A Ship Tradition: Women And Children First

An explanation of how the tradition of Women and children first started, i.e. when a ship was doomed to sink.

Have you ever watched a movie, or read a book, about a ship in trouble and when the words "women and children first!" are shouted out, you know that inevitably those words means that the ship is doomed to sink?

This tradition, a gallant one, was started in 1852 when the HMS Birkenhead sailed around the coast of southern Africa:

The HMS Birkenhead was a 1900 ton warship. Her hull was made out of iron - almost unheard of in those days, as hulls were generally made out of wood. Besides sails, she sported steam-driven paddles as well. Eight lifeboats were lashed to paddle boxes. On 7 January 1852 she sailed from Cork in Ireland on her fateful voyage to South Africa.

The Birkenhead stopped over at Simon's Town and took on coal and other provisions. On 25 February she set sail for Cape Town. There were 638 people, including 476 British soldiers and 20 women and children. The soldiers were to be despatched to the Eighth Frontier War in the Eastern Cape.

The Birkenhead had an uneventful voyage - there were no storms and they steered well clear of the coast of Africa, known for it's treacherous rocks. No one is quite how or why it happened, but in the early hours of the morning on 26 February 1852, the ship ran on to a pinnacle of rock, just off Danger Point - which lies between Cape Hangklip and Cape Agulhas.

The metal hull was torn open and just over a hundred soldiers drowned as they lay sleeping. The rest of the troops rushed on deck and tried to help the crew to man the pumps and free the lifeboats. Alas, the lifeboats had rarely, if ever, been used and the rigging was clogged with paint and they were only able to free three of the lifeboats. The women and children were ushered into the three lifeboats.

The ship was sinking, and the captain knew that time had run out. He shouted out the words "Every man for himself."

The soldier's commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast - to rush the lifeboats might mean that the women and children aboard the boats would be swamped and would perish. He threatened to use his sword to stop anyone who panicked. He had no need to use the sword - each soldier remained in their ranks. The horses on board were blindfolded and driven over the side of the ship so that the horses could try to swim ashore. The soldiers did not budge even as the ship split in two and the main mast crashed on to the deck.

445 people died - many drowned as the ship sank, sharks savaged others as they tried to swim ashore. Only 193 people survived - a few were picked up by the lifeboats, others clung to pieces of wreckage and others managed to elude the sharks and swim ashore. The captain and the courageous Lieutenant-Colonel Seton were among the dead.

The rock on which the ship was wrecked is known as Birkenhead Rock and is seen as a memorial to the brave souls who perished on 26 February 1852. Forever will the cry "Women and children first" be honoured, because of the gallant actions of a commanding officer and his men.

© High Speed Ventures 2011