The Story of HMS Birkenhead, the ‘Birkenhead Drill’
and the origins of ‘women and children first’.
On 7 January 1852, HMS Birkenhead, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, began a fateful voyage to South Africa. The ship, built at John Laird Shipbuilders in Birkenhead , and launched in 1845, was transporting troops.
In total there were 638 people on board, including 476 British soldiers and 20 women and children. In the early hours of the morning of 26 February, the ship hit rocks, just off Danger Point, between Cape Hangklip and Cape Agulhas.
The ship’s iron hull was ripped open and more than 100 soldiers drowned as they lay sleeping. The rest of the troops rushed on deck and were ordered to man the pumps and free the lifeboats. The lifeboats had rarely, if ever been used, meaning only three were operational. The women and children were placed into these lifeboats.
The soldier’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, drew his sword and ordered his men to stand firm – to rush the lifeboats might mean the women and children aboard the boats would be swamped and perish. He had no need to use his sword – each soldier remained in their ranks. The soldiers did not budge even as the ship split in two and the main mast crashed on to the deck.
Of the 638 on board, 445 men died but every woman and child was saved. The sinking of this ship was the first occasion in which women and children were taken to safely first, a procedure which became known as the ‘Birkenhead Drill’.
The phrase became famous, capturing an attitude of British-ness and the British Empire. It featured in the Rudyard Kipling poem:
‘Soldier an’ Sailor Too’
“To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve 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”
HMS Birkenhead was the world’s most famous ship disaster until the RMS Titanic sank in 1912. The Titanic, famously used the ‘Birkenhead Drill ‘- women and children first’ to disembark the passengers into the lifeboats.
The pebbles around this memorial plaque are from the beach where the survivors came ashore in Gansbaai, Western Cape, and represent a joining of the area and South Africa with Merseyside and Great Britain in remembrance of this tragedy.
The HMS Birkenhead and Lifeboat Drill Memorial was the idea of Andy Liston, a RN & RNLI volunteer based at New Brighton. The project was sponsored by Wirral Council. It was designed by Jemma Twigg, a Birkenhead Sixth Form College student and constructed by Cammell Laird Apprentices.
The memorial was unveiled by Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Merseyside Dame Lorna Muirhead DBE on 5 March 2014.