Gill Hoffs’ book on a nineteenth century maritime disaster has received a number of favourable reviews. This is understandable as it uses contemporary sources to develop the drama as the ship, and its benighted passengers, moved inexorably closer to their doom.
As an historian of modest claims myself, I welcome the use of resources that modern technology makes available. Books published in earlier times are increasingly being digitised, bringing new – or recovered – insights into otherwise lost events. Similarly, the ever expanding newspaper libraries now coming on stream enable the historian to follow events as they unfolded in the reporting of the day.
Both sources, of course, are no more certain than books and newspapers of today, and a healthy scepticism, with the realisation that the reports of the day are often incomplete or partial, remain essential elements in the historian’s tool locker.
At the same time, the expense involved in travelling to dusty archives can be daunting to the professional historian let alone the amateur. Gill Hoffs has made extensive use of the internet to contact descendants of those who survived, and thus access family records and reminiscences, as well as newspapers of the time and a fair range of modern texts mostly of a fairly general nature.
The story commences with the passengers themselves, as they were leaving various parts of the United Kingdom, especially famine racked Ireland, and the Netherlands. Their travails in the unique culture of the port of Liverpool are followed by details of the only too obvious deficiencies of the ships – British and American – being used to convey, in dreadful conditions, people with hopes of a new life. Conditions for sea-going passengers in the nineteenth century were all too often uncomfortable in inevitably hazardous circumstances, but these ship-owners appear to have been at best thoughtless, at worst utterly heartless, in the paltry arrangements for their human cargoes.
In a nutshell, the William and Mary was a toxic mix of Roman Catholic Irish and Dutch Protestant emigrants, a crew ill at ease with each other and an incompetent captain, all in a dangerously over-loaded ship. Some childbirths added to the unhealthy conditions, exacerbated by poor rations, lack of privacy and insanitary accommodation.
As the unhappy ship approached American waters, the captain decided upon an unsafe route through dangerous channels, and the William and Mary paid the almost inevitable price. The real horror of this already alarming story lies in the subsequent events. The captain and the crew, almost to a man, not only abandoned their ship and its passengers to their fate, but also declared on arrival in the United States that the ship had gone down. Newspaper editors wondered how so many of the crew and so few of the passengers had survived, and in due course the dreadful truth emerged. The ship had foundered, but not before many of the passengers had been rescued.
Gill Hoffs succeeds in developing the dramatic events in breathtaking style, quoting extensively from newspapers of the period. One negative point is that the majority of the reports do not relate directly to the William and Mary. Many indeed pre-date this ill-fated voyage.
One or two other doubts persist, particularly in relation to context. The Great Famine in Ireland of 1845-8 is well documented, but not well explained here. This concern extends also to the circumstances of sea travel in the nineteenth century, and the specific losses in coffin ships, as they became known, carrying – and losing – vast numbers of destitute and starving Irish peasants to the New World in the mid to late 1840s. Ultimately the problem of overloading ships was remedied by the introduction of the Plimsoll Line in 1876; the absence of adequate regulation is mentioned briefly but could well have been developed further.
Finally, there is a general tendency to blame both government and society for the travails of the day, especially those of the Irish peasantry. This is unfair, however. At a governmental level, the efforts of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, to alleviate distress should not go unrecognised. Nationally, organisations such as the Canterbury Association were successful in relocating migrants to far off lands. Nor should the assistance provided at local level by the gentry be ignored. Charles Strickland, for example, Land Agent for Lord Dillon at Loughlynn, County Roscommon over a period of forty years (from 1844 to 1884) was assiduous in providing relief for his tenants, so much so, indeed, that there is a magnificent window in the church at Loughlynn commemorating his dedication.
In fairness, these comments detract little from the telling of the story. For the general reader, this is a gripping and fascinating read.
Barry Jolly is Publications Editor for Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society, but writes here in a personal capacity.