Lines of the Tayleur



Cormac F. Lowth.

This article discusses the dimensions and construction of the Tayleur For the shipwreck: see Tayleur was lost at Lambay. For the Tayleur Medals, see Tayleur fund for the succour of shipwrecked strangers

Advertisement for Tayleur tickets

Tayleur from pre-launch advertisement

There are few divers on the east coast of Ireland who have not dived on the wreck of the iron sailing-ship, TAYLEUR, on Lambay Island, off the coast of North County Dublin. The wreck has the distinction of being the first in Ireland to have been dived upon by scuba divers when it was re-discovered in 1957, one hundred and three years after the ship sank while setting out on it’s maiden voyage. The tragic loss of such a fine new ship was, however, eclipsed by the enormity of the loss of human life as a consequence of the wreck when almost three hundred people, or roughly half of those on board, were drowned. Only three women, out of one hundred aboard, and two children, were saved.

TAYLEUR was designed by William Rennie and built at the Bank Quay Foundry in Warrington by the firm of Chas. Tayleur & Co. in 1853. She was built for Charles Moore & Co. and had been chartered to the White Star Line of Pilkington & Wilson. She set out from Liverpool on her first and only voyage on Thursday, January 19th, 1854, bound for Melbourne in Australia. As the magnificent new ship sailed down the Mersey, the hundreds of passengers aboard had no inclination that their hopes and expectations of a new life in the southern hemisphere would be dashed, along with the ship, on the rocky coast of Lambay just two days later. Difficulties were encountered in the handling and steering of the ship from the beginning. TAYLEUR had been sent to sea rather hastily before the running rigging had been tested and the crew were unfamiliar with the ship. In addition, the compasses were affected by the iron hull and the ship encountered heavy weather shortly after setting out. After sailing towards the Isle of Man initially, it was assumed that the course was taking the ship down the Irish Sea. Instead, in the early hours of Saturday morning, it was found that the ship had been sailing almost due west and that Lambay Island lay ahead. All attempts to bear off and weather the Island proved useless and both of the cables snapped as the anchors were let go in a last futile gesture before the ship drove onto the rocks. The ensuing wreck represented one of the worst maritime tragedies ever to occur in the Irish Sea.

Lambay Island

Coast of Lambay, where Tayleur foundered

The story of the wreck remained as part of the folklore of North County Dublin until it was found in 1957. Since then it has been visited by generations of divers. TAYLEUR was carrying a general cargo which included the everyday necessities of household life for the new emigrants to Australia and a huge amount of material has been removed from the wreck over the years including a great deal of crockery and other artefacts.

The story of the TAYLEUR disaster has been recounted many times, notably in a recent book by Liverpool historian H.F.Starkey entitled, Iron Clipper ‘Tayleur’ – The White Star Line’s ‘First Titanic’, Avid Publications, 1999, ISBN 902964 00 4. The wreck of TAYLEUR was the subject of another recent book by Edward J. Bourke, diver, P.R.O. of C.F.T. and author of several volumes of Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast, whose work will be well known to most Irish divers. Eddie’s new book is entitled Bound For Australia. This fascinating and definitive account was published last year and in time to commemorate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the wreck in 1854 - 2014.

The Author had occasion recently to examine both the original builder’s half-model and the ship’s bell through the good offices of the Maritime Institute of Ireland and he used the opportunity to draft the lines of the ship from the model. An examination of the half-model of TAYLEUR reveals some very interesting information. There is a silver plate screwed to the back mount with the following inscription:


Builders Half Model

Builders Half Model

The last line of the inscription is clearly in error as there were plenty of iron sea-going vessels around before TAYLEUR was launched. This is evidently a confusion with the assertion that TAYLEUR was the largest iron sailing merchant ship then afloat. Brunel’s GREAT BRITAIN, built of iron in 1843, was much bigger but had been built with a steam engine. The scale of the model is one quarter of an inch to the foot or 1 : 48. and many of the dimensions tally with those which were reported at the time of the launch. The length of the model is 56¼ inches, which translates in scale to 225 feet, exactly as advertised. The extreme half-breadth, however, differs slightly at 4½ inches which gives an overall breadth of 36 feet, not 40 feet, as stated at the time. The half breadth of the model would need to be 5 inches to comply with this measurement. This is interesting because it has been asserted that the breadth as originally conceived was to have been 36 feet, but that it was subsequently widened by four feet to forty feet. The extreme breadth according to the report of the survey taken while the ship was at Liverpool was actually 39 feet and 4 inches.

It has also been stated that the original length was to have been 205 feet and that she was lengthened to 225 feet. 205 feet would give a measurement of 51¼ inches and this dimension does not seem to be relevant to this model. So here we have a discrepancy between the two sets of measurements and perhaps the alterations were made as the ship was being built. The depth mentioned in contemporary accounts was 28ft. This generally refers to the distance from the main deck to just above the keel. This gives 7 inches to scale and this is nearer to the measurement on the model from the rather long poop deck to above the keel. The main deck, which was exactly 100 feet in length and had a raised bulwark of 5 feet, measures 6¼ inches or 25 feet from the keel. The poop deck measured 98 feet and the foredeck was 32 feet. The remaining 15 feet were taken up by the beak-head and the seating for the bowsprit. The beak-head is checked immediately under the bowsprit for the figurehead, which, it is understood, was in the likeness of Charles Tayleur, the owner of the Bank Quay Foundry.


Pottery salvaged from the Tayleur

The fore, main and mizzen masts have scaled up diameter dimensions of 33 inches, 36 inches and 30 inches respectively while the bowsprit has a measurement of 30 inches. Her concave stem protrudes 26 feet from the underside of the forefoot to the extreme fore end, the sternpost has a rake aft of 3ft and the overhanging elliptical stern projects 10 feet aft of this. The total sheer from stem to stern is 3 feet and there is only about 6 inches of tumblehome amidships. The keel shows 9 inches moulded depth throughout it’s length and would have been about 12 inches sided overall. Taking the draft as 18ft 2 inches aft and 17 ft 6 inches forward, as stated in a letter of the owners to the Board of Trade inquiry, the ship would have had about 13 feet of freeboard to the top of the rail at the lowest point of the sheer when she set out from Liverpool. The half model was made up in a composite fashion from layers of timber, each three quarters of an inch thick representing three feet. The layers of the TAYLEUR model are made from alternate pieces of light and dark wood which appear to be yellow pine and Burmese teak. Originally these layers were dry-dowelled together and then fashioned to the required shape of one side of the vessel. The frame stations were marked on the model and the layers were then prised apart and the outer longitudinal plan shape of each layer in turn was laid on a drawing board and marked.

The transverse measurements where each layer and the frame station intersected were then transferred to a part of the drawing representing a section through of the layered block and the points were joined, thus giving the shape of each frame in elevation. During the building process these shapes were scaled up and “lofted” to full size and the shape of every frame in the ship was thereby obtained. A great deal of further information was also available from the drawing thus obtained including the varying outer angles of the frames. When the lofting was finished, the half-models were generally re-assembled and mounted on a back- board and a great many survive today as antiques. This method of obtaining the lines of ships and boats was in use from earliest times until quite recently. It has now been largely superseded by computerised technology.

Tayleur Drawing

Author with Plan of the Tayleur

In taking the lines from the model of TAYLEUR, it was not feasible to dismantle the layers of the model as they had been set up on a back-board of teak with appendages such as the keel, masts, bulwarks, rubbing-strakes and the rudder, attached. It was therefore necessary to take the offsets by the use of a pattern taker at each transverse section, a reversal of the normal procedure. This beautiful and historic artefact was in a sadly dilapidated condition when first seen by the author. The rudder and two of the masts had fallen off. Portions of some of the rubbing strakes and the taff-rail were also missing and part of the mounting board was split. The Author carried out essential conservation and restoration work which included replacing the missing parts using old timber.

Even a cursory glance at the lines of TAYLEUR, as evinced by the builder’s half- model, confirms that the ship would have undoubtedly been an extremely fast sailing ship. Further scrutiny dispels the notion, put forward by some commentators, that the vessel was originally intended to be an auxiliary steamer. Given that the half-model was the primary source of all information regarding the building of the ship, as envisaged by the designer, there is no evidence of any piercing of the hull or arching of the sternpost to accommodate a screw propeller, nor is there any bulging or protrusion to suggest a propeller shaft or stern gland. However, there are great similarities, both in side elevation and in the profiles of the transverse sections, to various contemporary auxiliary steamers in drawings by John Grantham who was a consultant naval architect to the Bank Quay Foundry. These were published in book form in 1858 but it must be borne in mind that the vessels were all, primarily, fast sailing ships. Various other details of ‘A Large Iron Sailing Ship’ in the same publication correspond closely to details on the model, and the survey of TAYLEUR, such as the shape of the bow, the box keelson and the three decks.

Tayleur Drawing

Drawing of the Tayleur

TAYLEUR rightly deserved the appellation of “Clipper ship” given to her in contemporary accounts. Indeed, she was so described by the charterers, Pilkington and Wilson’s White Star Line, in a current advertisement for her maiden voyage, as “The magnificent new clipper-ship TAYLEUR”. There are many comparisons to be made among many of the vessels of the period which were thus described, particularly among the extreme clippers then being built in the shipyards of the eastern seaboard of the United States, the lines of many of which are extant. The lines of TAYLEUR are very similar in many ways to some of these. It seems logical that the TAYLEUR lines would exhibit similarities to these vessels given that American clipper-ship building was reaching it’s zenith in the middle of the decade preceding the American civil war and that TAYLEUR was being built at this time and for much the same type of trade as the clippers, especially with regard to the carriage of passengers and freight to the Australian gold rush. Many of the American ships with slightly fuller lines were known as “medium clippers”. Whilst all of the American clippers were built from timber, a seemingly inexhaustible resource of natural forest existed at the time in America, TAYLEUR’s hull and most of the masts and spars were fabricated from iron.

TAYLEUR had a typically flared, concave and hollow entry. Her minimal tumblehome amidships is perhaps slightly uncharacteristic making her somewhat ‘wall- sided’ and the gradual diminishing towards the stern does not begin until well aft of amidships when it joins the fine narrow run aft. However if one refers to the waterline, it can be seen that TAYLEUR embodied two very desirable elements in a ship designed for the Australian trade, good cargo carrying capacity or room for passenger accommodation above, and a hull shape beneath, the waterline, which would have given great speed. The designer clearly had both of these things in mind. The rudder as depicted on the half model is typical of those of dozens of vessels of the period in size and shape and there is nothing to suggest innovation or anything which might have contributed to difficulties in steering the ship. There was, however, a patent worm-type steering gear fitted to the helm to actuate the rudder and this might well have added to the difficulties in steering. Part of this mechanism with the central hub of the wheel still attached was recovered by divers in the 1960s and can be seen in the Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire. A greater likelihood may have been the inability of the inexperienced crew to trim the yards in order to bring the ship’s head around.

It is interesting to compare the length to breadth ratio of TAYLEUR to other well-known clippers of the period, taking the amended dimensions of the survey into account.

Name length breadth app.ratio depth
TAYLEUR 225ft. 39ft 4ins 5.7 : 1 28ft.
CHAMPION OF THE SEAS 252ft. 45½ft. 5.5 : 1 29ft
COMET 241ft. 41ft. 5.8 : 1 22ft.
DAVY CROCKETT 218ft. 41ft. 5.3 : 1 27ft.
EMPRESS OF THE SEAS 240ft. 43ft. 5.6 : 1 27ft.
FLYING CLOUD 235ft. 40ft 5.9 : 1 21½ft
Tayleur Bell

Tayleur Bell, now in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks

All of the other vessels mentioned in this table were American clippers which were renowned for fast passages. It can be seen that the proportions of TAYLEUR compare favourably to these. The narrower beam can probably be accounted for by the smaller scantlings of the iron sections used in the construction vis-a-vis the massive oak timbers and pitch pine planking and ceilings of the American ships. The length to breadth ratio of TAYLEUR is approaching the upper end of the scale.

There is seemingly no sail plan in existence for TAYLEUR and the only indication of her rig is in the finely detailed contemporary lithograph which was executed by O.P. Williams. Here we see that she was a three-masted, full-rigged ship, i.e., she had square-sails on all three masts in addition to having the customary fore and aft sails on the mizzen. The enormous spread of canvas as shown in this illustration gives only part of the picture. Many more sails, which are not illustrated here such as staysails, stunsails and skysails would have been set when conditions were favourable giving TAYLEUR and similar vessels speeds at times of well over seventeen knots.

The fore, main and topsails are huge as are the topgallants. The practise of doubling the topsails and topgallants was not yet in vogue. The royals and the flying jib are shown in the process of being unfurled while two other jibs are set. The lower square-sail on the mizzen or the crossjack is shown brailed up and this was a commonly illustrated feature in ship portraiture, notably among the pier-head paintings of the many maritime artists of nineteenth-century Liverpool and elsewhere. The gaff-rigged spanker is set on the mizzen mast. This mast as depicted in the lithograph seems to have slightly more rake or inclination aft than the fore and main masts. The half model shows about five degrees on all three masts. This rake aft was accentuated on many of her American counterparts. The imitation painted gunports as shown were a feature of virtually all large British merchantmen of the day and whilst they were a pleasing decorative feature they must surely have had their origins in wartime as a means of deceiving enemy warships into believing that a vessel was heavily armed.

The house-flag of the White Star Line is shown flying from the mainmast while a red flag with a white cross flies from the foremast. This may have been the owners, Charles Moore & Co’s flag. There is a four-letter signal hoist flying from the mizzen which reads D. L. K. P. (The D. flag shown here is no longer used as such ) while underneath is shown the letter H. flag denoting “I have a pilot on board”. The red ensign, the flag of the British Merchant Marine, is set at the peak of the gaff.

Tayleur Drawing

Author with Drawing of the Tayleur

The bell of TAYLEUR with the name embossed on the outside is a regulation ship’s bell made of brass, the requirement for which was that it be at least 12 inches in diameter. It would have been mounted at the fore end of the ship, usually abaft the capstan or the windlass, and it served a number of purposes. It was not the bell with which the watches were rung, this would generally have been a smaller bell and would have been mounted aft near the helm. The bell was used as a signalling device to the officer in command when letting go and weighing the anchor. The ship’s anchor cables were generally marked in “shackles”, i.e. every fifteen fathoms, and the number of shackles run out or coming aboard was signified by a corresponding number of strokes of the bell. When weighing anchor, the bell was rung swiftly to signify that the anchor was off the seabed. The bell was also used when a lookout was stationed at the bow to signal the approach of other vessels, one ring for a vessel on the port side, two for starboard and three for dead ahead. It was also used for signalling when anchored or stopped in fog in conjunction with a large gong which was mounted at the stern. Both were sounded at intervals and this helped other vessels nearby to distinguish which end of the ship they might be near. In situations like this a fog-horn was also used.

The bell was recovered by diver, the late Mr. Gerry Byrne of North Strand, Dublin, after several attempts which included attempting to dislodge it by catching the fluke of a trawler’s anchor under it at low tide. This simply bent the fluke and almost pulled the trawler under. It hung in the Irish Sub Aqua Club’s meeting room in Baggot Street for several years and was eventually lent by Gerry to the Civic Museum in South William St., Dublin, for an exhibition relative to TAYLEUR, at which many artefacts from the wreck were on display, which was organised by Mr. Desmond Branigan, President of the Maritime Institute of Ireland. The bell hung in the Museum for many years until it was placed in storage when the archive department of the Dublin Corporation took over part of the Museum. The bell was shown at the Maritime Institute’s lecture on TAYLEUR which was given by H.F. Starkey in the Sailing club in Rush, County Dublin. The bell was bequeathed to the National Museum by Gerry and it now hangs in the foyer of the Museum in Collins Barracks, Dublin

Pottery from the Tayleur

Display in the National Maritime Museum, Dún Laoghaire

In endeavouring to understand the reasons why TAYLEUR came to grief on Lambay it is essential to take a great many factors into consideration, principal among these are the navigational aspects. Most accounts agree that the wind was blowing from the south-west which automatically meant that in order to gain an offing from Holyhead and Carnarvon Bay, after they had passed the Skerries off the north coast of Wales, that the ship had to go on the port tack. This meant that the wind was on the port side and the vessel was proceeding to starboard. Given that such square rigged ships as TAYLEUR could only sail about two points, or 22.5 degrees, into the wind, her course would have therefore taken her pointing north of Lambay Island, which lies on a course about west by north from the Skerries light. For example, her heading would probably have been 292 degrees, notwithstanding the magnetic variation of the time. The ensuing situation is more complex than that which can be explained away by compass error alone.

It makes immediate sense to assume that the ship would be kept on the port tack for as long as possible given that when the ship would eventually come about to sail on the opposite tack she would then be on a heading of about 157 degrees, a course which would take her not directly down the Irish Sea but over again in the direction of the Welsh coast and a possible lee shore in Cardigan Bay where it would be necessary to come about on the opposite tack, on a course which would then possibly have taken the ship clear through St. George’s Channel and out into the Atlantic where she would have had plenty of sea-room, all assuming that the wind held in a constant direction. South-westerlies are the prevailing winds around the Irish Sea. It might have become necessary to repeat the whole process a number of times before the ship was clear. This would explain the reason for keeping the ship for so long on the port tack despite the concern and admonition of some of the passengers who were knowledgeable in seafaring matters.

Tayleur Memorial

Memorial for the Tayleur

It seems to be generally agreed that the compasses were in error and that the visibility was bad. A compass error or deviation as mentioned, possibly brought about by the iron in the ship’s hull and in the cargo, of within the margin of two points (22.50 degrees) or possibly even three points (33.75 degrees), would possibly have brought TAYLEUR south of her intended course and on a direct heading for Lambay. The Island is fairly low-lying and, due to the bad visibility, it would not have come into sight until it was too late. It could equally be true, and possibly a more likely scenario, depending upon the direction of the deviation of the compass, that the intended course was to take the ship south of Lambay, given that Wicklow Head was mentioned, and that the error in the compass brought her north of this course towards the island. It is worth noting that the angular distance between The Skerries and Wicklow Head is 30 degrees or about 2.7 points and in terms of linear distance, Wicklow Head is about ten miles further from the Skerries than Lambay Island. This clearly represents a compass error of some magnitude. To sail this close to Wicklow Head from the Skerries would have brought the ship perilously close to the treacherous India Bank which lies about five miles north-east of Wicklow Head so the question arises regarding the apparent lack of knowledge of the distance run. Either way the vessel would only have been sailing to within six points of, or two points into, the wind, and the wind direction would have been misread from the faulty compass. It would still have been necessary to sail towards the Irish coast and to come about on the opposite tack to progress southwards. There are extremely strong tidal runs which flow north and south in the locality of Lambay and this might possibly have been a contributory factor in the failure to get the ship about. There are reputedly strong magnetic anomalies around Lambay Island.

Tayleur Fund Medal

Tayleur Fund Medals were issued for gallantry saving life at sea

We must now look at the options open to the master of the vessel once land had been sighted ahead, just off the starboard bow. Had the ship been able to go about immediately on the opposite tack she would almost surely have been able to clear the Island, however, tacking a huge square-rigged sailing ship like TAYLEUR would have called for streamlined efficiency and split second timing from the crew members as the ship would have turned into the wind through about twelve points or 135 degrees. It would have been necessary to trim all of the sails by swinging the yards around the masts as the wind now came on the opposite side. It would have been essential to carry out all of these movements simultaneously. This was a manoeuvre that was avoided by many ship-masters as the potential for damage to the masts, sails and rigging was enormous if the required degree of timing and skill was not forthcoming. It seems clear that this simply was not an option for Captain Noble given the fact that he had a scratch crew who were unfamiliar with the ship and, if the depositions of some of the passengers are taken into account, there was a general appearance of inefficiency among many of the crew-members. The ends of the yards were controlled by braces, which were ropes rove through blocks, and it would have been essential for these to have been running freely. This does not seem to have been the case aboard TAYLEUR as there was apparent difficulty in this direction and it was reported that many of the halyards and braces did not run freely through the blocks. The safer alternative and perhaps the only option open to the captain was to “wear” the ship around to bring her onto the opposite tack and this was the course that he chose.

Builders half model

Author with builders model

Wearing consisted of turning the ship away from the wind, in this case turning the ship to starboard, through about twenty points or 225 degrees and bringing her into the wind in a much more gradual fashion which gave more time to trim the sails and yards and placed less stress on these and the rigging. Wearing, however, would also have called for a well coordinated control of the trimming of the yards and the headsails to assist the ship’s head to turn away from the wind with a consequent need for proper use of the braces and sheets and, if, as we are informed, these were not running smoothly, it would have been very difficult to perform this manoeuvre. Allied to this is the fact that the helm did not seem to give the initial impetus to get the ship turning to starboard which may have been due to some malfunction of the patent steering gear. This utilised worm-type gearing and was a departure from the traditional arrangement of ropes and blocks which were usually attached to the helm. All of these factors seem to have combined to seal the fate of TAYLEUR as she approached the rocky cove on Lambay.

We nowadays tend to take for granted the sophisticated navigational aids that became available to the mariner since the days of the TAYLEUR disaster. Radio communications and direction finding equipment did not arrive for over another fifty years. Radar and electronic sounding equipment were later followed by gyro compasses, Decca Navigators and ultimately G.P.S.. It is perhaps easy to forget just how dependant was the navigator in the middle of the nineteenth century upon visual sightings of landfalls, lights and celestial bodies, the interpretation of soundings, dead reckoning and streaming the log. The dependence upon the magnetic compass was fundamental. We must also reflect on how ships such as TAYLEUR were dependent upon the winds and tides and were at times at their mercy. There is some irony in the fact that if TAYLEUR had been a few hundred yards to the north she might have run on past Lambay and possibly grounded close to the predominantly sandy shore of the mainland where such a stoutly built vessel might have rode out the storm, possibly without breaking up, and without the terrible loss of life which ensued when she ran ashore on the rocks of Lambay.

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