The Lost Story of the William and Mary: A Guest Post by Gill Hoffs

william-and-mary-shipwreck-gill-hoffs

Mrs Daffodil is pleased to welcome author Gill Hoffs, whose new book The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson, has just been released.

Mrs. Daffodil is a creature of the land and shudders at the horrors of shipwreck. Yet, what we see in these excerpts are snap-shots of life on an emigrant ship, the alien impression the survivors made in England, and descriptions of Frisian emigrant clothing. Even in the wake of this maritime tragedy, we catch glimpses of fashion and adornment.

The following is excerpted from “The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016, all rights reserved, available from http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Lost-Story-of-the-William-and-Mary-Hardback/p/12290).

When reading about Victorian maritime disasters in old newspapers while conducting research for my book The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015 http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Sinking-of-RMS-Tayleur-Paperback/p/10677), one shipwreck stood out as particularly odd among the thousands reported. The William and Mary was an ordinary vessel with a common name, which set sail from Liverpool in early 1853 without any sort of fanfare or special treatment. Nothing distinguished the parties of Irish, Scottish, English, Dutch and German emigrants on board, nor the captain and crew, from any of the thousands of others leaving port that month. But within a few months the William and Mary would provoke outrage in newspapers around the world.

The accounts I read at first bemoaned the loss of over 200 passengers and a handful of crew, hoped for the salvation of a group who might have made it onto a raft as the ship went down before the captain’s eyes in the shark-infested waters of the Bahamas and hinted at their dissatisfaction with the captain and crew’s ‘hurry to yield to the instinct [of self-preservation]’ (Freeman’s Journal, 31 May 1853). Then, according to articles published just a few weeks later, the truth came out – or, at least, a version of it.

* * *

The author first introduces us to the hygienic challenges faced by emigrants.

This was the age of the crinoline and women and girls wore voluminous skirts and – if they had them – giant bloomer underpants that went past their knees. Poorer women stiffened their multiple petticoats with rings of horsehair or rolled newspaper and stored precious items, such as money and important papers, in their corsets and stays while still aspiring to the impractical wasp-waisted ideal. Outfits were constricting, heavy, not easily changed in such cramped quarters and even less easily cleaned despite this being extremely desirable given the numerous vomit and food stains that would quickly accumulate on the many layers of fabric. Depending on the state of the lodging houses where the emigrants had previously slept and the state of the straw that made up their ‘donkey’s breakfast’ bedding, there would likely be fleas and similar pests annoying them on board.

* * *

Yet life on board ship had some pleasant moments:

Once the emigrants had found their sea-legs, the voyage became more tolerable and occasionally even enjoyable. According to Haagsma [a survivor who wrote about the ordeal], ‘we entertained ourselves with music or in other ways’. Those with an instrument would gladly show off their prowess with a melody, some passengers – or occasionally, sailors – would sing and dance and there would be a celebratory mood for a while at least as people let loose with a jig. There were restrictions regarding who could go where on the ship, none more so than for the Frisian women, who were forbidden from going on deck with bare feet. But Captain Stinson appears to have taken a shine to at least one of the young women, as Haagsma later related: ‘One evening, at the request of the captain, a Friesian girl was dressed in national or rather provincial clothing and presented to him, which he, the mates and others enjoyed very much. They were especially impressed by the gold ear-pie[ce] with the lace bonnet. The captain called her “a soldier with a southwester.” The gold ear-piece he said was the helmet and the southwester, that you can easily guess.’

* **

When the survivors of the William and Mary were landed, many had only the clothes on their backs. These were far from fashionable to the English eye:

The Frisians made an impression on the English, particularly when they had to take a break at the yellow-brick station of Ely to allow the cattle to change trains for London. ‘We had to remain there until two thirty and meanwhile toured the city, to the great amusement of the residents. The wooden shoes and silver ear ornaments [traditional Frisian dress] caused people to stare at us,’ recalled Haagsma, who was impressed with what he saw of England, saying ‘at Peterborough … they have a station 160 feet in length. The beautiful scene across hills and valleys, along woods and creeks soon disappeared. They were covered by the dark evening fog, which alas prevented the inquisitive traveller from seeing any more. But I know this, that we passed through tunnels three times, which are the result of the iron will of English enterprise.’

* * *

[In Liverpool as] in Ely, the traditional dress of the Frisians drew attention. Roorda wrote, ‘On our arrival the inhabitants of Liverpool expressed very great bemusement at the clogs that we wore and particularly the oorijzers [a type of head covering] which the women in our company wore, yet nobody was unfriendly to us and the owners of our lodging in particular were always very generous and forthcoming.’ Dutch people wore thick woollen socks with wooden clogs and would have clattered across cobbled streets, whereas many of the inhabitants of Liverpool (and the poorer emigrants) would have gone without any kind of footwear due to the extreme poverty there.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, came to Liverpool a few months later to work as US Consul and was shocked to see people out with bare legs and feet even when there was snow on the ground, turning their skin raw and red.

Trijntje [Catherine Tuininga Albers de Haan], who survived the William and Mary wreck, but lost her bag of keepsakes, including her dead children's clothing, during the rescue. It was she who had been told by her Mother to make sure she kept her oorijzers so she could show her social standing. Copyright Christopher Lindstrom

Trijntje [Catherine Tuininga Albers de Haan], who survived the William and Mary shipwreck, but lost her bag of keepsakes, including her dead children’s clothing, during the rescue. It was she who had been told by her Mother to make sure she kept her oorijzers so she could show her social standing. Copyright Christopher Lindstrom

Even more startling was the hair of the Frisian women, which the English found shockingly short:

Haagsma said, ‘The Frisian women with their bonnets aroused the pity of the English and they said, “O, God, those women have no hair”.’ They did, but at that time they cut their hair fairly short, especially compared to British women and wore it under a thin white cloth cap held in place by an ornate metal headdress. These were symbols of wealth and locality and one Frisian woman, 39-year-old Trijntje de Haan, was under strict orders from her mother not to lose hers. Her granddaughter later recalled, ‘there was her head dress which consisted of a lace cap with a gold chain over the brow to hold the lace in place and ending at each temple with loops of lace held in place by engraved gold knobs which completed the decoration. Almost the last advice grandmother had received from her mother was this, “No matter how poor you may become, Treen, never give up your head-dress, for without that you will lose caste and your social standing”.’

The oorijzer, sometimes translated as “ear iron,” was originally a frame of iron. (Mrs Daffodil actually knows a young lady blacksmith who has forged one. It looked rather like a bed-spring.) The frames eventually were made in silver and gold, becoming, as mentioned above, a status symbol. The English did not quite understand the nuances of this fashion:

Class and social standing were of great importance to the Victorians, but while some felt reassured by their knowledge of their place in society – generally those in the upper classes – many felt trapped or hobbled by the strictures and snobberies of the system. This was another reason some found the idea of emigration so attractive: the social mobility and chance of a fresh start elsewhere offered opportunities to many that would be denied them if they stayed at home. Thus Liverpool and other ports became inundated with those seeking a better, or at least different, life.

Not everyone was happy about this. Nathaniel Hawthorne was displeased with the busy atmosphere of the city, saying ‘The people are as numerous as maggots in cheese; you behold them, disgusting and all moving about, as when you raise a plank or log that has long lain on the ground and find many vivacious bugs and insects beneath it.’

Mr Hawthorne was, undoubtedly, a gifted writer, but his distaste for foreigners is rather uncouthly expressed and in a manner not unknown even to-day.

* * *

If you wish to find out more about the passengers and crew on the doomed voyage of the William and Mary, please see  http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Lost-Story-of-the-William-and-Mary-Hardback/p/12290 or contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or @GillHoffs on twitter.”]

Mrs Daffodil was intrigued by this passage shared by the author:

A storm tossed the William and Mary about, emptying emigrants from their bunks onto the deck and the ship was holed on first one rock then another, allowing water to gush into the hold. What happened next was brutal and bizarre and if it wasn’t for the kindness of a local wrecker, the true story of Stinson and his crew’s loathsome actions that could easily be interpreted as an attempt at mass murder would have been lost at sea along with over 200 passengers – which is probably just what Stinson hoped would happen.

Wholesale murder at sea foiled by a kindly local wrecker is something Mrs Daffodil would pay to see…

Many thanks, Gill!

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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