The Story of the Birkenhead
I’d like to share with you a fascinating story that enfolded in the Local Studies Library recently. It begins with an email sent by a kind gentleman from Ontario, Canada, last year who had a book he felt might be of interest to Wiltshire Local Studies in terms of its local connection. He wished to donate the item to the library if we were agreeable, and we most certainly were!
The book was entitled ‘The Story of the “Birkenhead”: A Record of British Heroism in Two Parts’ by A. Christopher Addison. It included an illustration of a shipwreck on the front cover and was published in 1902. Inside was a handwritten dedication:
“Lady Madeleine Tonge
With Catn Bond Sheltons .x.
25th Decm 1903”
A modern biro note underneath, made by Raymond Antony Addington (6th Viscount Sidmouth) contained the words:
X one of the survivors.
Time to investigate further…
Captain Bond Shelton was the son of a large landed proprietor in County Armagh, who also held property in Wiltshire, and who had first-hand knowledge of this story. The objective of Addison’s book was to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, about the Birkenhead which has long been neglected’. The event itself had occurred some time ago, with a magazine article covering the events, but it did not give the all the facts or circumstances, or the testimony of the survivors. Addison wanted to fill that gap and introduce the reader to those ‘gallant men who survived 50 years after the disaster, so that, within the covers of this book, he may make their personal acquaintance and come to know and understand both them and their story’. At this point in time, the event remained a national legacy ‘of which we are all proud!’ but I had never heard of the story; I don’t know about you…
So, what did happen?
In January 1852 Britain was at war with the Kaffirs in South Africa, and reinforcements were being sent out to aid Sir Harry Smith at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Birkenhead was a ‘fine paddle-wheel steamer’, reported to be one of the best of her type in the Royal Navy, being used as a troop ship. She set out from Cork and called at Queenstown, leaving on 7 January. On board were men from the 2nd Queens Foot, the 6th Regiment, 12th (Royal) Lancers, 12th Regiment, 43rd Light Infantry, 45th Regiment, 60th Rifles (2nd Battalion), 73rd Regiment, 7th Regiment, 91st Regiment, plus staff and 56 women and children, totalling 551 souls on board.
They reached Simon’s Bay on 3 February with three women having died of child birth and one of consumption. Three children were born. 35 women and children disembarked here, plus some sick troops with the voyage resuming on 25 February. The troops were in high spirits; the weather was favourable.
By midnight the Commander and Master were below deck and look-outs were on duty. At two o’clock disaster struck. ‘Suddenly, and without the least warning of the presence of such a danger, she crashed on the rocks and there remained.’ She was ‘hopelessly doomed’ and water was rushing in through the torn hull. Many troops drowned in their berths; others hurried up on deck. Sixty men were told to go to the chain pumps and another sixty to haul on the tackles of the paddle boat boxes. The ‘terror stricken’ women and children had been collected under the awning. It is noted that the men faced the situation bravely and rockets were fired but no help was at hand.
Only three small boats could be lowered; the large boat at the centre of the ship could not be retrieved at all. The men found rotten tackle. Pins and bolts had rusted from sheer neglect. As a gig of the starboard side was being lowered one of the ropes broke and the boat was swamped, drowning most of the men who were aboard her.
The women and children were saved, but with much difficulty, as the ship was rolling heavily. Women with babies embraced their husbands for the last time. The horses were brought on deck and thrown overboard to give them a chance, the men risking their lives in the process.
Lieutenant Girardot called for all hands to go aft. She ship was sinking by the head, and was breaking apart in the middle. When the stern reached high into the air, the Commander called out, “All those that can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats,” a short distance away. Captain Wright and Lieutenant Girardot begged the men not to do this; the boats would be swamped. In response, the men ‘almost to a man “stood fast”.’ To ‘their honour’, not more than three jumped. The ship went down with those on board struggling in the water.
The Birkenhead took 25 minutes to sink. Even if the men could reach the shore, it was covered in ‘deadly kelpweed’. The men also knew that sharks patrolled the waters. Some of the men managed to cling to flotsam, and Cornet Bond of the 12th Lancers was able to swim to the shore with the help of his lifebelt. Five horses also managed to swim to safety. Captain Wright, of the 91st was among those who made it to shore, afterwards doing great deeds to help is fellow-survivors. Lieutenant Giardot also survived.
Cornet Bond, later to become Captain Bond-Shelton, worked hard with his Lancers after the ship became stricken. They helped get the horses above deck and Cornet Bond risked his own life to carry up two young children from the saloon cabin when they’d been left behind in the panic. Amazingly, when Cornet managed to struggle ashore, his horse was one of those who’d made it too and was ‘standing on the beach to welcome him!’
The Lioness schooner came to the assistance of some fifty men who had initially clung to the mast; some of these had not managed to maintain their grip due to the cold and exhaustion. The first two boats were also rescued by the schooner, but the third went adrift, finally reaching Port D’Urban with exhausted men. Of those on board the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. 445 lives were lost.
The event became known as the originator for the “women and children first” code of conduct.
Captain Bond-Shelton’s artistic representation of the loss of the Birkenhead came from his recollection of events. The picture was shown in 1890 and 1891 at the Military and Naval Exhibitions in London where the Captain, of the Royal Lancers, gained diplomas for his work.
The Duke of Wellington gave tribute to the men of the Birkenhead, paid at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy at rooms in Trafalgar Square on 1 May 1852.
The author, Addison, notes with regret that only the services of Captain Wright, the last surviving senior officer, were officially recognised with a promotion, the C. B. and a small service pension. Captain Wright was indeed deserving, but so too were the ‘other surviving officers’ (and I’d suggest probably the ratings too).
A ‘Relief Fund’ was set up to support the families of those who had perished. Beneficiaries included Miss F. Salmond, the eldest child of the Commander of the Birkenhead, who was nominated for admission into the Royal Naval Female School.
The ‘Birkenhead Monument’, a memorial to honour those who perished was erected in the colonnade at Chelsea Hospital.
If you would like to discover more about the steamer, statements from the survivors (including Captain Bond-Shelton), the events of the court-martial of the Naval survivors, the ‘popular’ version of the story and the later lives of the surviving officers, please feel free to take a look at the book which can be found at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, ref LAT.922.
We now know more of this terrible tragedy but must still go full-circle. Lady Tonge (born in Scotland in 1859) was the wife of Francis H. Tonge of Highway near Calne, and Captain Ralph MacGeough Bond-Shelton (1832-1916) had an estate 20 miles away at Water Eaton in Latton. The family connection may have been naval.
The depositor of our book also had another amazing donation to offer us; the India General Service Medal of Louis Charles Henry Tonge. It appears that Louis was aboard HMS Inconstant in 1838 and moved to HMS Excellent in 1840. He became a Lieutenant RN in 1845. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is an archive and library, unable to accept these kinds of items but the medal has received a warm welcome and a safe home at the Calne Heritage Centre where it will be well cared for.
As for Captain Bond-Shelton, he was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, after his death in 1916. The Belfast Evening Telegraph printed his obituary on Monday, 13 March, as ‘The last of [a] heroic band’.
The Lord Primate’s funeral address contained these words:
"Surely no other words were needed before they committed the body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes; but to-day they might well make an exception for a few minutes from the general rule, for they were about to lay in its last resting-place the body of a man who has helped to lay the foundation stones of our Empire, for Captain Bond-Shelton was the last survivor of that most gallant band whose deeds had helped to make England great, and whose daring lay at the basis of our national character and conduct. Did he say national character? The present Provost of Trinity College, who knew Germany better than most men, told him a few days ago that for many long years the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead was read in Germany to the cadets of the army and navy before they left college.”
The artist Paul Curtis completed his latest work on 25 February 2020, a mural entitled ‘The Birkenhead Drill’ after the term coined by Rudyard Kipling in an 1893 poem to describe the courageous behaviour of those on board the HMS Birkenhead as it sank in 1852. The mural has been painted onto the side of Gallagher’s Traditional Pub in Birkenhead, Merseyside, which contains lots of naval and military memorabilia. The mural pays tribute to a time when Birkenhead was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry.
County Local Studies Librarian
Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre
- Tags: 6th Viscount Sidmouth, artist, Birkenhead, Birkenhead Monument, Calne Heritage Centre, Cape of Good Hope, Captain Bond Shelton, Captain Ralph MacGeough Bond-Shelton, Captain Wright, Chelsea Hospital, Christopher Addison, Cornet Bond, court-martial, Duke of Wellington, Gallagher’s Traditional Pub, Highway, HMS Birkenhead, Kaffirs, kelp weed, Lady Madeleine Tonge, Lieutenant Girardot, Louis Charles Henry Tonge, medal, Merseyside, paddle steamer, Paul Collyer, Raymond Antony Addington, Royal Museum Greenwich, Royal Naval Female School, Rudyard Kipling, Salmond, Simon’s Bay, South Africa, Water Eaton, Wiltshire