No doubt many of you have heard about the sinking of HMS Birkenhead off South Africa on February 26, 1852. The twin-paddled barque-rigged troop ship hit a reef, broke up and sank within 20 minutes.
On board were 10 regiments of troops bound for service in South Africa, plus a number of Royal Marines.
Although most of the troops, marines and ship’s company were lost, the many women and children on board were all saved by the bravery and gallantry of troops who ‘stood fast’ on the main deck while they were all placed in what lifeboats were available.
The great seafaring tradition of ‘women and children first’ was established that day.
Out of a total of 638 people on board, only 193 survived that awful night. What you may not know is that the Birkenhead departed on her fateful voyage from Portsmouth the previous month. When investigations were being held at court martial level, they took place on board HMS Victory, then moored in Portsmouth Harbour.
One of the survivors, who had a two-mile swim to the shore, settled in Brockhurst, Gosport and died there circa 1902. He was Private William Tuck of the Royal Marine Light Infantry.
When the court martial was held on May 8, 1852, the sailors on charge were released as no senior naval officers survived, so no-one could be found to be blamed.
Although a designated war grave, the ship lies 90 feet down and can be dived on with a special licence. It was reported that there was £240,000 worth of gold coins on board and divers have been after them for many years,
Until now nothing of the gold has been salvaged, However, an agreement between the British and South African governments says that they will have equal shares of any salvaged gold.
So whenever you hear the saying ‘woman and children first’, you will know it all started with the brave men of the Birkenhead, who had seen their last sight of England as they left Portsmouth.