|Below is a witnesses
sketch drawn of HMS
Birkenhead showing how
she broke up before
The following is taken from an article in the Illustrated London News, April 10th 1852.
FATAL WRECK OF HER MAJESTY'S STEAMER "BIRKENHEAD" AND LARGE LOSS OF LIFE.
A catastrophe of the most disastrous character has become known within the week. Her majesty’s
large steamer Birkenhead which had been despatched from England with reinforcements for the
troops engaged in the Kaffir war at the Cape of Good Hope; has been lost off the coast there; and out
of 638 souls on board only 184 have been saved.
The scene of the terrible calamity was at danger point, not far from Simons bay, where the steamer
and a prosperous run of 48 days from Cork – which she left on the 7th January last – arrived on the
24th February, and landed a portion of the reinforcements on board. She left on the following evening
at seven o clock to proceed to Algoa Bay and Buffalo river with the rest of the troops destined for the
war; and her commander, Captain Salmond, in his anxiety to make a quick passage as possible, kept
to the shore so closely, that the steamer, during the night, got among the rocks, which line the coast
and struck with violent shock at two o clock in the morning on the 27th of February, seven hours after
she had steamed out of Simons bay. The speed at which she was going 8.5 knots per hour – drove
her with such force on the rocks, that within a few minutes after she struck she broke in two, and
went down carrying with her the large proportion mentioned above of the persons on board.
The coolness and steady obedience to order which the troops manifested on that awful and trying
occasion presented an instance of one of the noblest results of discipline. All the woman and children
were removed first in time to secure their entire safety, and then the officers and men tried to save
themselves in the boats, and by whatever means they could obtain.
The following report addressed to the Commandant of Cap Town by Captain Wright, of the 91st
regiment, one of the survivors, gives a graphic and succinct narrative of the disaster ---
Simons Bay, March 1st, 1852.
“Sir, it is with feelings of the deepest regret that I have to announce to you that I have to announce the
loss of her majesty’s steamer HMS Birkenhead, which took place on a rock, about two and a half or three
miles off Point danger, at 2am 26th February".
"The sea was smooth at the time, and the vessel was steaming at the rate of 8 knots per hour. She
struck the rock, and it penetrated through her bottom just aft of the foremast. The rush of water was so
great that there is no doubt that most of the men in the lower troop deck were drowned in the hammocks.
The rest of the men and all of the officers appeared on deck when Major Seaton called all the officers about
him and impressed on them the necessity of preserving order and silence among the men. He directed me
to take and have executed whatever orders the commander might give e. Sixty men were immediately put
on the chain pumps on the lower aft deck, and told off in three relief’s; sixty men were put onto the tackles
of the paddle box boats; and the remainder of the men were brought onto the poop; so as to ease the fore
part of the ship. She was at the time rolling heavily. The commander ordered the horses to be pitched out
of the port gangway, and the cutter to be got ready for the woman and children, who had all been collected
under the poop awning. As soon as the horses were got over the side, the woman and children were
passed into the cutter and under charge of Mr Richards master assistant, the boat then stood off about
150 yards. Just after they were out of the ship, the entire bow broke off at the foremast, the bow sprit
going up in the air towards the fore topmast, and the funnel went over the side, carrying away the
starboard paddlebox and boat. The paddlebox capsized when being lowered. The large boar in the centre of
the ship could not be got at".
"It was about 12 or 15 minutes after she struck that the bow broke off. The men then all went up on the
poop, and in about 5 minutes more the vessel broke in two, crosswise, just abaft the engine room, and the
stern part immediately filled and went down. A few men jumped off just before she did, but the greater
number remained to the last, and so did every officer belonging to the troops. All the men I put on the
tackles I fear, were crushed, when the funnel fell, and the men and the officers at the pumps, could not, I
think, have reached the deck before the vessel broke up and went down. The survivors clung, some to the
rigging of the main mast, part of which was out of the water, and other got hold of floating pieces of wood.
I think there must have been about 200 on drift wood. I was on a large piece along with 5 others, and we
picked up 9 or 10 more. The swell carried the wood in the direction of Point Danger. As soon as it got to
the weeds and breakers, finding that it would not support all that were on it, I jumped off and swam
ashore; and when the others; and also those that were on the other pieces of wood, reached the shore, we
proceeded into the country,. To try and find and sort of habitation where we could obtain shelter. Many of
the men were naked, and almost all, without shoes. Owing to the country with being covered with thick,
thorny bushes, our progress was slow, but after walking til about 3pm, having reached land about 12, we
came to where a wagon was outspanned, and the driver of it directed us to a small bay, where there is a
hut of a fisherman, the bay is called Sandfords Cove. We arrived there bout sunset, and as the men had
nothing to eat, I went on to a farm house about 8 or 9 miles from the cove, and sent back provisions for
that day. The next day, I sent up another days provisions, and the men were removed up to farm of
Captain Smales about 12 or 14 miles up the country. Lieutenant Girardot of the 43rd, and Cornet Bond, of
the 12th Lancers, accompanied this party, which amounted to 68 men including 18 sailors".
"I then went down to the coast, and during Friday, Saturday and Sunday I examined the rocks for more
that 20 miles in the hope of the crew of a whale boat, that is employed sealing on Dyers island; I got them
to take he boat outside the seaweed, while I went along the shore. The seaweed on the coast is very
thick, and of immense length; so that it would have caught most of the drift wood. Happily the boat picked
up two men, and I also picked up two. Although they were all much exhausted, two of hem having been in
the water 38 hours, they were aright the next day except for a few bruises. It was 86 hours on Sunday
afternoon when I left the coast since the wreck had taken place; and as I had carefully examined every part
of the rocks; and also sent the whale boat over to Dyers island; I can safely assert that when I left there
was not a living soul on the coast of those that had been on board the ill fated HMS Birkenhead".
"On Saturday I met mister Mackay, the Commissioner of Caledon, and also the field cornet and Mr Viliers.
The former told me that he had ordered the men who had been at Captain Smales to be clothed by him, he
having a store at his farm. Fourty soldiers received clothes there. Mr Mackay, the field cornet and myself,
accompanied by a party of men brought down by Mr Villiers went along the coast as far as the point that
runs out to Dyers island, and all the bodies that were met were interred. There were not many however,
and I regret to say it, could be easily accounted for. Five of the horses got to shore and were brought to
me. One belonged to myself, one to Mr Bond, and the other three to Major Seaton, and Lieutenant Booth.
I handed the horses over to Mt Mackay, and he is to send them on to me here, so that they may be sold
and so that I may account for the proceed".
there, and found that Captain Bunce, the commander of the Castor frigate had landed, and gone up to
Captain Smales, to order the men down to the cove, so as to embark onto the steamer to be conveyed to
Simons bay. On Sunday, when I was down on the coast, the field cornet told me, that at a part where he
had been, bodies were washed up and buried, also a few boxes which were broken into pieces and the
contents strewed about the rocks. I then ceased to hope that any more were living, and came down to the
cove join the other men. We arrived there about 6pm".
"The order and regularity that prevailed onboard, from the time the ship struck, till she totally disappeared,
far exceeded anything that I thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be
wondered at; seeing that most of the soldiers had been but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he
was directed, and there was not a murmur or cry among them until the vessel made her final plunge. I
could not name any individual officer who did more than another. All received their orders, and had them
carried out as if the men were embarking instead of going to the bottom; there was only this difference
that I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion".
"I enclose a list of those embarked, distinguishing those saved. I think that it is correct, except one man of
the 91st whose name I cannot find out. The only means I had of ascertaining the names of the men of
the different drafts was by getting them from their comrades who are saved. You will see by the list
enclosed that the loss amounts to 9 officers, and 349 men, besides those of the crew; the total number
embarked being 15 officers and 476 men". (One officer and 18 men disembarked at Simons Bay).
"I am happy to say that all of the woman and children were put safely on board a Schooner that was about
seven miles off when the steamer was wrecked. The vessel returned to the wreck about 3pm and took off
40 or 50 men that were clinging to the rigging and then proceeded to Simons Bay. One of the ships boats,
with the assistant ships surgeon, and 8 men went off, and landed about 15 miles from the wreck. Had the
boat remained about the wreck, or returned after landing the assistant surgeon at danger point , about
which there was nom difficulty, I am quite confident that nearly every man of the 200 men who were on
the driftwood might have been saved; for they might have been picked up here and there where they had
got in among he weeds, and landed as soon as 8 or nine had gotten into the boat. Where most of the
driftwood stuck amongst the weeds the distance to the shore was not more than 400 yards, and as by
taking a somewhat serpentine course, I managed to swim n without getting foul of the rock, or being
tumbled over by a breaker, there is no doubt that the boat might have done so also".
"One fact I cannot omit mentioning; when the vessel was just going down, the commander called out:
“All those that can swim, jump over board and make for the boats “
"Lieutenant Girardot and myself were standing on the stern part of the poop. We begged the men not to
do as the commander said, as the boat with the woman must be swamped. Not more than 3 made the
"On Sunday evening at 6pm all the men who were at Captain Smales and the four I had with myself on the
coast, were embarked in boats and taken onboard the Rhadamanthus, and we arrived in Simons Bay at
3am on Monday the 1st March; 18 of the men were bruised and burnt by the sun, and the commodore has
ordered them into the naval hospital. The rest are all right, and 70 require to be clothed. I need scarcely
say that everything belonging to the men was lost".
"I must not omit to mention the extreme kindness shown by Captain Smales to the men at his house; and
by Captain Ramsden, of the lioness schooner, and his wife, to those taken on board his vessel."
Edwartd W.C Wright, Captain 91st Regiment.
Liutenant-Colnel Ingleby, R.A, Commander of Cape town.