Thursday, February 25, 2010
Wreck of the Birkenhead Anniversary
She was transporting men, mainly of the 73rd Regiment of Foot, for service in the 8th Frontier War. Also on board were some officers’ families. The iron paddle steamer struck an uncharted rock near Gansbaai, tearing a large hole in her side.
The sea almost immediately flooded the forward part of the ship and engine rooms, drowning 100 soldiers below decks. The lowering equipment for the lifeboats would not function, possibly due to lack of maintenance. Two cutters and a gig were launched and the women and children rowed clear of the wreck. Horses were cut loose to swim ashore if they could. Troops assembled on the stern deck, maintaining calm and discipline under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 73rd Regt, until the ship broke into two parts.
Minutes before she finally sank, despite the opportunity offered to save themselves, the men stood fast to avoid swamping the boats carrying the women and children. This heroism coined the phrase ‘the Birkenhead Drill’ i.e. ‘women and children first’ – though this was nothing new in maritime history: a similar protocol had been observed in previous shipwrecks, including that of the Abercrombie Robinson in Table Bay, ten years earlier. Of approximately 640 souls on the Birkenhead, 445 were lost. Many drowned, others were taken by sharks.
A court of enquiry into the incident was held on board HMS Victory at Portsmouth, 8 May 1852. In 1936 a plaque in memory of the loss of the Birkenhead was placed near Danger Point lighthouse. The inscription states:
‘Nine Officers, Three Hundred & Forty-Nine of Other Ranks and Eighty-Seven of the Ship’s Company Lost Their Lives. Every Woman & Child Was Saved.’
For lists of those on board the Birkenhead go to:
photo of Danger Point Lighthouse by Joe Viljoen