170 Years on, Remembering the emigrant ship Tayleur, survived by only 5 of the 250 women and children on board

The Wreck of the sailing ship Tayleur on Lambay. The iron sailing ship Tayleur was designed by William Rennie a shipbuilder and designer of Liverpool and Glasgow and built at the Charles Tayleur Foundry at Bank Quay, Warrington for owners Charles Moore & Company (of Mooresfort, Lattin, Co Tipperary). After six months of construction she was launched in the Mersey on 4 October 1853. Her completion was delayed as her first sailing date was advertised as October 1853 then November and finally, she sailed on January 1854. She was named after Charles Tayleur owner of the Bank Quay foundry. The new ship was chartered by Pilkington & Wilson’s White Star line to transport passengers to Melbourne. Traffic on the route was extensive not only due to emigration but also due to the discovery of gold at nearby Kalgoorlie the previous year. Intended to begin her maiden voyage on November 20th 1853, her large size resulted in the delay of her maiden voyage by 3 months.

Tayleur left Liverpool on 19 January 1854, on her maiden voyage, for Melbourne, Australia. Captain John Noble commanded a crew of 76 but only 25 were experienced seamen. She carried 590 passengers, their possessions, a cargo of delph and agricultural tools, food and provisions, tomb stones and slates as ballast, a river steamer as deck cargo. She also carried a prefabricated house and surgery for Dr Cunningham, the ships doctor, who was returning to Australia bringing his family from Scotland. The Tayleur was towed down the Mersey by a tug and once she raised sail she outpaced the tug due to a brisk SW wind.


The crew believed that they were sailing south through the Irish Sea, but were driven north of their intended course. Within 48 hours of departure on 21 January 1854 she found herself in a fog and a storm, heading straight for Lambay. She was unable to tack clear of the island. The rigging was difficult to operate as brand-new ropes stretched and swelled making them slack and hard to pull through the blocks. As a result the small crew had difficulty in managing the sails. The Tayleur was a clipper ship designed for minimal crew to sail in open ocean, this was facilitated by a donkey engine to raise anchors and a patent steering gear to ease steering. Both main anchors were released as soon as rocks were sighted but the chains snapped and Tayleur ran aground on the northeast coast of Lambay.

Initially, attempts were made to lower the ship’s lifeboats, but the first one was smashed on the rocks. The second one drifted out into the Irish Sea; this lifeboat was eventually found in 1856. Tayleur was so close to shore that the crew released the two bow anchors to keep the vessel on shore, they were able to collapse a mast onto the shore, and some people aboard were able to jump onto land by clambering along the mast. Some who reached shore had carried ropes from the ship, allowing others to pull themselves to safety on the ropes. Captain Noble waited on board Tayleur until the last minute, then jumped in the sea and swam towards shore, being assisted onto the rocks by a passenger. The ship slipped off the rocks into deeper water and sank to the bottom with only the masts showing.

A survivor alerted the nearest house of the Dockerelll family and the coastguards were called. The next day when the seas had calmed, the coast guards launched the coastguard galley. When they reached the wreck, they found the last survivor, William Vivers, who had climbed to the tops of the rigging and spent 14 hours there. He was rescued by the coastguards who then recovered bodies. On 2 March 1854, George Finlay, the chief boatman, received an RNLI silver medal.


Four investigations followed the disaster:

  • A three-day inquest under coroner Mr Davis, held at the Grand Hotel Malahide
  • A Board of Trade inquiry into the loss of life in a shipwreck held by Mr Walker at Liverpool
    an Admiralty investigation chaired by Mr Grantham of the compass committee who was inspector of iron ships
  • The Liverpool Marine Board investigated Captain Noble’s fitness and restored his Master’s Certificate which had been lost.
  • The causes of the wreck were complex and included:
    · Three compasses reading differently due to the placing of an iron river steamer on the deck after the compasses had been swung (adjusted).
    · The ship was new and untried and unlike a warship had not undergone sea trials
    · Absence of a mast head compass placed at a distance from the iron hull read through a prism.
    · Northerly current in the Irish sea similar to that which drove the Great Britain north and ashore at Dundrum Bay.
    · Slotting effect of the wind in the sails driving the ship sideways.
    · Large turning circle making the ship un-maneuverable.
    Tayleur was closer to shore due to unexpected speed (she outpaced the tug leaving Liverpool)
    The anchor chains breaking when they were dropped in final efforts to save the ship.
    The captain being injured in a serious fall and possibly having head injuries as a result.
    Only 25 experienced seamen in the crew – most were stewards.
    Lack of lifebelts (then uncommon) and panic leading to increased loss of life.
    Heavy clothing and inability to swim.
    Strong current at Lambay at that state of the tide.

The captain held his course in poor visibility for fourteen hours without taking soundings.


A memorial (a bow anchor on a plinth) to those who died was unveiled at Portrane in 1999. A similar memorial with another anchor raised by Rush scuba-divers is in Rush village. The remains of the wreck were rediscovered in 1959 by members of the Irish Sub-Aqua Club and it was extensively explored by many groups of local scuba divers. The wreck lies 16 metres underwater in Tayleur Bay at the northeast corner of Lambay Island. Though the goods and some wreck was salvaged in 1854 by a Mt Shannon the hull, sides and lower mast are visible today. Roof slates and tombstones can be seen. Much of the crockery was salvaged by sport divers and some is on display at the Maritime Museum, Dun Laoghaire and Newbridge House Donabate. The binnacle is on display at Skerries Mills.

Only two children of fifty aboard survived and three of 200 women. This was because they could not clamber over the rigging to reach the shore, nor could they swim in heavy clothing sometimes with their wealth in coins sewed in the hem. The survivors had to climb 90-foot cliffs surrounding a gulley where the waves funneled in. Recent research on the various lists assembled by Dr Edward J Bourke names 662 on board of whom 252 survived. A graveyard on Lambay holds 76 unidentified bodies recovered from the sea, The Mate and a boy are buried at Malahide Church of Ireland, William Boyd’s body was recovered at Malahide and buried at Ballymena, Dr Cunningham’s son was buried in Scotland.

By Dr Edward J. Bourke
Author Bound for Australia, and other titles.