Birkenhead sailors

Doing your duty: HMS Birkenhead

HMS Birkenhead was a ship carrying British troops and some of their families who were to be stationed in Africa in 1845. The ship struck a rock off the coast of South Africa and despite the best efforts of the crew, it sank. However, the Birkenhead sailors saved the lives of the women and children on board. Samuel Smiles admired the men in the story for selflessness and doing their duty.

Selflessness of the crew

Though the figures Smiles gives are probably not accurate, there were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The women and children were placed in lifeboats before efforts were made to refloat the ship.

When it became clear that this would not work and the ship would sink, the order to abandon ship was given. However, Captain Wright, of the 91st Highlanders, said, 'No! if you do that, the boats with the women must be swamped.' The men stayed still and did not rush the boats even though the ship was breaking up.

Women and children first

This noble and selfless act saved the women and children. Some sailors managed to swim the 2km to shore over the next 12 hours using pieces of wreckage to help them, but most drowned, died of exposure or were eaten by sharks. The wreck became famous in Victorian Britain and led to the tradition of 'women and children first' when abandoning ship.

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