Book Review: Gill Hoffs – The Lost Story of the William and Mary

by The Historical Examiner

Gill Hoffs, The Lost Story of the William and Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Barnsley: Pen & Sword History, 2016. Pp. xi, 162; 1 Passenger List. UK £19.99 hbk. ISBN. 978-1473858244.

Gill Hoffs grew up on the Scottish coast before gaining a BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow. She worked with children with a variety of needs before she had her son in 2007. Gill’s short nonfiction, Black Fish won the 2011 Spilling Ink Nonfiction Prize, and her work is available widely online and in print, see her website: gillhoffs.wordpress.com for details. Her book is published by Pen and Sword who have over 350 books published every year, Pen & Sword has established itself as a specialist book publisher.

It is perhaps this delving into the human mind that gives her a different perspective for writing a historical book. She uses a combination of newspaper articles, documented accounts from the survivors and part analysis to recount the tragic tale of the shipwrecked William and Mary.

Throughout the book you get a real sense of the harrowing journey that the emigrants faced. The background stories to those of those who made the journey offer a real sense of the excitement and expectation of what life would be like on reaching America.

The various chapters in the book catalogue the narrative of different ethnic and family groups. These reminiscences are interlaced with newspaper articles that offer the reader a flavour of the hardships those on board faced. At times, some of the accounts are harrowing and not pleasant to read, yet they show the true horrors of sea travel in the nineteenth century.

Chapter seven tells of ‘disaster at sea’ and as a reader you get a true sense of the confusion and desperation of the passengers. The lack of readiness of the boats to evacuate the ship is terrifying, as is the abandonment by the crew. Hoffs suggests that Captain Stinson deliberately left those on board to die, however, you do get a sense of not only cowardice but of his total incompetence in dealing with the crisis. The captain does not come out of the story well at all, and his disappearance upon arrival in American leads us to believe in his guilt. Whether he was guilty of deliberately grounding the ship is open to debate, but there is no doubt that self-preservation was his intention.

Overall the book offers a detailed description of Victorian emigration, leading to an explanation of how the system worked, most notably in Liverpool. The finer points of this, and other similar journeys and shipwrecks highlight the main narrative. Hoffs research is extensive; over two hundred newspapers were used, although she does state that this has been done primarily through the internet. The author also used many eye-witness accounts and the final chapter twelve, rounds off the book nicely with a history of those who survived the voyage.

In short, the breadth and depth of scholarship of the author is good, and the book benefits from an extensive bibliography. Hoffs skilfully blends the narrative with the descriptive, and has produced a work that should be read by all those with an interest in emigration, shipwrecks and sea-journeys in the nineteenth century. I would have liked to have seen the use of footnotes and direct referencing in text, and it could be argued that some of the quotations are rather long, but these are small details. In general, Gill Hoffs is a skilled narrator and her thorough research and writing brings the characters alive using their personal accounts, chronicling the story of why those involved were emigrating and how they ended up on this particular ship. Despite the disaster and the cruel journey, the book arrives at a satisfactory end with recounting information of those who survived.

The book is available directly from Pen and Sword by clicking here.

** NOTE: The Historical Examiner received a complimentary copy of the book to review, but no other incentives. The review is an honest and unbiased opinion.