Warship HMS Birkenhead

Warship HMS Birkenhead. 1852: The Birkenhead Drill: “Women and children first!“

1852: The Birkenhead Drill: “Women and children first!“

At the time of her launch in 1845, HMS „Birkenhead“ was the largest iron-hull warship in the British Royal Navy. She had been built at the John Laird shipyard in the town of Birkenhead, England, as an hybrid sail/steam ship with three masts and twin paddle wheels. 

She was converted into a troop transport in 1851 and left Cork, Ireland, on January the 7th 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond with a special mission: to bring reinforcements for the Eighth Frontier War against the Xhosa people in the Cape of Good Hope region. On February the 26th (170 years ago), at about two o’clock in the morning, the ship struck an uncharted rock off Danger Point south of Hermanus. The hull was ripped open. Those soldiers who were not trapped by the waters below decks were able to help man the pumps and lower the lifeboats. Only three of the eight boats were clear. The women and children on board were ordered into one of the boats. Half an hour after the „Birkenhead“ ran aground, she broke apart and began to sink. Captain Salmond ordered all who could swim to jump overboard to reach shore. However, Lieutenant Colonel Seton, the commander of the 74th Royal Highland Fusiliers, begged his men to disobey or the dinghy with the women and children could be swamped. Then he had them line up on deck. Everyone persevered. The tradition of „women and children first“ had been documented before but. Of the 638 people on board, only 193 survived, but among them were all the women and children. The event received a lot of attention worldwide in those days. This supported the spread of the Birkenhead Drill.

The Birkenhead Drill never became maritime law and was unevenly applied since. After the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and with the subsequent creation of the SOLAS international safety rules, every ship must have the capacity to evacuate every person on board in case of accident.

The parts of HMS Birkenhead’s wreck were kindly loaned to the museum by Mr. Sven Heymann and are currently displayed in our section dedicated to safety at sea on deck 6.