Today, I’m very happy to be hosting a guest post from Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic. Her fascinating book tells the tragic story of the passengers and crew who lost their lives when RMS Tayleur struck rocks off Ireland and sank. Here, she explains the controversy behind the tragedy:

Most people haven’t heard about the first major White Star Line disaster, which occurred nearly 60 years before an iceberg ended the maiden voyage of arguably the most famous ship of the modern age.  I hadn’t until a curator at Warrington Museum in the north-west of England told me the source of the porthole lying, minus its ship and unnaturally dry, in a display case.  He advised me to read the survivors’ stories and, after a lot of crying (me not him), these became the subject of my book “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014).    

It seems clear, after reading contemporary accounts and comments and researching the lives of the people involved as much as the internet allowed, that there’s good reason for this disaster – which was reported with horror and ghoulish attention to detail (headless bodies, hacked off finger etc.) around the world at the time – to have been forgotten just a few generations later.  A cover-up.

‘Death – The Poor Man’s Friend’ (John Leech, Punch, 1845)

Built with unwise haste to transport people and goods to the Australian Gold Rush, the Tayleur left Liverpool 160 years ago with much hype only to sink two days later after crashing into the base of a cliff in the middle of the day.  More than half of those on board died despite being close enough to land for some of the travellers to jump to safety.  The statistics of the survivors are shocking: 3% of women and 4% of children were saved compared to 59% of the men.  But that wasn’t what appalled the Victorian public.

To them, it was the death of a dream of safety on the waves, of Victorian Britain’s might and power over the ocean and the forces of nature herself.  The RMS Tayleur was the largest ship of her type in the world at the time, both monstrous and luxurious, with airy berths and two flush toilets provided for the approximately 700 travellers on board.  She was heralded as the ship to board – safe, clean, and the very pinnacle of modernity.  In a time of several shipwrecks a day in British and Irish waters alone, high mortality rates and miserable living conditions for many on land meant the hope of health and a fortune drew thousands to the goldfields overseas, and a ship like the White Star Line’s Tayleurseemed the safest bet to get them there – making a fortune for the shipping companies and their associates at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Tayleur’s revolutionary iron hull meant her compasses didn’t work.  The ropes were too new, unseasoned and stretchy and too thick to fit through the pulleys and control the sails.  The masts were improperly positioned, the crew unfamiliar with each other and the ship.  And when the captain ordered the anchors dropped in a final desperate effort to swing the ship away from the island rising ‘like a mountain from the sea’ both chains snapped ‘like a carrot’ leaving the Tayleur to wreck and sink at the foot of an island off the coast of Dublin.
The RMS Tayleur
There was much skulduggery in the aftermath, including a mysterious ‘Mr Jones’ who made the captain and crew leave the inquest before it even began. The whole story is unlikely to be unravelled after so many years and the admitted burning of papers by at least one of the rich men involved. But this brave (or foolhardy) journalist’s words indicate the Tayleur was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the media was complicit in her fate:  
     ‘A skinflint shipowner will withdraw every advertisement he can influence, and cut off your American news, if you presume to challenge the seaworthiness of the Tayleur; what business is it of yours if two or three hundred emigrants go to the bottom? You are not one of them!’ (Elgin Courier, 28 April 1854)

Although the shipwreck was rarely spoken of in the years after the tragedy, resources such as the British Newspaper Archive ( and Ancestry ( have meant the travellers involved can be acknowledged 160 years later.  Sadly, those responsible for the disaster and the cover-up escaped justice long ago.  But the heroes of the wreck can be remembered with pride once again.
Thanks, Gill! The story of the RMS Tayleur is endlessly fascinating, yet heartbreaking too. 
‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur’ by Gill Hoffs is available from bookshops or online at 

If you have any information on the RMS Tayleur, you can contact Gill at or @GillHoffs on Twitter


I’m hosting the next History Carnival on 1 May here at  

If you know of any interesting and insightful history blog posts that I could include, please nominate them here: . I’m looking for lots of variety so all historical periods will be considered! 


Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Sue Wilkes. Her latest book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood, delves into the experiences of childhood at home, school, work and in institutions, especially during Victorian times.

Sue has very kindly written a post about the child shoe-blacks who were on every busy street in Victorian cities, eager to shine shoes for a fee.

When you’re visiting Victorian England, your shoes will get very mucky because of all the filth in the streets. If you need to cross the street, watch out for a ‘crossing-sweeper’ – a poor boy or girl who will sweep a clear path across the road for you for a penny or two. Road crossing sweepers earned a few extra pennies by holding gentlemen’s horses for them. Middle-class reformers were worried that street children like these were a menace to society.

John Leech cartoon for Punch (Bradbury & Evans, 1863). Sue Wilkes’ collection

But if your shoes need cleaning in a hurry, perhaps because you are on your way to dine with friends, a shoe-black will shine your shoes for a small fee. The shoe-black brigades, founded in 1851, were an offshoot of the ragged school movement. The brigades helped boys earn money as shoe-blacks so that they could save up enough funds to emigrate and begin a new life abroad. The boys earned up to 8s 6d per week. A proportion of each boy’s wages were paid into a savings account for him; he was given some pennies for pocket-money and a few pence of his earnings repaid the Shoe-Black Society for kitting him out.

Shoe-black boy. Illustrated London News, 24 May 1851. Sue Wilkes’ collection.

Thanks, Sue! So when you’re on your visit to Victorian England, look out for the shoe-blacks and child crossing-sweepers, and don’t forget to throw them a few coppers.
Sue’s book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood is out now. You can find out more about her work by visiting her website and her Jane Austen blog: You can also follow her on Twitter (@SueWilkesauthor).


I’ve been interested in workhouses since my university days so if I could take a trip to Victorian England, a workhouse would be on my list of places to visit. The visitors’ books of these institutions show that they were regularly visited by people like journalists, local worthies, guardians from the Board and ladies connected with charities, as well as official inspectors.  

There’s a common misconception that all Victorian workhouses were dark, depressing places in which the poor were badly treated. That is, of course, a sweeping generalisation, especially as Queen Victoria’s reign spanned sixty-three and a half years of change. By the end of the nineteenth century, workhouses had altered dramatically and there had been a considerable improvement in conditions, particularly in the larger ones.

They remained the last resort for a large proportion of the poor, although there were still regular ‘ins and outs’ who used the workhouse according to their needs. Right at the end of the Victorian period, a reporter for Living London (1901) visited St Marylebone Workhouse. His article, particularly its accompanying photographs, clearly illustrate the differences between a late Victorian and a mid- Victorian workhouse.

In the women’s ward, gone are the drab, bare walls and the uncomfortable, backless benches. There are now pictures on the walls and vases of flowers on the tables. The old ladies sit on Windsor chairs at long tables, around which they congregate and chat. There’s even a rug in front of the stove.

‘In a Women’s Ward’ from Living London (1901)

In most cases, elderly couples were separated on entering the workhouse. This was despite a ruling by the Poor Law Board in 1847 which required unions to provide separate bedrooms for couples over sixty, if requested. Many unions, especially smaller ones, were slow to provide accommodation for married elderly couples because of the additional burden this placed on the rates. 

By 1900, this accommodation was more common in city workhouses. The aged married couples’ quarters at St Marylebone consisted of “ten little tenements for as many Darbies and Joans – one room, one couple – and a general room at the end for meals, the ‘private apartments’ form a sort of miniature model dwelling that overlooks the Paddington Street Recreation Ground. Admirable is the only word for this division. The brightly, painted walls, the pictures, the official furniture including a chest of drawers and a table, the photographs and knick-knacks belonging to the inmates, who are allowed to bring in such property and arrange it as they choose – all this makes a ‘private apartment’ home-like and a delight to the eye. If an old couple must spend their last days in the workhouse, one could wish them no brighter or more healthy quarters.”

‘An Old Couple’s Quarters’ from Living London (1901)

Another improvement made from the 1880s onwards (and even earlier in London) was to house the children away from the workhouse. The workhouse unions moved towards boarding out their pauper children within the parish as a better, more humane alternative to keeping them in the workhouse.  Children were boarded out with ‘foster parents’ who were vetted by the union and paid to look after them. Other workhouse unions chose to set up ‘scattered’ or cottage homes, or district schools instead. 

The lack of children in the workhouse, unless they were casual admissions, meant that the inmates were mostly old and infirm. Many of the old men and women were ex-servants who had never had homes of their own. The journalist for Living London commented that in the kitchen  there was “a mincing machine, one of the uses of which  is artificially masticating the meat supplied to old and toothless paupers”. 

In 1900, the Local Government Board ruled that outdoor relief be given to the ‘aged deserving poor.’  If indoor relief was necessary, it was recommended that the elderly be “granted certain privileges which could not be accorded to every inmate of the workhouse”. These privileges were to include “flexible eating and sleeping times, greater visiting rights, and the compulsory provision of tobacco, dry tea (so that they could make a cup whenever they wanted) and sugar”.

‘In the Airing Yard’ from Living London (1901)

More concessions were granted to elderly inmates including the recommendation by the Local Government Board that separate day-rooms should be provided for those who had “previously led moral and respectable lives”. By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of unions were implementing some kind of segregation on moral grounds, particularly for elderly inmates.  

For many elderly inmates, the workhouse really was a godsend, especially if they were seriously ill and needed hospital treatment. However, in spite of the increased comforts offered, becoming an inmate was a bitter pill to swallow for those who had been fiercely independent and had always been able to get by and look after themselves. The fact remained that they were likely to end their days in the workhouse and suffer that most shameful fate – a pauper burial.