To mark the 162nd anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Tayleur, and Coast Monkey got to interview Gill Hoffs, author of the definitive book about the ship ‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic’.
Gill is a writer of fiction and nonfiction who hails from the beautiful Scottish coast. Her first book was called Wild: a collection and it contained a series of short fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book is an in depth journey into the sinking of Tayleur, from the faults in its construction, to the people onboard, up to it’s tragic final moments as it went down off the coast of Lambay Island. We asked Gill about her book and her connection to the coast.
Hi Gill, thanks so much for doing this interview!
My pleasure! I don’t see that many people in person, interviews like this are a rare – and very welcome – opportunity to chat ☺
Firstly tell us a little about yourself.
I have a Scottish accent (which switches to Irish when I’m cross) and a mongrel identity, a feeling of always being slightly outside everything, which comes in very handy as a writer. I’m a vegetarian who hates vegetables, loves deep-fried pizza and chips, and has to read before bed if I want a decent night’s sleep. When I’m not writing or giving talks I’m working as a carer in a residential home for women with dementia or laughing at fart jokes with my 8-year-old. Home is Warrington where I live with my scientist husband, our son, and Coraline Cat. I have a psychology degree and a filthy sense of humour. You might have seen me on Series 10 of the iconic BBC programme “Coast” holding up a tiny purple corset or heard me on the radio talking about shellfish with rusty bottoms. I’m on twitter as @GillHoffs if you want to get to know me more.
You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. Which do you prefer?
That’s like asking me if I prefer Nutella or Mars bars – I love reading and writing them both for different reasons, and each influences my appreciation and usage of the other. I read a lot of thrillers and horror, especially Dick Francis, John Connolly, and Graham Masterton, and the pacing and set-up of a juicy novel and appeal of its characters can lend itself well to narrative nonfiction, just as the telling details of well-researched nonfiction can be used to improve fiction. I write whatever grabs my attention, whatever shouts loudest in my head to be typed out fast, which can be short stories, novels, nonfiction books, or articles – though deadlines have a part to play, of course, and if I’m writing a shipwreck book that passion tends to consume me and crowd out everything else, at least while I’m researching and writing the first draft.
Are you a big fan of maritime history?
Yes and no, it depends on what else is involved. I love survival stories, I love the sea, and I love hearing the telling details about a person’s experiences, so any combination of the three is likely to catch my eye. But I’m not interested in warfare or political struggles wherever they might have taken place so I would be unlikely to read or research those topics except where it is something that affects the people I’m finding out about – for example, in my second book “The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, out September 2016) a lot of the survivors went on to fight in the American Civil War, so this was an area I had to find out more about. Books like “Castaway: epic true stories of shipwreck, piracy and mutiny on the high seas” by Joseph Cummins, “Limeys: The Conquest of Scurvy” by David I. Harvie, and “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick really drew me into the world of maritime history books that focus on the plight of the people involved in difficult situations and how they handled them.
Your latest book is about The Sinking of RMS Tayleur. What was it about the Tayleur and her story that drew you in and made you write this book?
The awful intimacy of the accounts left behind. I found out about the Tayleur from a curator in Warrington Museum & Art Gallery when I paused to look at a porthole on display. He suggested I look up coverage of the disaster, which I did, and it was devastating to read. I think it was the fate of the ship surgeon’s toddler which I came across first, and I had to click away and go sob somewhere quiet, then find my son and hug him. I tried to put the Tayleur out of my mind but I couldn’t stop thinking about the people on board and eventually I took the plunge and immersed myself in everything I could find out about it. This book is the result.
Recently you visited Ireland and went out to Lambay Island to see the spot where the Tayleur went down. How did it feel to be there?
Momentous. I’d spent so long imagining it, researching it and watching YouTube videos of the island and the waters around it that actually being there, the very place where so many people died in terror or grieved for the lost, was somewhat overwhelming. Someday I will dive to the wreck itself. I’d love to spend the night on Lambay too, and pay my respects to the survivors as I do so by burning a candle for them and their lost friends, relatives, and fellow travellers.
So few women survived the crash, and you have an interesting theory why? Tell us about it.
Some of the women were locked in cabins to keep them out of the way – they had no choice but to go down with the ship. Many were below deck feeling seasick or looking after family members or friends who were laid low with it. Some were too ill to climb the stairs amid the chaos and make it on deck. But the main problem for the women and girls trying to get over the sides of the ship and across the ropes and wooden spars to the rocks of Lambay seems to have been their clothing. There are many, many accounts of them getting wet and falling off the ropes and sinking. Women at the time would have worn at least 16 layers of generally quite heavy and constricting material, including a corset and multiple petticoats. Crinolines were in fashion and emigrants were advised to sew their savings into their underwear, adding to their weight. There was no time or space to shed layers and as a result only about 3% of the women survived compared to approximately 59% of the men. Most if not all of the women who made it to the safety of the clifftop did so in their loose, lightweight nightwear.
Sea travel in Victorian times was perilous. Why do you think the people on the Tayleur took such risks to travel?
Their lives if they stayed where they were – or moved elsewhere within their country of origin – were likely to be limited in every way whereas the Australia portrayed in the newspapers at that time seemed like paradise by comparison. A place where the air and water were pure, fruit was there for the picking, animals and fish were there for the taking, gold lay in nuggets as big as a baby on the ground, and you could be whoever you wanted to be and enjoy social mobility was a total contrast to the deprivation and disease these people experienced at home. Many were encouraged to leave and ease overcrowding and about 75% of the Irish passengers had their passage paid for them, along with around 33% of the British emigrants on board. The Tayleur was meant to be a clean, hygienic, luxurious and safe ship, so if you were considering making that journey, this was the ship to be on – especially at a time when there were an average of 3 or 4 vessels reported wrecked daily in British and Irish waters alone.
The stories of the passengers scrambling for their lives is heartbreaking, especially that of the children. Did you feel an emotional connection for the passengers when you were researching their fate? How did you disconnect?
I don’t think I can or will ever disconnect from them emotionally, and now that I’m used to living with these vivid mental images of their pain and trauma, I don’t think I would choose to, either. They should be remembered, they should be respected, and their loss should be regretted. It’s not just for their sake, their struggles were shared by hundreds of thousands the world over, and still are unfortunately. And all in a vain attempt to improve and/or lengthen their lives.
At Coast Monkey we’re of course huge fans of the coast! What’s your connection to the coast?
I grew up in a thick-walled cottage (built in the 1600s) overlooking the Firth of Clyde. There was a field of porridge-coloured sheep between my bedroom window and the water, and in winter the wind would lash the glass with salt-spray. I could hear the waves on the shingle on summer nights and smell the seaweed drying at low tide. I was very unhappy at home and would pack food, juice, and paperbacks into my pockets then spend as long as possible wandering along the beach by myself. I’d shelter in caves or under overhangs if it was raining and arrange driftwood into shelters while fantasising about making a home there for good. For me, the coast – as in wild lengths of sand, shingle and rocks fringed with gorse and fields rather than the touristy areas edged in concrete – means escape. It means freedom and peace, strength and a feeling of being outside of time and the sourer notes of humanity. I’d rather be messing about there with the rain matching the sea for wetness and the horizon lost to a storm than faffing about in a town centre, believe me!
Where is your favourite place along the coast?
Dunure, a small fishing village just south of Ayr on the west coast of Scotland – although it has stiff competition in the form of Lambay, which is a helluva place. I’d gladly live on Lambay (so long as there was a decent web connection!). I grew up in Dunure and try to make a point of visiting the beach there when I’m in Scotland seeing my relatives.
Favourite thing to do on the coast?
I like to potter along with junkfood and a drink in my pockets (so I can stay out for the day, bladder permitting!) looking in rockpools, moving larger stones and pieces of driftwood and checking underneath for interesting creatures, spying on hermit crabs and tiny fish. I can spend several hours on a patch of shells and stones, sifting through them, looking for cowries and agates to take home to my writing room. I like to roll up my jeans, go into the water and walk along while the tide laps around my calves, then find a smooth boulder or patch of grass, thrift and trefoil to sit on while I dry off. I always feel regret when I leave the coast, and although I love Warrington very, very much I think I will eventually live in a rural area by the sea.
*Thanks so much to Gill Hoffs for taking the time to do this interview! To learn more about Gill check out her website or follow her on Twitter: @GillHoffs. If you want to read her book The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic you can get it here on Amazon. Keep an eye out for her next book “The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword) coming out in September 2016.