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Jo'Burg Days: British Settlers In South Africa – 3

Barbara Duralacher highlights details of that ill-fated ship, HMS Birkenhead.

History of HMS Birkenhead
For those who are interested in the tragic history of HMS Birkenhead, here is an extract taken with many thanks from Wikipedia.

“......The Birkenhead was built in 1845 at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead as the frigate HMS Vulcan. She had two 378 hp steam engines that drove a pair of 6-metre (20 ft) paddle wheels, as well as two masts rigged as a brig.

According to her designer, John Laird:
The designs submitted, and which were finally approved, were of a vessel 210 feet long (being about 20 feet longer than any vessel of her class had been built), and 37•6 beam with a displacement of 1918 tons on the load water-line of 15•9. The only change made by authorities at the Admiralty in these designs was the position of the paddle shaft, which they ordered to be moved several feet more forward; the change was unfortunate as it makes the vessel, unless due care is taken in stowing the hold, trim by the head. With this exception, the designer was answerable for the model, specification, displacement and general arrangement of the hull of the vessel.

The ship was divided into eight watertight compartments, while the engine room was divided by two longitudinal bulkheads into four compartments, making twelve watertight compartments in total.

While the frigate was still under construction, two factors came into play that would result in her being converted into a troopship and renamed Birkenhead after the town where she was built. Firstly, the Royal Navy's warships were switched from paddle wheels to more efficient propeller propulsion, following an experiment organised by the Admiralty in 1845 in which the benefits of the propeller over the paddle wheel were dramatically demonstrated. Secondly, doubts existed at the time about the effects of cannon shot against iron hulls - in a number of trials carried out at Royal Arsenal in 1845, it was discovered that at lower velocities, shot made a jagged hole that was hard to plug. The Birkenhead therefore never served as a frigate, as she was reclassified before she was commissioned.

In November 1846, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's iron ship the SS Great Britain ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland. There was doubt as to whether she could be re-floated. Brunel himself advised that if anyone could rescue the ship then the man to do it was the naval engineer James Bremner. He was engaged and the Great Britain was re-floated on 27 August 1847 with the assistance of HMS Birkenhead. Unfortunately, the cost of the salvage bankrupted its owner, the Great Western Steamship Company, causing the Great Britain to be sold and turned into an emigration ship.

In 1851, a forecastle and poop deck were added to the Birkenhead to increase her accommodation, and a third mast added, to change her sail plan to a barquentine. Though no longer destined to be a warship, she was nevertheless faster and more comfortable than any of the wooden sail-driven troopships of the time, making the trip from the Cape in 37 days in October 1850.

Final voyage

In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, the Birkenhead left Portsmouth conveying troops from ten different regiments, but predominantly from the 73rd Regiment of Foot, to the 8th Xhosa War (then referred to as the "Kaffir War") against the Xhosa in South Africa. On 5 January she picked up more soldiers at Queenstown (now Cobh, Ireland), and was also conveying some officers' wives and families.

On 23 February 1852, Birkenhead docked at Simonstown, near Cape Town. Most of the women and children disembarked along with a number of sick soldiers. Nine cavalry horses and several bales of hay were loaded for the last leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay.

In the late afternoon of 25 February 1852, the Birkenhead left Simon's Bay with approximately 643 men, women, and children aboard, under instructions to reach its destination at Algoa Bay as quickly as possible. In order to make the best possible speed, Captain Salmond decided to hug the South African coast, setting a course which was generally within three miles of the shore. Using her paddle wheels she maintained a steady speed of 8.5 knots. The sea was calm and the night was clear as she left False Bay and headed east.
The leadsman was taking regular depth soundings, when at 2 a.m. the following morning, the depth suddenly decreased to 12 fathoms (22 m). Before he could take another sounding, the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock at 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E-34.645, 19.28583Coordinates: 34°38′42″S 19°17′9″E-34.645, 19.28583 near Danger Point (today near Gansbaai, Western Cape). The barely submerged rock is clearly visible in rough seas although it is not immediately apparent in calmer conditions. The initial impact ripped open the forward watertight compartment between the engine room and the fore peak, immediately flooding it and drowning over 100 soldiers in their hammocks. A second impact ripped open the bilge in the engine room, resulting in the two largest watertight compartments in the vessel being flooded.

The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers.

Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmon, all given in a clear firm voice.

Distress rockets were fired, but there was no assistance available. Sixty men were detailed to man the chain pumps, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck, in order to raise the forward part of the ship. Poor maintenance and paint on the winches resulted in only a few of the ship's lifeboats being launched, and the two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them. Eventually two cutters and a gig were launched, onto which all the women and children were placed and rowed away for safety. Only then did Captain Salmond order that those men who could swim should save themselves by swimming to the boats; Lt-Col Seton, however, recognising that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, ordered the men to stand fast. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore. The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely twenty minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next twelve hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat; however, most either drowned or were taken by sharks.

"I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and came up and struck out for some pieces of wood that were on the water and started for land, about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes on were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all round us, and I saw men taken by them close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say, kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats." - Letter from Lieutenant J.F. Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, to his father, 1 March 1852.

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 rescued as many people as possible. It was reported that of the 643 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. The actual number of personnel aboard is in some doubt, but an estimate of 638 was published in the The Times newspaper. It is generally thought that the survivors comprised 113 Army personnel (all ranks), 6 Royal Marines, 54 seamen (all ranks), 7 women and 13 children, but these numbers cannot be substantiated as muster rolls and books were lost with the ship.

Of the horses onboard, eight made it safely to land, while the ninth had its leg broken while being pushed into the sea.


This disaster started the protocol of "women and children first!" which became a standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters, although the phrase itself was not coined until 1860. Similarly, "Birkenhead Drill" carried out by the soldiers became the epitome of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances. In fact, that phrase appears in Rudyard Kipling's tribute to the Royal Marines, "Soldier an' Sailor Too":

To stand and be still
to the Birken’ead Drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew.

A number of soldiers were court martialled as a result of the accident, but no-one was found to be to blame. Captain Edward Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment told the court martial:

The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.
In 1895, a lighthouse was erected at Danger Point to warn shipping of the dangerous reef. The lighthouse is about 18 metres (59 ft) tall and is visible for approximately 25 nautical miles. A remembrance plate for the Birkenhead is affixed to its base, and points to the rock where the ship was wrecked.....”


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