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stepping stones of maritime history


The HMS Birkenhead gave way to the idea of ‘Women and children first’ rule used in maritime law. As the Birkenhead had struck a rock on a stormy night. Soldiers on the ship were ordered by a senior officer, with sword, drawn to stand on deck and wait for women and children to leave first. Once they left for shore the troops were told to jump and save themselves. Many died swimming for shore or from the vacuum from the ship. All women and children were saved.

Painting of the soldiers waiting calmly for the women and children to get off.

Thomas Hemy/Williamson Art Gallery & Museum

A scene depicting the sinking of Birkenhead.

Today many South Africans today commemorate the bravery of the soldiers and strict discipline on that fateful night.

Captain of the Birkenhead Robert Salmond

Captain Robert Salmond is credited with setting the precedence of 'Women and Children First' on sinking vessels during this disaster.


MasterCaptain Robert Salmond
People on board643
Power564 hp
Speed10 knots ~ 12 mph (19 km/h)
Length210 feet (64 m)
Draft15.1 feet (4.6 m)
Beam37.1 feet (11.3 m)
Tonnage1400 ton
Displacement1918 ton


The site has been excavated and examined numerous times. The site is divided into sites with boilers and port paddles together while the engine and anchor are isolated.

Wreckage site of the HMS Birkenhead

The location of the wreck of HMS Birkenhead.

Down on 21 May

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