The HMS Birkenhead was a British troopship that sank on 25 February 1852 near Cape Town, South Africa. It was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. She was designed as a steam-powered frigate, but was converted to a troopship before being commissioned.
Many of the lifeboats could not be lowered because of poor maintenance and a thick layer of paint that kept the mechanisms from working. The soldiers famously stood aside and allowed the women and children to get into the working lifeboats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived. The chivalry shown by the soldiers gave rise to the "women and children first" protocol when abandoning ship. The "Birkenhead drill" is memorialized in Rudyard Kipling's poem Soldier an' Sailor too:
"‘To stand and be still
- to the Birken’ead Drill
- is a damn tough bullet to chew".
- to the Birken’ead Drill
The Birkenhead steamed out of Simon's Bay near Cape Town, South Africa on February 25, 1852 bound for Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The ship had been built by the famous Scottish John Laird family of Birkenhead, Merseyside, England. She was a 1400-ton ship that was just over 200 feet long. On board were 643 men, women and children as well as several officer's horses. Among the passengers were soldiers destined for the Queen's (second) Royal Regiment of Foot. They were commanded by Ensign Boylan, one corporal and 51 men.
The ship's captain, Robert Salmond, wanted to make the trip quickly so he hugged the South African coast staying about 3 miles (4.8 km) off the shore. That evening, everyone was resting in their hammocks below decks when the ship hit a hidden reef off a point now called "Point Danger". The impact ripped the ship open allowing the sea to pour in. The forward watertight compartment flooded immediately, drowning about 100 men in their hammocks. A second impact tore open the second of the two watertight compartments flooding it. The remaining officers and men assembled on the deck. Because the winches were not well maintained and clogged with paint, the two large lifeboats that could hold 150 people each could not be launched. The ship fired distress rockets but there were no other ships nearby. Two cutters and one gig (small boat) were launched. The order was given for the men to "stand fast" (remain where they were) allowing the women and children into the few boats available. The horses were freed so they could swim the approximately two miles (3.2 km) to shore. Twenty minutes after hitting the rock the ship broke up and sank. A few managed to swim to shore while most either drowned or were taken by sharks.
The schooner Lioness discovered one of the cutters the next morning and made it to the scene where they rescued as many people as they could. It was reported in The Times newspaper that there were 643 people on board the Birkenhead, but this was an estimate as the records were lost with the ship. The survivors included about 113 Army personnel of all ranks, 6 Royal Marines, 54 sailors, 7 women and 13 children. Eight horses made it to shore (a ninth broke its leg getting off the ship). The disaster was the start of the standard protocol of women and children first. The Birkenhead Drill became the best example of courage in the face of death.
A lighthouse was built at Danger Point in 1895 to warn ships of the dangerous reef. It is about 59 feet (18 metres) tall and can be seen for about 25 nautical miles out to sea. A memorial to the Birkenhead disaster is at the base and points to the rock where the ship sank.
- Roger Webster (2003). The Illustrated at the Fireside: True Southern African Stories. New Africa Books. p. 34. ISBN 0-86486-558-9.
- Sholto Percy; Perry Fairfax Nursery (3 January 1852). "The Steam Frigate "Birkenhead" - Iron v Wood". The Mechanics' Magazine, Register, Museum, Journal and Gazette. Robertson & Co. LVI: 327–29.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Ben Johnson. ""Women and Children First!"". Historic UK. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- "The Birkenhead Disaster, 26Th February, 1852". The Queen's Royal Surrey Regimental Association. Archived from the original on 14 August 2018. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
- "The sinking of the HMS Birkenhead and the Danger Point Lighthouse". Marebella. Retrieved 9 April 2016.