Serve logo

HMS Birkenhead

by Luke Milner about a year ago in history

Women and Children First

(Dixon, 1901)


Hopefully, none of you readers have been in a shipwreck before. But if you have and were lucky enough to get off alive, I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase which is most commonly associated with the sinking of the Titanic: “Women and Children first” when loading the lifeboats, which is the general protocol. However, have you ever wondered where this protocol was first established? Well that’s a good question, and this article details the origins of the women and children first protocol when we look at an extraordinary tale of bravery in the face of terrible circumstances in the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead in February 1852.


His Majesty’s Ship Birkenhead was an iron-hulled troopship of the Royal Navy. She was built at the Camel Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead, Merseyside. Although initially she was launched under the name HMS Vulcan, but was changed to Birkenhead later on. She was a steam-driven paddle-wheeled ship, but she also had an initial brig design, which was two masts rigged with sails, but this was later changed to the barquentine configuration, which was three masts, a foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast. Through her iron-build and steam driven design, she was a very modern ship, as the navies all over the world were still relying on the traditional timber-wood ships which only had sail power. At 210 feet long and with a 37 feet beam she was also a much larger ship than the traditional ships at the time. From bow to stern she was divided into eight watertight compartments, while the engine room was divided into four compartments, making twelve overall. As a sign of her iron build, she had a figurehead of Vulcan on her bow, which had a hammer in one hand and a sculpture of the bolts of jove in the other.

Final Voyage

In early 1851, the British armies were engaged in one of the many wars with the Xhosa people in South Africa. The Xhosa’s mission was to drive the British out of their colonies in that area. At this time, it was the 8th war that the British had been fighting the Xhosa. On January 7th 1851, Xhosa forces attacked Fort Beaufort, under the man Hermanus Matroos. However, the attack failed, in the process Matroos was executed by British forces. From then on, with the help of the Cape Government, the British were gaining the upper-hand, but slowly. In December 1851, Sir Harry Smith, Field Marshal in the British Army requested that more reinforcements be sent to the cape and HMS Birkenhead was one of the ships assigned to this task. In early January 1852, she departed from Portsmouth, England. She was carrying ten different regiments aboard as well as several women and children. In the thirty-seven days it took for her to reach South Africa, three babies were born.

On February 23rd 1852, the Birkenhead arrived at the Royal Navy base in Simonstown South Africa, where she restocked with supplies for the next leg of the voyage. Her next destination was Algoa Bay. During the restocking, nine cavalry horses were supplied, each belonging to the ranking military officers on board. At 6pm on February 25th, she departed for Algoa Bay. It seemed an almost perfect time to sail, visibility was excellent and the sea was very calm, she was sailing at 8.5 knots. The captain Robert Salmond, had been ordered to make the quickest journey time possible, and this resulted in a course that kept the ship no more than 2 miles from the shoreline.


Visibility may have been excellent, but the sea is never a safe place, no matter how calm the sea is or how clear the weather is. At 2am on February 26th 1852, the Birkenhead violently crashed into a barely visible rock near aptly named “Danger Point”, near a town today that’s called Gansbaai. The rock responsible for the sinking, is reportedly visible in rough seas or in a swell, but due to poor visibility on the surface, in calm weather it remains well hidden. The most common way to detect its presence is if a swell moves across it which then causes a wave to break over it. In the aftermath of the collision, the ship violently came to a jolting stop. But the lower troop dormitories were penetrated by the rock and a wall of water violently gushed in, drowning over 100 soldiers instantly before they could even wake up.

Salmond rushed on deck and ordered the lifeboats to be lowered to the rail and prepare for them to be launched. Many men that were on the higher decks began to flood the top decks, some of them pulling their uniforms on over their pyjamas, some in the pyjamas only or some stark naked. The highest-ranking officer on the ship, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot was also present on deck, where he arranged those that had arrived. 60 men were sent to man the tackles on the lifeboats, 60 more to be sent below to operate the chain pumps. The rest were either assigned other jobs or to stand at attention on the ship’s rear deck in an effort to control the downward tilt of the bow.

Distress rockets were fired after it was discovered that the ship’s ammunition magazine was underwater. But the ship was so far from the normal shipping lanes and the coast was so barren there was no one in sight to help. The ship carried eight lifeboats, two of which were paddle-wheeled ones that could carry 150 people, but when the men went to prepare them, the ropes snapped almost instantly as the equipment had not been maintained and a coat of paint clogged the winches. The 150 person boats were also so heavy they couldn’t be moved by hand without the ropes. As the ship dipped further by the bow underwater, some other lifeboats couldn’t be launched. Leaving only three lifeboats serviceable. These included two cutters and a gig. In light of the lack of serviceable lifeboats, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton ordered that the women and children be put in one of the cutters, but not to lower until an order to abandon ship was made.

Salmond ordered the engines to be reversed believing that the ship could be beached on the coast, but this proved to be even more fatal, as the ship’s stern was struck and another gash was torn under the paddle-structure. The second gash flooded the engine rooms and killed the boilers. In contact with the freezing water, the boilers sent a surge of heated energy upwards, the funnel was ruptured from its base and collapsed to the starboard side, crushing those working on one of the 150 person boats. In the process those handling the chain pumps were also drowned. In light of this mistake, Salmond gave the order to abandon ship, but Seton decided that the right thing was to get the more vulnerable ones of first, so he ordered all men to stand aside and let the cutter holding the women and children leave first. The other two serviceable boats were then loaded with cadets that had no experience, but they were told to stay until the women and children were a safe distance from the wrecked ship. The ship’s bow began to break up and water flooded the top deck.

Salmond then ordered the horses to be thrown overboard in the hope that they could swim to shore. The horses were blindfolded and pushed into the sea. Eight were successfully pushed into the sea, but the ninth broke it’s leg as it was pushed overboard. The stern began to rise out of the water and the ship’s underbelly was exposed. The men stood in ranks silently as the ship underwent its death throes. As the ship tilted even more, the men started to climb the rigging on the ship’s main and mizzenmasts. Around 20 minutes after the impact with the rock, Salmond shouted to the men:

“All those that can swim, jump overboard and make for the lifeboats” (thevinatagenews, 2017)

But this is where the true meaning of the Birkenhead disaster comes into play. Seton realized this would only endanger the women and children. He aggressively drew his sword and shouted to the men:

“You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children, I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast” (The Scotsman, 2005).

Every single soldier obeyed this command. Not one of them jumped overboard.

The ship’s lamps then went out and the ship broke up again just behind the mainmast. The stern plunged back into the sea violently as the men tried to regain their balance. The forepart settled on the sea floor, leaving only a part of the mainmast visible above the water, with 40 or more men clinging to it for dear life. The stern section floated for a few minutes before it sank by its forward end, the mizzenmast collapsing in the process. The deck was swamped by a wave which consumed the men still aboard. HMS Birkenhead was gone.

Over the next several hours, some say 12 hours or more, the soldiers attempted to swim to shore, clinging on to pieces of wreckage in order to stay afloat. However, the ordeal was about to get much worse. The area of South Africa where HMS Birkenhead went down is referred to by many as the Great White Capital of the world. The survivors reported that many victims were attacked and killed by Great White Sharks. Others drowned for varying reasons, succumbed to the cold or were driven by the surf into dangerous rocks that surround the South African coast.

At around mid-morning a schooner called Lioness commanded by Thomas Ramsden found one of the cutters, which was the one containing, the soldier cadets. Afterwards, it found the cutter with the women and children and made for the wreck. At around midday, the surviving soldiers had managed to land, but the coast was barren and not a soul within miles. The soldiers that were lucky to make it to land were cold, tired, naked and hungry. Some of the senior officers that commanded these men were Lieutenant Girardot and Captain Wright. They began to help the survivors make it in land in the hopes that they may be able to find shelter until they were found by other British forces.

Upon arriving at the wreck, Ramsden picked up the 40 men clinging to the main mast and sailed towards Simonstown. In the meantime, the gig rowed into the mouth of the Bot River where some local fishermen loaned the ship’s assistant surgeon a horse to ride to Simonstown and give word of what had happened. Eventually the soldiers were given shelter at the farm owned by an ex-Dragoon of the British army, Thomas Smales.

The following day, the assistant surgeon made it back to Simonstown and gave word of what had happened. Another troopship the HMS Rhadamanthus was dispatched to get a rescue underway. Towing the overcrowded Lioness back to Simonstown, Rhadamanthus sailed towards the sight of the wreck, where it found one senior survivor. As a result of this, the rest were taken from Smales’ farm back to Simonstown on the Rhadamanthus.


The sinking of the Birkenhead is a tale of immense bravery and self-sacrifice. Of the approximately 650 men that were aboard, only 193 were saved. But what makes the Birkenhead unique among shipwrecks is that it was where the “women and children first” protocol was born and that all of the women and children were saved. The protocol which came out as a result of this disaster was later coined as the Birkenhead Drill, and to this day the protocol is still taught and used by the navies and sailors of the modern world. Even though, it is not actually coded in maritime law, the Birkenhead Drill does relate to the general emergency protocols that are acted upon in today’s world, which is to assist the more vulnerable ones first, which is the true meaning of the Birkenhead Drill. Poet Rudyard Kipling also immortalized the scene of the Birkenhead Drill in his poem: “Soldier an’ Sailor too”

“To take you chance in the thick of a rush, with firin’ all about,

Is nothin’ so bad when you’ve got cover to ‘and an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout.

But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,

An’ they done it the jollies – ‘Er Majesties Jollies – soldier an’ sailor too!

Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger no me an’ you;

Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,

So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too.” (PoemHunter, 2017)

Among most other shipwrecks, women and children have been worst off. An example being the loss of the RMS Atlantic in 1873, where apart from only one 12-year-old boy, every woman and child perished. Although should the protocol be acted upon in a real emergency, it would result in the preservation of the women and children. Despite the fact that not all women and children were saved in the sinking of the Titanic, only 20% off all adult males aboard her survived. This is how the women and children first protocol makes the Birkenhead unique.

It was not until 1895 when a lighthouse was built, in an effort to provide security for ships in this dangerous part of the South African coast. The lighthouse is today, a tourist attraction as well as a working lighthouse. It is in sight of the rock responsible for the loss of the Birkenhead and a memorial plaque which marks the wreck’s location is nearby. The local area of Gansbaai holds memorials to the disaster every year thanks to generosity of the shark-cage diving company Marine Dynamics. The Camel Laird shipyard where she was built also has a memorial to the disaster.

The Treasure

Legend has it that the Birkenhead was carrying a secret military payroll, which was approximately £240,000 in gold coins. This would equal to three tons of gold, which was payment to the Cape Government for the reinforcements that they had supplied to the British. Salvage excavations have been conducted since 1854, due to the easy access to the wreck. In the mid-late 1980s a very thorough excavation was carried out, but like most other times, only resulted in little success. Only a few coins were found in the wreckage, which were obvious to be personal belongings of the passengers and crew. If there was such a military payroll aboard, it has still yet to be found.



HERMANUSONLINE.MOBI. (2013). Heroic HMS Birkenhead Sinks. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

POLARIS. (2014). Polaris helps write text for HMS Birkenhead memorial. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

RINA. (2012). Women and Children First. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

ROYAL HIGHLAND FUSILIERS. (2016). HMS Birkenhead. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

SCOTSMAN, THE. (2005). Women and children first. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

SCOTTISH MILITARY RESEARCH GROUP, THE. (2012). The Loss of the "Birkenhead" - On this day in Scottish military history – 1852. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

SETON FAMILY, THE. (2016). The sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, and the heroic actions of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seton of Mounie. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

POEMHUNTER. (2017). Soldier An' Sailor Too - Poem by Rudyard Kipling. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

THEVINTAGENEWS. (2017). The sinking of the HMS Birkenhead: The event that gave rise to the “women and children first” protocol. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

ANESI. (1997). The Titanic Casualty Figures. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 4/12/2017]

WHITESTARHISTORY. (2013). RMS Atlantic. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 4/12/2017]


Addision, AC and Matthews, WH. (2009). A Deathless Story: The Birkenhead and its Heroes. UK: Naval and Military Press.


The History Guy: Five Minutes of History, 2017. Five Minutes of History: The Birkenhead Disaster [online video] Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]

RoomsForAfrica, 2015. HMS Birkenhead - The Origin of 'Women and Children First' [online video] Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]

Liverpool Ships & Sailors, 2014. HMS Birkenhead Memorial [online video] available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]

History West Midlands, 2014. The Shipwreck of the Birkenhead [online video] Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]

Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, 2012. Shark Cage Diving Gansbaai – 160th anniversary of the Birkenhead disaster – Marine Dynamics [online video] Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]

Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, 2017. HMS Birkenhead Memorial 2017 [online video] Available at: [Accessed 4th December 2017]


Dixon, 1901, The Wreck of the Birkenhead, portrait, viewed 4th December 2017, <>.

Luke Milner
Luke Milner
Read next: My Review of "Da 5 Bloods"
Luke Milner
See all posts by Luke Milner

Find us on socal media

Miscellaneous links