HM Steamer Birkenhead was a 1400 ton British Iron Paddle Frigate built in 1845 and converted into a troop carrier in 1848. While captained by Capt. R Salmond and transporting troops from Simon's Town to East London for the Frontier War, she struck a rock 1½ nautical miles off Danger Point near Gansbaai.
In the face of death, the troops on board first allowed all the women and children to escape in the life boats before they attempted to save themselves.
The Birkenhead sank on the west side of the rock in a depth of 35 metres and although 445 lives were lost, every woman and child was saved.
It was due to this gallantry that the Birkenhead secured her place in history.
Legend has it that she was carrying £240,000 in gold (about 3 tons) as part of a military pay packet. A salvage group called Depth Recovery Unit, led by Dr Allan Kayle, salvaged a few hundred gold coins in the mid and late eighties.
A Survivor's Tale
This is a transcript of a "letter" by Ensign G.A. Lucas, recounting the wrecking of HMS Birkenhead, found in the archives of Hilton College, Natal in 1994 by Dr Alan Kayle. Copied in July 1995 by Maj A.G.D. Gordon, who added the notes.
Lucas settled in Natal, became a magistrate and Chief Magistrate of Durban. His note at the end explains the contents.
THE WRECK OF H.M.STEAMER "BIRKENHEAD". 26 FEB 1852 WRITTEN BY ENSIGN G.A.LUCAS, 73RD REGIMENT Cape Town, 20th March 1852
I hope you received all the letters I wrote on my passage out.
From the time we left Cork, I wrote from every place we touched at,Madeira, Freetown and St Helena. Much coaling took place at each stop. but above all I trust you got the one written from Smails farm on the Kleyne River, At Stanford. as soon as you would have heard of the loss of the Birkenhead. I was unable there to write much, and could not give many particulars of the shipwreck, but I shall now in this letter.
We left Simons BayThey arrived at Simon's Bay at about 10am on Monday 23rd Feb 1852 after 47 days on passage. This included a lot of very bad storm at the start. This passage was the fastest of any troopships up to that time. The fact that they sailed into a terrible North Atlantic winter storm and the speed seems to indicate the urgency of getting reinforcements to the East Cape frontier. During the passage 4 women died and 3 babies were born. from whence I wrote to —/ at 6 oc PM – the 25th February, and got well out of the bay before dark.
I turned in at 9 oc as I was to have the watch on deck from 4 to 8 oc. We were then going about 8½ knots an hour with two boilers. I slept like a top, and know nothing of what happened up to the time I was awakened by three distinct shocks, I started up, immediately it struck me that we were on a rock. I went on deck,The army officers' quarters were at the stern of the main deck below the poop deck (where the ship's officers quarters were). the first person I met at the top of the companion ladder was the ship's carpenterEquivalent to a modern engineer. The terms of wooden ships were still used. – I asked him what was the matter? He answer was not very consoling "We are sinking fast, we have got 13 feet of water in the ship forward".
I then went below and dressed. When I came on deck again I saw Captain Salmon giving orders from the Poop [deck]. The ship was rolling at this time so much that it was with great difficulty any body could stand.
We had 9 horses on board; they were kicking and plunging furiously, several had fallen down. Just at this time one of the engineers came up to the poop and reported that water had put the fires out in the Engine Room.
Capt. Salmon immediately ordered all the soldiers to come on to the poop. The order was quickly obeyed, at this time it was pitch dark (having struck at 2 oc am exactly as the bell was struck) except when a flash of lightening lighted up the ship.
Almost every body kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmon, all given in a clear firm voice.
I heard the order to fire the signal guns, the powder however could not be got at, the water having come in so fast.
The orders then came to man the pumps. Girardot of the 43rd and I got what men we could, about 50, Girardot went down to the pumps and I passed the men down to him. The pumps were below our Mess deck, that is the 3rd deck from the poop. I relieved Girardot below then came up. Rockets were going up, which made the darkness appear greater. The horses were about this time ordered to be thrown overboard. Girardot superintended this business.Most reports give this task as being done by Cornet Bond, 12th Lancers, as he was the senior cavalry officer and owned one of the horses.
I then went forward between the paddle boxesThe ship was driven by two massive paddlewheels on either side. She could also use her full set of sails. with some men to help the sailors, who were endeavouring to get the boats into the water.The two biggest lifeboats were secured, upside down, on top of each paddle box. These had to be lifted up by a crane before turning over for launching! I was instructed where to put the men and hauled on a rope as directed. The men hauled with all their weight and snap went the rope in two, it being rotten.
We knew that when the tackle was broken we could do no good as the boat held 150 men it was impossible to lift it and shove it into the water. The other paddle box boat fared no better. I was now told to take the men "Aft". The water was almost knee deep between the paddle boxes.
I had hardly left the boat when the funnel fell on deck. I had a happy escape there, several of the men were killed when it fell. One poor fellow who got ashore had one eye knocked out of its socket.
As I was going "Aft" (I forgot to say that after the horses were gone overboard, the women and children were put into the "Cutter" on the port side of the ship. I had charge of the gangway and had some difficulty in preventing men getting into the boat. Some two or three did in spite of me. As soon as almost all the men were on the poop, I went up also. Just at this moment there was a tremendous crash. The forecastle and bows had broken off a few feet forward of the main mast and gone down.He seems confused by the term mainmast. The first break was behind the mainmast. The water then reached upon the forward part of the quarter deck.
By this time three of the boats got clear away from the ship and remained about 200 yards off. One was full of women and children and the few men who had got past me at the gangway. The other two were filled with soldiers and sailors.
I met Major Seton on the poop. We both went as far aft as we could.
The order was then given my Captain Salmon to jump into the water and save ourselves if we could. Almost all the officers were concentrated on the poop at that time.
We were now sinking very fast. I was afraid the ship would go down with a rush by the heads for her stern was much ??ited that one of the men swimming ?under? the heel of the rudder, indeed it was very difficult at the time to prevent oneself slipping on the deck. I had just taken my clothes off and got over the bulwarks ready for a jump and was making up my mind to dive head first when I thought that should I ever get ashore I should be roasted by the sun in the day.February is the hottest month in the Cape. I once more got over the bulwark and groped for my shirt on the deck & put it on, I again took up my old station.
Major Seton was still on the other side of the bulwark, we talked for a little, for a few seconds, then another tremendous crash was heard. The ship forward of the main mast broke off, and went down,The second break took place across the engine room. the remaining part, that aft of the mainmast still remained but was sinking fast. Poor Major Seton said to me "Now Lucas you had better go, there is no use in waiting". We shook hands, I said I hoped we would meet ashore, he told me that [he] could not swim. I still remained standing, I was afraid to jump as the water was full of men below me – many drowning as fast as possible, [?] a sad sight – I should most likely have been pulled down and drowned. I waited until the poop deck was about two feet from the water (while hesitating to make the plunge) then jumped off and struck off as fast as possible to get out of the suction of the ship. When I turned my head to look I saw nothing but the mainmast and yard. The rigging was crowded with men. When I left the ship many poor fellows in the "Mizzen Rigging" must have been drowned at once.
I swam about 100 yards then caught hold of a piece of wreck, rested, then struck out for a large white object, 50 yards off perhaps. It turned out to be one of the paddle box boats turned keel uppermost. I found on it 5 soldiers and 1 sailor.
We were now in comparative safety, we were, however, much afraid of being carried out to sea instead of to land. Which we could see, it looked 9 or 10 miles off. Well I felt more regret and more uncomfortable during the first half hour I lay on the boat than I did during the whole business, that long struggle for life. We drifted some time out to sea and then happily a current took us towards the land.
When we were about a mile from the wreck an oar passed us and when about 50 yards off the sailor said it was gone but that it would have been a great use to us. I asked the men if they would go for it. They all said "No". I was the best swimmer although very tired. As they thought it would be of use to us I jumped into the water, got hold of the oar and turned towards the boat. It then struck me that perhaps I should not be able to catch the boat up again. I assure [you] that my feelings were not of a pleasant kind, the men cheered me. I struck out and reached the boat.
After about 12 hours [2 pm] we drifted to about 300 yards from the shore then got among breakers. It was a most odious coast nearly all what is called ?iron?bound. A seaweed grows along the coast called "Sea Bamboo". These things grow almost 15 to 16 foot long so that for several hundred yards from the shore where these reeds are it is nearly impossible to swim among them for being all matted together they catch the legs.
We were now surrounded by these "Sea Bamboos" which held the boat preventing her getting nearer the shore. The breakers were washing us off. I forgot to mention that when I first reached the boat I did not dare speak lest I should have been driven off by those already on her bottom. I hung on for some time up to my middle in the water. When I could hold on no longer I called and was pulled onto the boat. I need not have feared for the men asked me to take charge and said they would do anything I told them. The sailor was 2nd Master Maxwell.Henry Maxwell is shown in Bevan's list of ship's company survivors as a Quartermaster who was in the party rescued from the shore. 3 of the soldiers were stark naked. I could not help having only half a shirt myself but Maxwell said I can [?]. He had on 2 prs trousers and 3 shirts so was able to help the two naked men. He told me he could not swim a stroke and did not know [how] he got onto the boat.
Before we got near the shore we drifted through quantities of wreckage to which many poor fellows were clinging and as we passed asking for help. Oh that I could forget what I saw that night. I would not pass such another. It was an awful sight to see despairing men fighting for anything to support them in the water.
The oar was of great use in keeping the side of the boat 2 the seas, one man acted as a rollock, two others rowed at first one side and then the other.
Many pieces of timber passed us as our boat slowly drifted, men on them, as some got done up and let go their hold and went down. The most painful sight was two men swimming side by side for a long time they struck out well together, after a time one got tired, the other helping him along, it was no use. At last his comrade left and swam towards the land but returned again to his friend but it was of no avail, he went down exhausted, his friend then swam towards the shore. Poor fellow, he had expended his little remaining strength in helping his companion and went down —. After a little time our boat drifted and got onto a rock. After several unsuccessful [efforts] to get her loose we gave up determined to remain on the boat as long as possible but the sea was worse than before. Maxwell was washed off several times. I managed to pull him back onto the boat but time after time we were all washed off. About this time another boat drifted past us with 6 men on her bottom.This was the other large paddle box boat. The ship had 8 boats but only 3 were able to be properly launched.
She was upset within arms length of the rock and came right side up. I heard afterwards that 5 out of the 6 men got ashore.
We were now fast losing our strength, there was little hope for us if we tried to remain on the boat. Each time we were washed off ;lessened our chance. It was better to try and swim to the rocks than to remain until washed off with the certainty of being drowned – one could only be drowned at the worst: ?? a certainty, there was still a chance of reaching the rocks.
I told the men what I thought, they said they would follow me. Several could swim, the others I advised to stay on the boat – their only chance. I then left the boat. I found that when the sea came in it lifted me above the seaweed, I could swim a few strokes, when the sea receded the matted seaweed floated me. I got to the other boat, tried to get into it. I got one hand and one foot onto the gunwall but was so weak that I fell into the sea and went down amongst the weeds. I think for the first time my heart really failed me but by good luck, I came again to the top and swam on, more by instinct than by anything else. I was about exhausted, several big waves following one after another lifted me onto the rocks; where I managed to hold on till the waves receded.
The reef runs a long way into the sea. I had got upon the extreme point of. I lay down for some time and then crawled towards the beach, far back I could note. The rocks were sharp and full of shells. My feet and legs from hips downwards were cut and scorched by sea and sun. I crawled as best I could on hands and knees. I thought I had no more water to cross to reach the beach but to my horror I found the reef broken by a piece of water. It seemed at least 100 yards wide but shallow. I tried to wade it but went over my head. I had just sufficient strength to swim to the rocks on [the] opposite side, clutched a rock and partially dragged myself up. One of the men of my own companyOf the 73rd Regt. came and helped me up to the sandy beach where there was a patch of grass. I lay down and went to sleep.
I was after a time awakened by the same man, who had collected what people he could find along the beach. One of the men had on a pair of socks, he insisted upon my putting them on. Another wanted me to take his trousers but my legs were sore, I could not bear them on. The men said I must take command of them [as] I was the only officer saved.
We then started to look for water and any sort of a house. We walked along the beach in the direction of which we supposed the Cape was. We did not know in what country we were. We walked along the shore for a short distance, there was a short sort of scrub which punished one awfully about the legs. I gave in and refused to go any further. A halt was called; and a pipeFor tobacco. hunted for among the men. Nothing turned up [except] a piece of baccy [tobacco], well wet with sea water. Several of us took a bite but I would still not go on. Two of the men carried me whether I would or not not saying "I had got so far and they would not leave an officer behind to die."
I was so stiff and sore from the cuts that I had got on the rocks that I cared little what my fate was. The sun and salt had burned my legs that I had little skin left on them.
After a bit I became ashamed of my want of courage and walked sooner than let the men very little better than myself carry me any further.
We walked along the coast several miles. Thirst was just knocking us up: to my great relief a wagon was seen near the beach. It was wonderful how renewed life we got from the prospect of water.
We reached the wagon which belonged to a Dutch farmer. He had come to the coast to catch fish. Nothing could exceed this man's kindness. With the help of German I explained our position. He gave us water and all the fish he had caught, then pointed the way to Stanford Cove, a fishing station for those who could walk further.
I remained with those men who were like myself, unable to go on. One poor fellow had his legs bruised, in fact a mass of bruises.
The Dutchman made us as comfortable for the night as he could. I thought I was in for a fever – like a furnace one time then again like ice – if I went to sleep [I] started up thinking I was in the breakers again.
Next morning my good natured host lent me a horse and guide to the fishing station. On my offering my ring as payment he rejected it saying ?not? if I could pay pay hereafter, well and good, if not it did not matter.
At the fishing station I found about 60 men who had found their way the previous day. I then heard that two other officers were also saved.There were 4 army officers saved. Capt Wright, Lt Lucas, Lt Girardot and Cornet Bond. Every man who could move came to welcome me. ??? people say that soldiers are selfish brutes without kindly feelings. Could anything be greater than their kindness to me. In the afternoon a wagon came to bring us to the nearest farm about 15 miles inland where we arrived in the afternoon. I was wrapped in a blanket and carried to bed. The men were fed and clothed by the owner of the farm, Capt Smails late of the 7th Dragoon Guards.His name is often spelt Smales In a few days a steamer was sent to the fishing station to convey the men and officers to "The Cape".
Being unable to move I remained for some time at the farm until quite recovered. For a week or more my knees were drawn up I suppose by the sun and salt water. I began to think I should never have the use of my legs again. I can never say enough of the kindness of capt and Mrs Smailes. Had I been their own son better care could not have been taken of me. Twice a day I was put into a hot bath and then rubbed with cocoanut oil. One morning when I awoke to find I could stretch my legs was delightful.He does not say how he returned to Simon's Bay or Cape Town. Some ships visited the wreck in a few days. He could also have travelled overland.
The schooner Lioness took 40 men off the wreck the morning after we struck but the Capt did not send his boats inshore. Had he done so many more men might have been saved. The women and children got safe to shore only one child, a baby, was lost, the father swam to the boat. His wife in trying to help her husband dropped the baby into the sea. Neither father or baby were saved.This story is obviously hearsay. It has not been repeated anywhere else! It was not printed in Addison's book "The Story of the Birkenhead" printed in 1902 when most of Lucas' letter is printed in full. Nor is it in "The Deathless Story" by Addison & Matthews of 1906 at times when there were still many survivors alive. Total on board at time of wreck 634Most accounts give the total as 638 including a civilian servant.
I believe saved including women and children: 194The generally agreed figure is 193. There were 14 military (officers) on board. The saved were: Major Wright 91st RegtAt the time he was a Capt. Retired as a Colonel. Lt Girardot 43rd Ens Lucas 73rd Cornet Bond 12th Lancers Dr Bowen Staff Surgeon
The above account is perfectly correct as far as I ?could? see. All Navy officers and others did their duty. As to the troops there was no confusion, indeed not as much as would take place in disembarking a Regt. Words of command were acted upon without hesitation or confusion.
There were 9 horses on board.Some reports give the number of horses as 30! This seems far too many as there was very little room on deck. Fodder was also stowed on deck. 8 reached the land the 9th had its leg broken on getting it over the side.Most reports give the number of horses that reached land as 5. Cornet Bond, 12th Lancers, was the only survivor to have his horse ashore. It is said to have been waiting on the beach for him! He was the only person to have a lifejacket – a privately owned "Macintosh Life Preserver" and seems to have got ashore fairly easily.
The first intimation anyone had in Cape Town of anything wrong with the ship was given by a horse that belonged to Cornet Rolt of the 12th Lancers (one of the 9). The second morning after the wreck the horse was standing outside his old stable in Cape Town. The horse travelled from "Danger Point" to Cape Town at least 125 miles.The distance by road now is 110 miles or 170 km.This part of Lucas' letter has not been repeated in any other report that I know. It is clearly hearsay. It could be one of the 3 that were not caught at Danger Point. I have heard of a similar report of one of the horses arriving at its old stables in Darling. After the Anglo Boer War in 1902 there were many cases of horses returning to their original farms by themselves.
[Signed] G.A. Lucas
Note. The above letter is as near as possible a copy of my letter to my father, written as soon as I was sufficiently strong to write. It is only a lad's letter – I was not 20 then – (Signed) G.A. Lucas 17 July 1905