Thursday 16 April 2020

The loss of HMS Birkenhead

The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) vessel Nemesis was built at John Laird's shipyard at Birkenhead. When she was launched in 1839, she was one of the first steam-powered warships to be built. Although other paddle steamers were present on the China station during the First Opium War (1839-1842), Nemesis was the first iron-hulled steamer to operate in eastern waters. She was a marvel of her time and played a very prominent role in the Anglo-Chinese War living up to her namesake, the goddess of retribution and revenge.

HMS Birkenhead was also an iron-hulled paddle steamer, and like Nemesis, she was built at John Laird and launched in 1845. She had been designed as a frigate, but by this time paddles were giving way to propellors, and Birkenhead was instead commissioned as a troopship. Seven years later, in February 1852 she sank off the coast of South Africa. Her sinking and the conduct of her officers and men and the soldiers she carried became something of a legend in Victorian England, depicted in paintings and poetry and from whence came the expression the "Birkenhead drill". 

The Birkenhead began her last tragic voyage in Portsmouth in January 1852. She was under the command of Captain Robert Salmond. The troops from various regiments were under the overall command of Lt-Col Alexander Seton. At the time of her sinking, she was carrying approximately 643 men, women and children. The ship hit an unchartered submerged rock at night which holed her bows, broke bulkheads,  and caused flooding to the engine room and lower decks. A number of soldiers were killed below decks many still in their hammocks, whilst others were able to make their way to the upper deck. The soldiers mustered on the deck, and some were ordered aft to help bring up the bows. Some of the soldiers were ordered to assist the crew in lowering the lifeboats, whilst others were detailed to man the pumps below decks. The order went out that women and children should go first. That, and the discipline of the soldiers, accepting their fate, and mustering whilst the ship went down to allow women and children to get away first became known as the "Birkenhead drill" and was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling. 

"But to stand an' be still
 the Birken'ead drill
 is a damn tough bullet to chew." 

The wreck of the Birkenhead by Thomas Hemy (1892)
Of the eight or nine boats only three were lowered. The others could not be lowered from the davits, or freed from the paddle top. All of the women and children and a number of the men were embarked on the three boats. They were later picked up by two schooners. The Birkenhead sank within twenty minutes of hitting the rock which is now called Birkenhead Rock in memory of all those who lost their lives, either by drowning or being killed by sharks.

A rendition that better depicts the sinking being at night 
The ship sank at around 0200 hours. The exact number of survivors is not known but thought to be between 194 and 205. These included 80 survivors who were able to get on the three lifeboats that were lowered.  When I first read about the loss of the Birkenhead I had the impression there were a number of women and children on board. In fact, there were only seven women and thirteen children aboard, suggesting there were sixty men on the lifeboats. We know the survivors included 113 Army all ranks, 6 Royal Marines and 54 Navy all ranks.  It may be that a large portion of the men in the boats was made up of the 54 naval personnel who survived and who may have manned the oars on the lifeboats. The lifeboats also picked up men from the water. Around 445 men lost their lives in the sinking which took place in shark-infested and bitterly cold seas. It was like an early version of the Titanic which also sank on another clear and starry night without enough lifeboats for those onboard. 

The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon (1901)
As the ship went down, an order was given for the horses on board to be cut loose and pushed over the ship's side in the hope they would be able to swim ashore. There were nine horses belonging to the Army officers. Of these one broke a leg on being pushed into the sea, and was thought to have been eaten by sharks, but the remainder managed to swim ashore and two of them were reunited with their owners who survived by swimming ashore.

The schooners Lioness and Seahorse arrived on the scene of the sinking at noon the following day. The Lioness picked up the survivors from the first two boats ( a cutter and a gig). They then found some forty survivors clinging to the wreckage of the mainmast and rigging. The Lioness rescued some 116 people from the boats and from the wreckage in the water. The third boat (a cutter) managed to make the nearby shore. The Seahorse rescued some twenty survivors from the water. A whaleboat from nearby Dyer Island had joined the rescue effort and picked up some four survivors. Some survivors managed to swim the two miles to the shore.

The most senior Army officer to survive was Captain Wright of the 91st Regiment of Foot.  He testified as to the steadfastness and discipline of the men at the court-martial convened on HMS Victory.
"The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be effected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service. Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking, instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion."
Colour Sgt John O'Neil also serving with the 91st Regiment was one of those who escaped death by swimming to that distant shore. In 1901, during a presentation on the occasion of his retirement, he commented about the sinking:
"I might be allowed to say a word or two about the memorable disaster, the wreck of the Birkenhead My share in that is soon told: simple obedience of orders, standing on deck slowly but surely sinking, whilst the women and children got safely away in the boats, then by God's providence and a long and perilous swim midst sharks, breakers and seaweeds, I managed to scramble ashore." 
Private Francis Ginn of the 43rd Light Infantry was an 18-year-old recruit. He stood muster with other soldiers on the deck, whilst the ship went down allowing others, and in particular the women and children to go first. He was a strong swimmer and when the ship went down he struck out for the shore. He swam through the night until in an exhausted state he was picked up by a Dutch fishing boat and brought ashore.

Cpl William Smith of 12th Regiment of Foot recalled the shock felt throughout the ship as the vessel collided with the rock. Distress rockets were fired.
"There was a panic for a short time but admirable discipline was maintained through the efforts of the officers. Good order was eventually restored. I believe twenty minutes had hardly elapsed before the vessel was in pieces. I was sleeping on the lower deck when the shock came and crowded up the ladder with others but found it difficult work. Some never came up at all but were drowned in their hammocks the water rushing in so suddenly. Most of the troops were fallen in on deck with the exception of some sixty men who were told to go below to man the chain pumps;  they never came up again but were all drowned like rats in a hole. After gaining the deck I went and assisted the crew in rigging the chain pumps I remained there, and I think it was about the hardest twenty minutes  work I ever did in my life. We all worked like Trojans. I remained below the whole time. I know very little about what happened on deck during this time. I think I was the only man that ever came up again from the pumps. "
An officer, Lt John Girardot, then told the men on the pumps it was no use, they could not control the flooding,  and they were ordered to go to the upper deck. Smith was one of those nearest the ladder. By the time he reached the upper deck, it was already awash. The ship was going down so fast, sinking by the bows, her smokestack lying across the deck. He described there being insufficient time to get the other boats launched whereas some other accounts talk about jammed davits. Smith could not swim but he managed to cling to a broken spar and eventually made the shore. He described how the dark outline of the mountains made the shore look closer than it was, and many of those that struck out towards the coast were unable to make the distance which he estimated at about two miles.

Richard Nesbitt was fourteen years old at the time. His father was Quartermaster of the 12th Suffolk Regiment.
"I have a very clear and distinct recollection of all that occurred.  I saved myself by making for and fastening on to one of the boats to which I clung for some time and was eventually pulled on board. We were afterwards picked up by the schooner Lioness and never shall I forget the great kindness of Captain and Mrs Ramsden to all the survivors - men, women and children.  I don't think half an hour could have elapsed from her striking until she broke up."
Cpl William Butler described the impact as being like a "clap of thunder" when the steamer hit the rock.
"The Captain and officers behaved splendidly; the former sang out, ‘Soldiers and sailors, keep quiet, and I will save you all ” There was calm after panic; we lowered the gangway, and pitched four guns and the horses overboard.  Captain Wright, of the 91st, jumped after his horse and got ashore with him.  The Captain ordered Mr. Brodie, to get the paddle box boats loose.  In doing so he got his thighs jammed.  When the vessel went down, the boat he had loosened remained in the water keel up. I saw four men get ashore on her, one man sitting on the keel with a big coat on, the three others paddling. Three on a spar also reached the shore, two men and a cabin boy; the boy sat on the spar, and the men paddled. I saw another get ashore on a truss of hay. As to the troops being paraded it is imagination. She was loaded to the funnel. The last words I heard the Captain say were “Soldiers and sailors, I’ve done what I can for you. I can't do more. Those who can swim do so; those who can’t climb the rigging.” Then it was a rush. I got hold of a bit of wreckage, on which it took me about seven hours to reach the shore where the survivors mustered in lots of six to ten who knew each other and walked in the direction of Simon's Bay, taking two days to reach the same."
Lt Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry, survived the sinking. He later recalled being dragged down as the ship submerged. Somebody was hanging on to his leg but he managed to kick himself free.  He clung onto some driftwood and paddled towards the shoreline. He recalled seeing many men killed by sharks. Some survivors tried to swim to the lifeboats but they pulled away in fear of being swamped by men in the water desperate to get aboard. Many spoke of the cries of those drowning and those being mauled by sharks. Captain Bond-Shelton was also dragged down when the ship sank, but he rose to the surface because he was wearing a Mackintosh life preserver. He struck out towards the shore and was swimming with two others who at one stage screamed and were dragged under by a shark.

On reaching the shore Bond-Shelton described the difficulty of getting through the masses of seaweed. He was reunited with his horse which he found at the water's edge.  For Private William Tuck who made it ashore, this was his second shipwreck. Thomas Cuffin was on the helm when the ship sank. He acted as coxswain of the second cutter and picked up 32 survivors from the water before rowing to the shore. As helmsman, he had to give witness at the court-martial in Portsmouth. The court-martial proceedings which were commonly conducted for sinking or collision were dropped because no senior naval officers had survived.

I suspect the story may have been embellished over time aided by those dramatic paintings. One of the survivor's account described the soldiers mustering in their uniform as being "imagination."  Thomas Cuffin, the helmsman, contacted Thomas Hemy, the artist, who painted the most famous rendition of the sinking in 1892 some forty years after the event. Cuffin told Hemy that he had seen the troops fall in line, at the orders of an officer in the form of a parade or mustering. So perhaps, it should not be too quickly dismissed. Some of the accounts talk of the initial panic, but all of the accounts confirm the calmness of the officers and the subsequent discipline of the men.  There can be no doubt that courage was on display that tragic night in which so many lost their lives and the "Birkenhead drill" became an example and an aspiration.


Survivors accounts from
"Nemesis - the first iron warship and her world"  Adrian Marshall (2016)
"China Station - the British military in the Middle Kingdom 1839-1997 Mark Felton (2013)

Captain Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse

Humphrey Fleming Senhouse was born in 1781 in Barbados where his father, an officer in the Royal Navy, was serving as Surveyor General for Barbados and the Leeward Islands. Senhouse joined the Royal Navy in 1797 at the age of sixteen. His first ship was HMS Prince of Wales, which had been launched in 1794 at Portsmouth. She was a 98-gun ship-of-the-line. She was the flagship of Admiral Sir Henry Harvey, commander of the Leeward Islands Station, and responsible for the capture of Trinidad from the Spanish. Later that year, in November 1797 Senhouse transferred to the gun brig Requin, a former French warship (Le Requin) captured in 1795 and pressed into service with the Royal Navy. A small ship with a complement of around sixty officers and men and a single gun deck equipped with ten 4-pounders. The commander Lt William Wood Senhouse was one of Humphrey Senhouse's brothers. In 1799 Senhouse sailed to England on Requin. Senhouse then served on HMS Fishguard, a 48-gun frigate, formerly a French frigate (Resistance) that was captured by the Royal Navy in 1795.

The capture of French warship Immortalit√© by HMS Fisgard 
In 1802,  Senhouse passed the qualifying examinations and was promoted to Lieutenant. He served at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805, onboard HMS Conqueror a 74-gun ship-of-the-line which was in the thick of the action throughout the battle. She was commanded by Captain Israel Pellew. Conqueror was in the van, she was fourth in line in the weather column led by the flagship HMS Victory. Villeneuve's flagship the Bucentaure surrendered to Conqueror's Captain of Marines who had been put aboard to take the surrender whilst Conqueror chased and engaged Santisma de Trinidad.

To find the link with Hong Kong, we have to fast forward through an illustrious naval career, in which Senhouse saw action in the War of 1812, commanded a number of warships, was knighted, and promoted to the rank of Captain. Mount Stenhouse (incorrectly spelt) on Lamma Island is named after him.

Mount Stenhouse on Lamma Island
Senhouse was posted to the China Station in April 1839 as second in command of the Naval squadron in China reporting to Commodore Sir James Bremer. He commanded HMS Blenheim, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, in the First Anglo-Chinese War (1839-1841), more often referred to as the First Opium War. 

HMS Blenheim
Senhouse was involved in the action at the Bogue Forts and the fighting around Chuenpi Island in the Pearl River, the gateway to  Canton. At the Chuenpi Convention assembled in January 1841, the Chinese Commissioner Qi Shan agreed to cede Hong Kong Island to the British Crown. However, the Qing Court was not happy with this arrangement. They thought Qi had conceded too much and he was dismissed. The treaty was repudiated and hostilities were resumed. The British were not happy either and thought that Captain Charles Elliot the Superintendent of Trade had not extracted enough. Palmerston famously derided Hong Kong as being a barren rock, with hardly a house upon it, and which would never be a mart for trade. Elliot was recalled and replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger who was appointed as Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade. The war was brought to an end in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking in which amongst other concessions, including the establishment of treaty ports and reparations, Hong Kong was granted in perpetuity to the Crown.

Senhouse may have been present with Commodore Bremer at the de facto taking of possession of Hong Kong Island in January 1841. Later that year, he succumbed to fever and died on board HMS Blenheim on 13th June 1841. In accordance with his wishes, and bearing in mind that Hong Kong still had a doubtful future as a Crown Colony,  he was interred at the Protestant Cemetery in Macau. The iron-clad paddle steamer Nemesis arrived in Macau with his body on 16th June 1841.  His memorial can still be seen today in the old cemetery. 

Memorial for Senhouse in the Protestant Cemetery in Macau

Captain Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse (1781-1841)
He died aged sixty and was survived by his wife Elizabeth Manley. They married in 1810 and had nine children of which five predeceased him. Elizabeth lived on until 1865 when she passed away aged eighty-one. 

Sea Echo and The Pipeline under the Ocean (PLUTO) Project

In the early 1960s my parents bought a holiday bungalow at Greatstone-on-Sea in Romney Marsh, South East Kent. I still vaguely remember the family gathering around our kitchen table to think of a name and we chose Sea Echo.  Here's a rather dated photograph, taken with a Kodak Instamatic, of my sister Julie and I standing outside Sea Echo in 1969 or 1970. 

Sea Echo in 1969/1970 (Writers Collection)
My family sold the house long ago but it's still there, little changed and still bearing the name Sea Echo. Here's a photo I took earlier this year as I drove past.

Sea Echo in 2014 (Writer's Collection)
The house was unusual because it had walls that were two or three foot thick, but that's because it had a war history, but more about that later.  The house was in Leonard Road, at that time a small cul-de-sac with five similarly designed flat roofed holiday bungalows surrounded by shingle. Over the years Leonard Road grew longer, and with the development of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, a number of bungalows were built alongside the five original houses in Leonard Road, and likewise all along the coast with whimsical names like Linger Longer and Crackers.

Leonard Road was parallel to the coast road which ran from Littlestone-on-Sea to the rather bleak but fascinating foreland of Dungeness. Close to the road was a miniature railway which ran from Hythe to Dungeness operating steam engines. It still runs carrying day trippers up and down the coast.

The nearest town was New Romney which was linked to Littlestone-on-Sea by a broad tree lined road called the Avenue. New Romney had once been a flourishing port - one of the famous cinque ports. The sea has long since retreated but as recently as Victorian times old maps show a shallow bay open to the sea. Probably salt marshes at low tide with Littlestone-on Sea at the northern end of the mouth and Greatstone-on-Sea on the southern side. This can be seen in the 1816 map below:

Map showing Greatstone-on-Sea in 1816 (
The area marked "The Warren" is now a seaside golf course. The open bite no longer exists and Great Stone and Little Stone are linked. The history of Romney Marsh has been a constant struggle with the sea. In Roman times ships sailed over a large and shallow bay to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis. In Saxon times it must have been largely a  salt marsh with navigable channels, some of which (salt marshes) remains today around Rye Harbour. The Saxons created innings to reclaim land and to harvest salt for commercial use. Sea walls were built  to keep out the sea and ditches and dykes to drain the marsh.

But let's return to Leonard Road and Sea Echo. There was a flight of wooden stairs that led to the wind-swept flat roof where water collected in pools. To the front across the small rail track and the coast road was the shingle beach. At high tide the sea came right up to the shingle bank and at low tide a vast expanse of sand and mud was exposed.  Here fishermen dug for lug worm for use as bait and we would sometimes cross the sands, sinking in patches of soft mud up to our ankles,  to go shrimping at low tide. This involved pushing a wide net along the sea bottom in three foot of shallow water. We would gather plenty of shrimps. It was hard work peeling them and then boiling them but they were sweet and tasty to eat and fresh from the sea.

Looking out to sea you could see across St Mary's Bay to the white chalk cliffs of Folkestone and Dover. Stand up on the highest sand dune at Greatstone near the Jolly Fisherman Hotel and on a clear day you can see bits of France. In the sea just off Littlestone is the wreck of a section of the Mulberry Harbour which was to be used in the invasion of Normandy,  but broke free whilst being towed  to wash up on this stretch of beach.

To the rear of Sea Echo there were miles of shingle and occasional gravel pits.  It's hard work walking on the shingle and in days gone by locals at Dungeness used to wear contraptions like snow shoes with a piece of board under their shoes to facilitate crossing the shingle.

Back then and even today there is a kind of enchantment  brought about by a sense of desolation, the wind ripping across the shingle, the gulls screeching, and that wide expanse of sea and sky. The constant battle with nature. On foggy nights you could hear the mournful blast of the fog horn from the lighthouse at Dungeness.  The long, low line of hills that run from the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight to the hump backed downs at Hythe mark the old Saxon shoreline.  There is so much history in this little corner of England that you are easily caught up under its spell.

The walls of Sea Echo were unusually thick and we knew that it had some connection with the PLUTO Project in World War 2 through which petroleum was supplied to the Allied invasion armies by cable-like pipes that ran under the channel, one of which emanated from Greatstone-on-Sea and another from the Isle of Wight.

I was in Chatham recently visiting the Regimental Museum of the Corp of Royal Engineers. There was a display on the PLUTO Project and there was a photograph (below) of what I thought was Sea Echo in World War 2 at which time it had been built as a pumping-house disguised to look like a seaside bungalow, and therefore escape the notice of German aircraft or German espionage. I am informed by a reader that the photograph is not of Sea Echo, but one off three similar bungalows known as  Boodle's Den at 49, Leonard Road.
Boodle's Den  (Photo from display at Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham)
Here's another war time picture showing the three houses on the western side of Leonard Road with the third one being Sea Echo and showing Leonard Road coming to an abrupt end at the shingle edge in the foreground. The nearest bungalow being Boodle's Den.

The three pump houses disguised as holiday bungalows (www.

Thphotograph below shows Boodle's Den (No 49 Leonard Road) as it today looking quite different with an upper storey added.

In the wartime photograph below you can see the pipeline on huge drums being towed across the channel  to supply the fuel hungry armies with that vital life blood to prosecute the war and liberate occupied Europe from tyranny.

Laying the pipe-line (Source:

 One of the huge drums  on the beach ……….ready to roll

Known as a conundrum (Source:

 These two houses on the eastern side of Leonard Road were used  as accommodation

 Disguised as holiday bungalows (Source:
The pipeline project PLUTO was hugely important to the war effort and allowed over a million gallons of petroleum per day to be carried across the channel. The fuel was transported by pipe line from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey to Greatstone-on-Sea where it terminated at the five PLUTO bungalows - one of which was Sea Echo and from where the pipeline carried on under the Channel to the French Coast.  The huge drums that were towed across the Channel and known as "Conundrums" each carried 30 miles of cable pipe.

Sea Echo with its three foot walls, the shingle, and the Saxon shoreline in the distance gave me an enduring affection for Romney Marsh and history generally.

As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o'er the land
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.

And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe, 
Within the wind a core of sound,
The wire from Romney town to Hythe
Along its airy journey wound. 

As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
I saw above the Downs' low crest 
The crimson brands of sunset fall, 
Flicker and fade from out the West.

 Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
 The stars in one great shower came down;
 Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
 Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.
                                                                                                    (John Davidson) 

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball on the Eve of Waterloo

These stanzas are taken from a much longer poem by Lord George Byron entitled Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. This a book length poem - so not for the faint hearted. I have shortened the several stanzas concerning the Eve of Waterloo to just two,  because it is these two which are most captivating, at least  for me. The first stanza vividly conjures up that ball hosted on 15 June 1815 in Brussels by the charming socialite,  the Duchess of Richmond. All the officers of any importance including the Duke of Wellington had been invited. It must have been a glittering occasion - the ballroom lit by a mass of candles - the officers in their dress uniform and the ladies in all their finery. 

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it? — No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
But hark! — that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before;
Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

The Battle of Quatre Bras (painted by Lady Butler)

In the 1970 classic film "Waterloo" in which Christopher Plummer plays the Iron Duke it depicts the Duchess of Richmond's ball brilliantly with the military bands, the Scottish dancing, and the ceremony of the occasion . Here are some stills from that film.

Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington in the 1970 film - 'Waterloo' 

The Duchess of Richmond's  Ball  (from the 1970 film 'Waterloo')
Some poetic license has been employed as in actual fact the ball was hosted on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras fought on 16 June 1815 two days before the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duchess of Richmond's Ball by Robert Hillingford (1870s)

It was whilst the Duke of Wellington was attending the ball that a messenger arrived from Marshal Blucher with news that Napoleon's army had crossed the border and were advancing towards Brussels. Officers hurriedly left and the next day the army was leaving Brussels heading south to bolster British  and Prussian positions at and around Quatre Bras which were facing the advancing French army.

But let us return to the poem where Byron sets the scene so well that we could almost be there :

 There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily;

What a fabulous line that follows (below) depicting the romance of the occasion and what a vivid description of the music :

and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again

Then we are interrupted by the sound of the gun, the foe is approaching and the officers must make their leave to do battle on the morrow.

But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Arm! arm! it is — it is — the cannon's opening roar!

Poetic license again as the cannonading had not yet commenced nor would it until the following day when the Prussian Army under Blucher which were on the left flank, were attacked and after a short and brutal battle suffered a defeat and had to withdraw and regroup. 

The British led Anglo-Dutch  army at Quatre Bras (literally 'four roads' or 'Cross Roads') on the right flank were attacked by Marshal Ney  who had some 42,000 men outnumbering the British who initially were defending the cross roads with only 6,000 men. Marshal Ney did not press home the attack fast enough and British reinforcements from  the direction of Brussels allowed Wellington to hold the position.

The following day Wellington withdrew his army to Waterloo where he intended to make a stand and …………….the rest as they say is history !