THE STORY OF THE SINKING OF HMS BIRKENHEAD

Richard Hakluyt was an English writer of the late 16th – early 17th centuries who actively promoted the settlement of North America by the English through his many written works. In his writings he often used the word Cafar or Kaffir which translated into infidels or disbelievers. He refers to slaves as Cafari. On early European maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, southern Africa was called by cartographers Cafreria. Between 1835 and 1845, about 15,000 Voortrekkers (people of Dutch extract) moved out of the (British) Cape Colony across the Orange River into the interior of South Africa. Their ‘Great Trek’ was a rejection of the British policy of equalising black and white at the Cape, and of the political marginalisation they experienced on the Eastern Cape frontier. They established two independent republics – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – as recognised by Great Britain at the Sand River (1852) and Bloemfontein (1854) Conventions. The republicans acquired the name ‘Boers’, the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmers. Like the African societies within their borders, the stock farming Boers enjoyed a pre-capitalist, near-subsistence economy.   The ‘Xhosa Wars’ – also known as the Cape Frontier Wars – were a series of nine wars or flare-ups between 1779 and 1879 in what is now the Eastern Cape in South Africa between the Xhosa tribes and European settlers,. These events were part of the longest-running military action in African colonialism history. In January 1852, under the command of Captain Robert Salmond RN, the HMS Birkenhead left Portsmouth with troops from ten different regiments on board. They were heading south as part of the ‘Kaffir war’ against the Xhosa in South Africa.

In the Blog in the week just gone I posted the bare fact that, on Thursday 26th February 1852, the British troop ship HMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of Africa and around 450 men died in the incident. What we must remember is that, at this time, communications were slow as the only link for ships at sea were other ships returning to their home ports. As a typical example, it was on Tuesday 23rd March 1852 the ‘Northern Whig’ newspaper reported that: ‘Her Majesty’s troop-ship Birkenhead, with troops and stores for the Cape, arrived at Sierra Leone, all well, on 30th January, and proceeded the next day for the Cape.’

The Yorkshire Gazette of Saturday 10th April 1852 was one of the first newspapers to tell the story.
On page 2 of 8 it records the following:   HOUSE OF LORDS, Tuesday April 6th
The Duke of Northumberland stated, in reply to Lord Monteagle, that the government had received no official intelligence from Plymouth as to the loss of the Birkenhead steam-frigate. After some observations from Lord Ellenborough, who spoke in terms of reprehension of the way in which official secrets were betrayed in India, the Earl of Derby moved that the house at its rising should adjourn until the 19th inst. The motion was agreed to, and their Lordships adjourned accordingly until Monday week.

On page 3 of 8 the Gazette had the headline:
WRECK OF THE BIRKENHEAD TROOP SHIP – GREAT LOSS OF LIFE.
The ‘Propontis’ mail packet, which left the Cape on the 3rd March, has arrived home. She brings the distressing intelligence of the loss of the Birkenhead troop-ship on 26th of February, near Simon’s Bay; 446 persons are missing.
Naval officers drowned: – Salmond, commander; Brodie, master; Speer, second master; Davis, second master; Whyham, chief engineer; Hare, master’s assistant; Macelymont and Deely, assistant engineers; Harris, boatswain; and Roberts, carpenter.
Military officers drowned: – 2nd or Queen’s Regiment, Ensign Boyland; 6th Regiment, Ensign Medford; 73rd Regiment, Lieut. G W Robinson, and Lieut. A H Booth; 74th Highlanders, Major Seeton, and Ensign Russell; 12th Lancers, Cornet Rolt.

The loss of the Birkenhead has unfortunately been fully confirmed, as appears by the following report, addressed to the Commandant of Cape Town by Captain Wright, of the 91st Regiment, one of the survivors on the Simon’s Bay, 1st March 1852

Sir
It is with feelings of the deepest regret that I have to announce to you the loss of her Majesty’s steamer Birkenhead, which took place on a rock about two miles and a half or three miles off Point Danger, at two a.m. 26th of February.
The sea was smooth at the time, and the vessel was stteming at a rate of about 8 ½ knots an 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 their 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 amongst the men. He directed me to take, and have executed, whatever orders the commander might give me. Sixty men were immediately put onto the chain pumps, on the lower after deck, and told off in three reliefs. Sixty men were put on to 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 this 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 women and children, who had all been collected under the poop awning. As soon as the horses were got over the side, the women and children were passed into the cutter, and, under the charge of Mr Richards, master’s assistant, the boat then stood off about 150 yards. Just after they were out of the ship the entire bow broke at the foremast, the bowsprit going up in the air towards the foretopmast, and the funnel went over the side carrying away the starboard paddle-box and boat. The other paddle-box boat capsized when being lowered. The large boat in the centre of the ship could not be got at.

It was about twelve or fifteen minutes after she struck that the bow broke off. The men then all went up on the poop, and in about five 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 so, 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 officers below 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 mainmast, part of which was out of the water; and others got hold of floating pieces of wood. I think there must have been about 200 on the driftwood. I was on a large piece along with five others, and we picked up nine or ten 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 support all that were on it, I jumped off and swam on shore; 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 to find a habitation of any sort, where we could obtain a shelter. Many of the men were naked, and almost all without shoes. Owing to the country being covered with thick thorny bushes, our progress was slow, but after walking till about three p.m., having reached land about twelve, we came to where a waggon 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 Stanford’s Cove. We arrived there about sunset, and as the men had nothing to eat, I went on to a farm-house, about eight or nine miles from the cove, and sent back provisions for that day. The next morning I sent another day’s provisions, and the men were removed up to a farm of Captain Smale’s 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 sixty-eight men, including eighteen sailors.

“I then went down to the coast, and during Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I examined the rocks for more than twenty miles, in the hope of finding some men who might have drifted in. I fortunately fell in with the crew of a whale-boat that is employed sealing on Dyer’s Island. I got them to take the boat outside the sea-weed whilst I went along the shore. The sea-weed 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 found two: although they were much exhausted, two of them having been in the water for 38 hours, and were all right the next day, except 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 Dyer’s 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 Birkenhead.

On Saturday, I met Mr. Mackay, the Civil Commissioner of Caledon, and also Field-cornet Villiers. The former told me that he had ordered the men who had been at Captain Smales’s, to be clothed by him, he having a store at his farm. 40 soldiers received clothing 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 Dyer’s Island, and all the bodies that were met with were interred. There were not many, however, and I regret to say it could be easily accounted for. Five of the horses got to the shore, and were caught and brought to me. One belonged to myself, one to Mr Bond, of the 12th Lancers, and the other three to Major Seaton, of the 74th, Dr Laing, and Lieut. Booth, of the 73rd. I handed the horses over to Mr Mackay, and he is to send them on to me here, so that they may be sold, and that I may account for the proceeds.

On 28th of February, her Majesty’s ship Rhadamanthus was seen off Sandford’s Cove; so I went down there, and found that Capt. Bunce, the commander of the Castor frigate, had landed , and gone up to Capt. Smales, tp order the men down to the Cove, so as to embark in the steamer to be conveyed to Simon’s Bay. On Sunday, when I was down at the coast, the field-cornet told me that at a part where he and his men had been, a few bodies had been washed up and buried; also a few boxes, which were broken in pieces, and the contents strewed about the rocks. I then ceased to hope that any more were living, and came down to the Cove to join the other men. We arrived there at about six p.m.

The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the time the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I thought could be effected by the best discipline; and this 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 a cry amongst 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.

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 (1 officer and 18 men were disembarked in Simon’s Bay).

I am happy to say that all the women and children were put safely on board a schooner that was about seven mile off when the steamer was wrecked. This vessel returned to the wreck at about three p.m. and took off 40 or 50 men that were clinging to the rigging, and then proceeded to Simons Bay. One of the ship’s boats, with the assistant-surgeon of the vessel and eight 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 no difficulty, I am quite confident that nearly every man of the 200 who were on the drift wood, might have been saved, for they might have been picked up here and there, where they had got in amongst the weeds, and landed as soon as eight or nine were got into the boat. Where most of the drift wood got stuck in the weeds, and the distance to the shore was not more than 100 yards; and as by taking a somewhat serpentine course I managed to swim in, without getting foul of the rock or being tumbled over by a breaker, there is no doubt the boat might have done also.

One fact I cannot omit mentioning. When the vessel was just about going down, the commander called out, ‘All those that can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats.’ Lieut. Girardor 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 women must be swamped. Not more than three made the attempt.

On Sunday evening, at six p.m., all the men who were at Captain Smales’s, and four I had with myself on the coast, were embarked in boats and taken on board the Rhadamanthus, and we arrived at Simon’s Bay at three a.m. on Monday, the 1st of March. Eighteen of the men are 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 have, &c. Edward W C Wright, Capt 91st Regt.

The same issue of the Gazette also contains the following letter from Cornet Bond, of the 12th Lancers. He was one of the survivors and provides a very personal description of his experience:-
‘We left Simon’s Bay at 7 o’clock on the evening of the 24th. At 2 o’clock the next morning I was awoke by the vessel striking upon a rock. I immediately dressed myself and went on deck, and found all in confusion. I heard the captain give orders to back her, which I hardly think was carried into effect, as the fire were almost immediately extinguished. He then gave orders to Major Seaton to get the horses up and throw them overboard, and I, with a sergeant and some men belonging to the 12th Lancers, succeeded in doing so. I then went on the poop, where the captain was standing. He told me to go and get the women and children up; which I did by carrying up two of the latter. The others followed, and were immediately lowered into the boats. At this time the greatest order and regularity prevailed. All the officers were then employed with gangs of men at the pumps, and a number of soldiers under the command of Mr Brodi, the master, were endeavouring to haul out the paddle-box boat on the port side, which was nearly hoisted out when the tackle broke, and it remained fixed in the air. The fore part of the ship now broke off at the fore mast, and soon after she cracked in the middle and filled with water. A great many of the men on the troop were drowned in their hammocks, not being able to effect an escape. All those that could succeed in reaching the poop now crowded there, and the captain sung out to those that could swim ‘to make for the boats,’ of which there were three at a distance of 150 yards. They did not come nearer for fear of being swamped. A gig on the starboard side was then lowered, in which Mr Rolt, of the 12th Lancers, who was unable to swim, and several seamen were seen to enter; but in lowering it one of the ropes broke, and she was swamped. Poor Rolt rose, but was unable to reach the shore, and drowned. The poop immediately afterwards, owing to the force of the water rushing up, went down, drawing all those that were on it, as well as myself, under water. I rose to the surface almost immediately. I had one of Mackintosh’s life preservers on, which may be filled in the water, which I did. The sea at this time was covered with struggling forms, while the cries, piercing shrieks, and shouting for the boats were awful. I swan astern in hopes of being picked up by one of them. I hailed one 60 yards off, but could not reach it, as they pulled away, I suppose, for fear of too many attempting to get in. I then turned round and made for the shore, about two miles distant, which I finally succeeded in reaching, at a little after 5 a.m.by swimming only. Two men, who were swimming close to me, I saw disappear with a shriek, most probably bitten by sharks. I fortunately hit on the landing place, but owing to the great quantity of seaweed I had to struggle through, and being quite exhausted, I almost failed in reaching it. I then walked up a sort of beaten track from the beach, in hopes of finding some habitation. In doing so I perceived my horse, at a short distance, standing in the water on the beach. I got him out and then returned to the place at which I landed, when I saw a raft, with about nine men on it, endeavouring to land, but they did not succeed it until they saw me on the rocks standing opposite to the proper spot; they then steered straight for me and finally landed at 7 a.m. Lieutenant Girardot, of the 43rd Light Infantry, was one of them. At the same time two or three other men were thrown on the rocks off a spar, and landed, very much bruised and entirely naked. We all then proceeded up this track, and after two hours march we saw a waggon along the shore, to which we went and obtained some bread and water. The drive directed us to proceed further up the beach, and at five miles’ distance we should find some fishing cottages. On our way thither we met numbers of men who had landed. Some came ashore in the paddle-box boat, which had floated up; the one was full of water, the other keel uppermost. One of the ship’s quartermasters told me that there were seven others in the boat with him that was full of water. They, however, all died from cold, having been many hours in the boat and quite naked. He had his clothes on. We met Captain Wright, 91st, who had landed on the sponsoon; he had been along the shore and had picked up several men. Some rafts reached the shore with bodies lashed on them, quite dead; other bodies washed up, some of them dreadfully mangled by sharks. Her Majesty’s steamer ‘Rhadamanthus’ hove in sight on Sunday, tool us off, and brought us into Simon’s Bay the next morning.

“The time from when the ship struck to the period at which the poop sank, and those on it were precipitated into the water, did not occupy more than 20 minutes.

The details of the losses by Regiments are recorded as:-
2nd Queen’s Regiment: ensign Boyland, the band master, corporal and 34 men
12th Regiment: 55 men
12th Lancers: Cornet Rolt, 1 sergeant, 3 men
43rd Light Infantry: 1 sergeant, 2 corporals, 26 men
45th Regiment: 3 men
60th Rifles: 1 corporal, 29 men
73rd Regiment: Lieut. Robinson, Lieut. Booth, 53 men.
6th Regiment: ensign Medford, 49 men
74th Highlanders: Major Seaton, Ensign Russell, 2 corporals, 46 men.
91st regiment: 1 sergeant, 1 corporal, 42 men
The passenger Andrew White, a servant
Of the crew, 54 officers and men and 6 marines were saved. The remainder of the crew (including the commander, Captain Salmond, the master, the second master, and the principal engineer) perished.
The total number of the sufferers was 454.

The London Daily News of Monday 12th April tells the story in a different way – taking elements from the Portsmouth Times as it does so:-
It is with sorrowful feelings and a heart full of sympathy for those bereft of friends and kindred by the dread stroke of fate that we, (Portsmouth Times), take up our pen to comment on the appalling loss attending the wreck of her Majesty’s ship Birkenhead. Fain would we shun the task, but the service look to us for some information, and we have gone to some trouble and expense in the endeavour to show a desire to fully meet their wished, as our Supplement will amply testify.

The loss of the ship is accurately and circumstantially detailed in the morning papers, therefore it is unnecessary we should recapitulate those details. But we are in possession of data touching the character of the Birkenhead which the daily journalists are not, and can assist in doing that which the metropolitan press has taken but a partial view of in attempting to establish, vix, – a cause for the happening of the harrowing disaster. Most of our brethren journalists have, with more or less precipitancy, placed the blame on the Master Commanding (Mr. Salmond), and attach the cause of the catastrophe to his supposed hugging of the shore to save time and distance in the discharge of his important duty. We do not believe such to have been his culpability. We know the Birkenhead to have ever been a most dangerous vessel to steer, in consequence of which vital fault she had very nearly been lost on more than one occasion previously. We know from the best of evidence – personal acquaintance – that her compasses would not act under the commonest circumstances, and were always, or nearly always, in error; we know the Birkenhead has been swung round the entire circle at Spithead three times, and her compasses have never showed the shadow, even, of a movement! We know further, that on another occasion, whilst at sea, so utterly impossible was it for the master to navigate the ship owing to the attraction of the iron upon the compasses that the master We know further, that on another occasion, whilst at sea, so utterly impossible was it for the master to navigate the ship owing to the attraction of the iron upon the compasses that the master was compelled for safety to take them up into the mizzen top to endeavour to steer the ship by them!
With such facts as these staring us in the face, and many more which we could adduce in support of our reason for believing that there was something wrong with the ship more than her commander, we are inclined to put a very mitigated construction upon the reports of others as to the apparent want of discretion on the commander’s part in the matter of the route steered.

The Birkenhead was an iron steam-vessel, of 1m400 tons, built for a steam-frigate, but so far from being enabled to carry a battery of guns, she could not carry her coals, and was consequently converted into a troop ship, in which character she never enjoyed a good reputation, as many officers who have sailed and held appointments in her can testify. She left this port last on 2nd of January, on which day she was victualled as her own troop service complement 129 persons, her apportioned complement being 131. As a navigator Mr Salmond ranked among the most skilful of the Masters of the Royal Navy. His latter services were in the Retribution steam-frigate, and the Vengeance, 84 under Captain Lushington and the Earl of Hardwick; then the Fishguard, 42, at Woolwich, from which ship he was appointed to the command of the Birkenhead on the 8th February 1851.

On Wednesday, the very day the news was officially confirmed, Adm. Sir Thos. Briggs, G.C.M.G., the commander-in-chief at this port, proposed, and his views were most warmly espoused by Rear-Admiral Superintendent Prescott, C.B., that they, together with the captains, officers, and ships’ companies of her Majesty’s ships and vessels at Spithead, and in Portsmouth Harbour, should, in demonstration of their deep regret at the loss of the Birkenhead, subscribe one day’s pay towards the pecuniary relief of the widows and orphans of the seamen and mariners who perished on that melancholy occasion. We are proud to add this call has been most readily acknowledged by all the officers and crews of the fleet at this port, in a most eager and spontaneous manner, and we hope the ‘good intent’ will not stop here, but that every inhabitant of this port, at least, will contribute their mite also towards the same object.

On Thursday 15th April 1852 the London Standard, on its front page, published an extract from a letter from Lieutenant Girardot, 43rd Light Infantry
Simon’s Bay, March 1 ‘My dear Father – I wrote one letter to say I was safe, but for fear that should not reach you, I will send this to say I am quite well. I remained on the wreck until she went down; the suction took me down some way, and a man got hold of my leg, but I managed to kick him off and come up, and struck off for some pieces of wood that were on the water, and started for land, which was about two miles off. I was in the water about five hours, as the shore was so rocky, and the surf ran so high that a great many were lost trying to land. Nearly all those that took to the water without their clothes were taken by sharks; hundreds of them were all arojnd us, and I saw men taken by them quite close to me, but as I was dressed (having on a flannel shirt and trousers) they preferred the others. I was not in the least hurt, and am happy to say kept my head clear; most of the officers lost their lives from losing their presence of mind, and trying to take money with them, and from not throwing off their coats. There was no time to get the paddle-box boats down, and a great many more might have been saved , but the boats that were got down deserted us and went off. From the time she struck to the time she went down was 20 minutes. When I landed I found an officer of the 12th Lancers, who had swum off with a life preserver, and 14 men, who had got on with bits of wood like myself. We walked up the country 11 miles, to a farm belonging to Captain Smales, formally of the 7th Dragoon Guards, who was very kind to us, and all the men that were got on shore came up to him. I hope our government will make up our loss to us, as I have saved nothing. Melford, of the 6th, the ensign I spoke of as having his wife on board with him, went down; she, poor thing, was left here when the ship sailed for Buffalo Mouth; I have just been to see her, and she looks more dead than alive, left all alone at this distance from her home, but we shall do all we can to be of service to her. There is a report that many have been killed in the Amatola Mountains, and our poor doctor was killed some little time back. God grant that we may all be spared to meet again, – Ever your affectional son, “FRANK GIRARDOT”

The Fife Herald of Thursday 15th April 1852 addresses the story in a different way – namely ‘WHO WAS TO BLAME?’ It says:-
The wrecking of the above ill-fated steamer has produced a more universal sensation of grief than any previous catastrophe of the same kind. This is not owing to the very great number of human beings that perished, nor to the fact that these were called suddenly and without warning to meet their doom. Such tragic circumstances are almost as old as the sea itself, and have, at brief intervals, illustrated the whole history of navigation. Often have hundreds together, in the midst of a pleasant voyage, touched their grave-stone before dreaming of their grave; and a hidden rock has sent them to the depths of a quiet ocean. Now can we ascribe the unprecedented sorrow now felt to the station and character of the great majority of the passengers lost. These were soldiers – men isolated from society, and regarded generally as so many paid targets for fate. They were also bound for scenes of active warfare, where death was likely to meet many of them. The public sympathy for the fate of several hundreds of soldiers is not excited by the fact that they were soldiers, but by the fact of the pure heroism and gallantry which they displayed. There was no rush to get away from the sinking vessel into boats launched. Not a soldier stirred from his post of danger until all the women were safe; nay, when it was ascertained that the soldiers would overcrowd the boats they at once resolved to keep to their post, which was now one of certain and speedy death. The battle-field never evoked such sublime heroism. The brave men could not be taunted as being paid at the rate of a shilling a day for such a death!

The blame which has been thrown upon the Captain of the vessel was blindly pronounced, and appears to be unjust. The following communication is from a gentleman competent to form an estimate of the Captain’s general character, and of his conduct in the sailing of the Birkenhead:-

‘Whilst a mystery hangs, and may forever hang, over the cause of the loss of the Birkenhead, I cannot on a careful review of the whole information received from some of your contemporaries, blame the Captain Salmond. I can assure you that there was not a better qualified officer in the service. He has had 30 years’ experience, and has been a master for 15 years, in constant employment, and I am told that he went very little to bed when his vessel was near a coast. The man who acted so coolly, so honourably, and so generously during the twenty trying minutes which elapsed before his death, cannot rashly be held to be an incompetent officer. He is blamed for hugging the land with a view to shorten the voyage, regardless of consequences. From what I know of Mr Salmond this is improbable and I have therefore examined the facts minutely. It appears that at eight o’clock at night, the position of the vessel was duly pricked off on the chart whilst she was in False Bay, by Captain Salmond and the first mate, and the course ordered was SSE and ½ E. It is not stated in which part of False Bay this was done but take it to be on the east side, being the most unfavourable point. I have laid the prescribed course down on a chart, and it clears Danger Point by 15 miles, being 12 miles to seaward of the rock on which she struck. It is further stated that this course was in appearance kept, that special orders were given not to sail to the eastward of it, and that the first question Captain Salmond put was. ‘What course has been steered? And on being answered SSE and ½ E, he replied, “That was right.” These facts appear beyond dispute, and it therefore follows that the vessel from some cause yet unknown did not sail in that course though she appeared to do so.

My conviction is, that there must have been a variation in the compasses. The vessel was built of iron which may have caused it. Iron ore abounds at the Cape of Good Hope, which may also have been the cause; whilst I observe it stated in the papers that the compasses were adjusted on a principle now found, in some instances, to work erroneously. If this supposition be correct, Captain Salmond had no means of discovering it. He passed that point a few months before, and at least a dozen times in the course of his life, so that he must have known the rocks; and an officer of his known caution and experience, and whom I know felt deeply his responsibility when so many lives were entrusted to him, there is every probability would frame a course calculated to give the dangerous rocks a wide berth; and from the trial I have made upon the chart he actually did so.

“I may mention one fact communicated by private letter, that the moment of the catastrophe he appeared on deck dressed, showing that he had lain down with his clothes on, or had dressed to come on deck after a short repose of four hours, he having been on duty without intermission for above thirty hours before; and further, that while giving his orders from the poop with unprecedented coolness and judgement in the most trying position in which man could be placed, he took his gold watch from his pocket – probably the only valuable thing on his person – and handed it to the purser’s steward, who escaped, thus showing his fixed determination to stick to the last plank of his sinking ship, with the belief that it would cut off the chances of him being saved. He could not swim.

“Mr Salmond is connected with this country. His mother lives in Inverkeithing, and has nearly attained her 90th year. He has left a widow and three children, aged 12 years, 9 years and 7 months.”

On page 3 of 4 the London Standard of Saturday 24th April 1852 simply says:

We are glad to be able to announce that the Queen and Prince Albert have with characteristic benevolence authorised their names to be places at the head of a list of subscriptions for the sufferers by the loss of the Birkenhead. All the members of the Cabinet have also, we understand, subscribed liberally to the fund. The list thus generously promoted will be published in a few days.

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