HMS Birkenhead sank at Danger Point, near Gansbaai ( Western Cape ) on 26 February 1852
The sinking of this ship was the first occasion on which women and children were taken to safety first, a procedure which has since become a nautical standard.



The HMS Birkenhead was a 1900 ton warship. Her hull was made out of iron - almost unheard of in those days, as hulls were generally made out of wood. Besides sails, she sported steam-driven paddles as well. Eight lifeboats were lashed to paddle boxes. On 7 January 1852 she sailed from Cork in Ireland on her fateful voyage to South Africa .

The Birkenhead stopped over at Simon's Town and took on coal and other provisions. On 25 February she set sail for Cape Town . There were 638 people, including 476 British soldiers and 20 women and children. The soldiers were to be despatched to the Eighth Frontier War in the Eastern Cape .

The Birkenhead had an uneventful voyage - there were no storms and they steered well clear of the coast of Africa , known for it's treacherous rocks. No one is quite how or why it happened, but in the early hours of the morning on 26 February 1852 , the ship ran on to a pinnacle of rock, just off Danger Point - which lies between Cape Hangklip and Cape Agulhas .

The metal hull was torn open and just over a hundred soldiers drowned as they lay sleeping. The rest of the troops rushed on deck and tried to help the crew to man the pumps and free the lifeboats. Alas, the lifeboats had rarely, if ever, been used and the rigging was clogged with paint and they were only able to free three of the lifeboats. The women and children were ushered into the three lifeboats.

The ship was sinking, and the captain knew that time had run out. He shouted out the words "Every man for himself."

The soldier's commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast - to rush the lifeboats might mean that the women and children aboard the boats would be swamped and would perish. He threatened to use his sword to stop anyone who panicked. He had no need to use the sword - each soldier remained in their ranks. The horses on board were blindfolded and driven over the side of the ship so that the horses could try to swim ashore. The soldiers did not budge even as the ship split in two and the main mast crashed on to the deck.

445 people died - many drowned as the ship sank, sharks savaged others as they tried to swim ashore. Only 193 people survived - a few were picked up by the lifeboats, others clung to pieces of wreckage and others managed to elude the sharks and swim ashore. The captain and the courageous Lieutenant-Colonel Seton were among the dead.

The rock on which the ship was wrecked is known as Birkenhead Rock and is seen as a memorial to the brave souls who perished on 26 February 1852 . Forever will the cry "Women and children first" be honoured, because of the gallant actions of a commanding officer and his men.





Name of Ship:



Captain Robert Salmond

Des ign Stats

64m long displacing 1918 tons. and 11.3 m wide.

Date of Wreck:

February 26, 1852 at 02h00.

Depth of Wreck:


Site of Wreck:

Danger Point South Africa

Impact to Sinking:

25 minutes


638 -Ship Crew, Soldiers, Women and Children


445 men went down with the ship. All the women and children were saved.


Military stores, Horses, 300,000 in gold coins (never recovered).

Historical Relevance:

Set the precedent of "Women and Children First" as naval protocol throughout the world.



The wreck of the Birkenhead is not only famous for the bravery of its young soldiers and for the fact that no woman or children were lost but also because legend has it that she was carrying 240000 in gold (about 3 tons) as part of a military pay-packet. According to a source from the British Archives this large consignment of gold was secretly stored in the powder-room of the ship. 

The first attempt at salvage occurred early in 1854, when a team of divers led by A.H. Adams worked on the wreck and found papers and engraved silverware belonging to Colonel Seton, which were returned to his family. In addition many other items were found, but unfortunately no record of them was kept. 

Towards the end of the century the government gave permission to a Mr Bandmann at the Cape to dive for the 240 000 in gold reputed to be on board, but it was made clear than any relics belonging to the officers or men were to be handed over to their relatives, and any treasure found was to be split up in the proportion of one-third to the government and two-thirds to the salvor. Again this salvage attempt ended in failure. 

Various divers continued to search her remains. One of these was the well-known Cape personality Tromp van Diggelen, who began diving operations in June 1958. His team reported that the bow and most of the midships section were badly broken up and overgrown, and that the large paddle-wheels still stood upright on the sea-bed. However they only managed to recover some anchors and a variety of copper and brass fittings. Since then many amateur and professional divers have continued to recover items from the wreck but still no gold had been reported. 

Then, in January 1985, a diving company, the 'Depth Recovery Unit' announced in the press that they had identified the stern section in 30 m of water and in early 1986 they began excavating the wreck. This expensive salvage operation, aimed at the gold and backed up by extensive press coverage, had little success. Led by Dr. Allan Kayle they salvaged a few hundred gold coins in the mid and late eighties but it was felt that these coins were obviously personal belongings and did not make out part of the legendary treasure. The motherload thus still eludes all.