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Five minutes with… Gill Hoffs

with Tayleur book on Lambay - harbourGill Hoffs grew up on the Scottish coast before gaining a BSc in Psychology from the University of Glasgow. Gill’s short nonfiction, Black Fish, won the 2011 Spilling Ink Nonfiction Prize, and her work is widely available online and in print, including Wild: a collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015). Gill will be discussing the ‘Victorian Titanic’ in the new series of BBC Coast on Thursday 30th July, 8pm.

What is an historian?

A person with a passion for history and a commitment to establishing the facts as best they can with the information they have, while keeping an open mind to other information that may turn their theories or the accepted story of ‘who did what when and why’ on its head. Generally someone with incurable curiosity and a cat. Mine’s called Coraline. A professional or accredited historian will have credentials (e.g. a relevant degree) to demonstrate their expertise and experience. My degree is in Psychology, however, so I’m more comfortable exploring the lives and actions of the people involved with this as my frame of reference rather than a more general understanding of the processes of the past.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

A porthole in Warrington Museum, or, more precisely, the people involved with the story behind it. I grew up on the Ayrshire coast where my uncle and aunt would tell me tales of shipwrecks nearby and I found them fascinating, but couldn’t see an obvious career path that would lead me to researching and writing about them, especially since I’m not a treasure-hunter with investors aplenty, and I couldn’t stand learning dates and monarchs by rote at school – I chose to study geography instead. Then one day while I was visiting the local museum with my toddler a curator told me why, in this inland town, there were artefacts from a shipwreck on display. I heard about the ‘Victorian Titanic’ for the first time, googled it, and that was it – I had to tell the story. It’s not so much that I’ve pursued a career in history as a career in telling the stories of ordinary people from the past who experienced extraordinary trauma. It’s a way of honouring the dead and memorializing them. The history is, to me, interesting but almost incidental.

What is the one history book you couldn’t do without?

Oh, tough question, that’s like confessing you have a favourite pet. You’ll get a different answer each time you ask me, but today “Cast Away: Epic true stories of shipwreck, piracy and mutiny on the high seas” by Joseph Cummins is jostling with Richard Dana’s “Two Years Before The Mast” for top spot. Dana’s book. Yes. Cummins’s tomorrow. And that’s my final answer. Maybe.

What is your favourite website for historical research?

British Newspaper Archive. I couldn’t have written “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) or my WIP without it. It is an invaluable resource for historians, genealogists, and people with an interest in nature, too – the number of weird and wonderful snippets I’ve found on there while looking into sailors and emigrants have kept me diverted for hours. I must admit it threw me a bit to start with, seeing grisly murders and suicides intermingled with reports of robins nesting in church organs. But that’s part of the appeal.

What is your favourite historical site?

Dunure Castle in Ayrshire. I grew up in that area and spent aaaaaages looking for the secret tunnels rumoured to lead into the ruins and the ‘black vault’ where the Commendator of Crossraguel Abbey was roasted alive in 1570. The castle has views across the Firth of Clyde to Arran and Ailsa Craig, same as when it was built in the 15th century, you can even see Ireland on a clear day, and if you wander down past the dovecote (or ‘dookit’) you come to a beach speckled with agates.

You have a time-machine for twenty-four hours… where do you go?

While I would love to meet Joseph Merrick, the so-called ‘Elephant Man’, I think I couldn’t resist the chance to go to the Tayleur inquest in Ireland in early 1854 to meet Captain John Noble and some of the survivors and grill the mysterious ‘Mr Jones’ who came over from Liverpool purely to prevent justice being done – and to reassure Captain Noble that I really do not think it was his fault. I would go on the Tayleur itself and meet the doomed hero Dr Robert Hannay Cunningham and the romantic ex-convict who may have been the inspiration for Dickens’ “Magwitch” character, but it would probably be far too upsetting since (presumably) I couldn’t warn them away!

What is your normal working pattern?

Find an unusual shipwreck I’m terribly curious about that doesn’t have a book to itself, see if there’s enough raw material extant to support 50-70,000 words, and whether I can source the information I need from home or not. If research requires a lot of time away from home or expense then generally it’s not possible for me to pursue it. That’s why sites like the BNA and Ancestry are so invaluable to researchers like myself, and why I’m forever delighted at the generosity and helpful nature of strangers – sometimes archivists or descendants want a story told just as badly as you do, and will send you information and images that give you new insight or supporting evidence.

Your area of historical expertise no longer exists. What would you research instead?

There are so many areas I’m interested in that I don’t know if there would be any difference to my daily life. I like to know specific rather than general history, personal rather than political, so something where I researched a baby farmer or mummy brown pigment or mourning jewellery using hair or … well, that kind of thing, would suit me very well. I’m fascinated by cannibals, castaways, and tales of survival, so I would very much like to write about a specific person or event to do with that someday. I have read some very graphic accounts of this on the BNA but not enough for a book about an individual or a particular event. But I’ll keep looking and I’m open to suggestions!

Why is history important today?

Why is anything important to anyone? It may not be important for every person, or every institution, and I’m not arrogant enough to say “Well, if it’s not then it damn well should be!” – I love Nutella but that’s not for everyone, either – though thankfully there are enough people interested in What Came Before to keep some kind of momentum around research and sharing information and, importantly, preserving documents and objects for the future. If time machines do become a reality, as I suspect they will, and are developed to the extent that anyone can travel to anywhere and any time, then history will die in that instant. There will be no before/now/after, it will all be ‘now’, and all be changeable. The princes may not die in the tower, the Titanic (and ‘Victorian Titanic’) may not sink, and the Roman Empire may not fall. I’m savouring history while it lasts.

What is your best historical fact?

When you gaze in awe at many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paintings, as I tend to, you are looking at smushed up dead people.  The PRB were keen on the pigment ‘mummy brown’, until they realised it was actually made of mummies, which led to Edward Burne-Jones ceremonially burying his tube in the garden (or so it’s said).  I don’t find this at all off-putting, I find it melancholy and beautiful.

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