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HMS Birkenhead

HMS Birkenhead, also referred to as HM Troopship Birkenhead or Steam Frigate Birkenhead was one of the first iron-hulled ships built for the Royal Navy. She was designed as a steam frigate, but was converted to a troopship before being commissioned.

The Wreck of the Birkenhead
The Birkenhead was laid down at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead as the frigate HMS Vulcan, but renamed soon afterwards to Birkenhead after the town where she was built. She had two 564 horsepower (421 kW) steam engines from Forrester and Co that drove a pair of 6-metre (20 ft) paddle wheels, and two masts rigged as a brig.

According to her designer, John Laird:

The designs I submitted, and which were finally approved, were of a vessel 210 feet (64 m) long (being about 20 feet (6.1 m) longer than any vessel of her class had been built), and 37 feet 6 inches (11.43 m) beam with a displacement of 1,918 long tons (1,949 t) on the load water-line of 15 feet 9 inches (4.80 m). The only change made by authorities at the Admiralty in these designs was the position of the paddle shaft, which they ordered to be moved several feet more forward; the change was unfortunate as it makes the vessel, unless due care is taken in stowing the hold, trim by the head. With this exception, I am answerable for the model, specification, displacement and general arrangement of the hull of the vessel.

The ship was divided into eight watertight compartments, while the engine room was divided by two longitudinal bulkheads into four compartments, making 12 watertight compartments in total. She had a round stern and a bow that ended in a large figurehead of Vulcan, holding a hammer in one hand, and some of "the bolts of Jove" that he had just forged in the other. Her armament was originally intended to be two 96-pounder pivot guns, one forward and the other aft, and four 68-pounder broadside guns

On the 26th February 1852 the British troopship, Birkenhead, sank off Simon’s Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa, with the loss of 485 lives. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm, thereby allowing the women and children to board the boats safely. Only 193 of the 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers’ chivalry gave rise to the “women and children first” protocol when abandoning ship, while the “Birkenhead drill” of Rudyard Kipling’s poem came to describe courage in face of hopeless circumstances.

The synonymous "Birkenhead drill" became an exemplar of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances, and appeared in Rudyard Kipling's 1893 tribute to the Royal Marines.

"Soldier an' Sailor Too"

"To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too"

Painting "The Wreck of the Birkenhead" (ca 1892) by Thomas M Hemy, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The History Press
Liverpool Central Library

Bob Edwards

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