skirts as they stood on deck, or in some cases because the great bell-shaped skirts trapped layers of air and allowed the women to bob atop the waves until they could be rescued. Unfortunately, the women on the Tayleur who fell or were thrown into the water were not so lucky. Despite the wreck occurring at lunchtime, of the three women who survived, at least two were wearing little more than shifts, giving them freedom of movement and a relatively small amount of sodden clothing to weigh them down.
|Cross at the Lambay wrecksite|
Today there is nothing but a tiny white cross affixed to the base of the cliff to mark the site where so few lived and so many died, but if you are near Dublin I would recommend a visit. Lambay is a beautiful island and these days lifejackets are freely available.