• Tastes Of History

On This Day: 'Women and children first'

February 26th, 1852: 450 perish as the troopship HMS Birkenhead is wreaked off Danger Point on the Western Cape of South Africa.


HMS Birkenhead was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. Designed as a steam frigate, she was converted to a troopship before being commissioned. After seven years of service the ship’s final voyage began in January 1852. Under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops from ten different regiments, including the 74th Regiment of Foot and Queen's Royal Regiment, to take part in the Eighth Xhosa War against the Xhosa in the Cape Colony. On January 5th, she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, and conveyed some officers' wives and families.

Final voyage On February 23rd, 1852, Birkenhead docked briefly at Simon's Town, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked, as did a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses, several bales of hay and 35 tons of coal were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.


Two days later, at 6 pm on February 25th, the Birkenhead sailed from Simon’s Bay with between 630 and 643 men, women and children aboard [1]. To make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course that was generally within 3 miles of the shore. Using her paddle wheels, she maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots. The sea was calm and the night clear as she headed east.

Collision Shortly before 2 am on February 26th, the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock off Danger Point near Gansbaai, Western Cape. Barely submerged, this rock is clearly visible in rough seas, but it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions. Captain Salmond quickly ordered the ship’s anchor dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. As the ship backed off the rock, however, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision. The ship struck the rock a second time buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. The forward compartments and the engine rooms were soon flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.


The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot to send men to the chain pumps. Sixty were directed to this task, a similar number were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck to raise the forward part of the ship. The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter which lay alongside. Two other large boats, with a capacity of 150 souls each, were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches. Only three smaller boats were left available.

The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers. As Ensign Lucas, a survivor, later recounted: ‘Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice’ [2].


From bad to worse Ten minutes after the first impact, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few more minutes. Captain Salmond called out that ‘all those who can swim jump overboard and make for the boats’. Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast, and only three men made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. Eight did indeed make it safely to land.

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles to shore over the next 12 hours, using pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were killed by sharks.


The next morning, the schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters and, after saving the occupants of the second boat, made her way to the scene of the disaster. Arriving in the afternoon, she found 40 people still clinging to the rigging. It was reported that, of the approximately 643 people aboard, only 193 were saved. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot was the most senior army officer to survive. He was awarded a brevet majority for his actions during the ordeal [3].


Birkenhead drill Only 193 of the estimated 643 people on board survived. The scale of the disaster led to a number of sailors being court martialled on May 8th, 1852 aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Unsurprisingly the court martial attracted a great deal of interest but, as none of the senior naval officers of the Birkenhead survived, no-one was found to be blameworthy.


The soldiers' chivalry gave rise to the unofficial ‘women and children first’ code of conduct for abandoning ship. While this has absolutely no basis in maritime law, the notion still holds sway over popular imagination, reinforced in both novels and on film. The ‘Birkenhead drill’ as it was termed in Rudyard Kipling's 1893 tribute to the Royal Marines, ‘Soldier an' Sailor Too’, would later come to describe courage in the face of hopeless circumstances.

 

Endnotes:


1. The number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in The Times newspaper. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 soldiers (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women, 13 children and at least one male civilian. Regrettably, as the muster rolls and books were lost with the ship these numbers cannot be substantiated.

2. The transcript of a ‘letter’ written in Cape Town on March 20th 1852 by Ensign G.A. Lucas of the 73rd (Perthshire) Regiment of Foot recounting ‘The wreck of H. M. Steamer "Birkenhead", 26 Feb 1852’.

3. A brevet was a warrant giving a commissioned officer a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct but may not confer the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank.

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