Birkenhead – a history never forgotten

Wilfred Chivell of Marine Dynamics Shark Tours is passionate about history and has for the past sixteen years, in collaboration with Gansbaai Tourism, helped ensure the memory of the Birkenhead disaster is kept alive as part Gansbaai’s history, and in remembrance of all those who lost their lives on the fateful day of 26th February 1852.

The Birkenhead is known worldwide for the bravery of the men who stood back under the Captain’s command of ‘woman and children first’. 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. She was wrecked on 26 February 1852, while transporting troops to Algoa Bay at Danger Point near Gansbaai, 87 miles (140 kilometres) from Cape Town, South Africa. British Army military personnel, of various ranks – including members of the 74th Regiment of Foot, Queen’s Royal Regiment, 43rd Regiment of Foot and a large amount of soldiers, were on board the vessel.

Also on board were 20 women and children and nine horses. There were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all the passengers, and the soldiers famously stood firm on board, thereby allowing the women and children to board the lifeboats safely and escape the sinking. Only 193 of the estimated 643 people on board survived, and the soldiers’ chivalry gave rise to the unofficial ‘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.

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

Every year the vessels of Wilfred’s companies, Marine Dynamics / Dyer Island Cruises, take interested residents, special guests and even descendants of the survivors to the Birkenhead rock. Here natural kelp wreaths, made by the International Marine Volunteers, are placed in the water. Prayers are said and the Last Post played for all souls lost at sea.

The event is further honoured by the laying of wreaths at Birkenhead Memorial at Danger Point Lighthouse which overlooks the rock where HMS Birkenhead met her sad fate. In fact, Wilfred built the Birkenhead Memorial. Upon this memorial is a groove, which when viewed through, lines up with the Birkenhead Rock where the ship sank. The service at the lighthouse is incredibly moving and attended by the Overstrand Mayor, naval and war veterans. Special thanks go to Glenda Kitley, Manager of Gansbaai Tourism, and her team who handle the service and booking logistics.

In 2014 in an exciting connection between the area of Birkenhead UK and Gansbaai, letters were exchanged between then Mayor Nicolette Botha-Guthrie of the Overstrand and the Mayor of Wirral Cllr Dave Mitchell. It was Andy Liston of New Brighton Lifeboat Station who drove this initiative after a visit to the Gansbaai/Hermanus area where he saw how many places were named after the Birkenhead. A special memorial designed by art student Jemma Twigg was built. The memorial included pebbles from the shores of Gansbaai where the survivors had come ashore. Andy Liston presented ‘our’ mayoral letter to the Mayor of Wirral and the British Consul General Christopher Trott.

Andy’s report back from the memorial placement in Birkenhead mentions the following: “I received an e-mail from the Queen’s representative informing me that she was very moved and very, very impressed by the service, memorial and symbolism of joining. This feedback will be fed back to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh who I have been told is very interested in hearing the tale from the Queen’s representative in Merseyside, Dame Lorna Muirhead”

The annual commemoration of this maritime disaster includes a talk by an authority on the Birkenhead. Over the years various speakers have made these evenings possible. One was Charlie Shapiro who, together with a team of men, salvaged artefacts from the Birkenhead in what seemed to be a vain and fruitless search for treasure. The combined efforts of Aqua Exploration, Depth Recovery Unit groups and Pentow Marine Salvage Company (today renamed Smit Marine) led the archaeological and salvage excavation (during 1986/7/8) for the supposed treasure – 250,000 pounds in “specie” (gold and silver coins), which was the military pay packet for the troops fighting up in East London. The wreck of the Birkenhead lies in 30 metres of water and since her sinking, many salvage attempts have been made in search of this treasure, but to date, the specie remains unfounded. The Gold Coins recovered were but a handful, which were “private purses” belonging to officers.

Wilfred secured the Birkenhead Collection of artefacts when Charlie passed away and the collection is on display at the home of Marine Dynamics, the Great White House, in Gansbaai – the collection is dedicated to the late Charlie Shapiro.

As Wilfred says, “This is the true treasure and I wanted these artefacts to remain in Gansbaai where the community can appreciate them. It was here that the people offered their assistance to the survivors all those years ago. So much of our history in the area is based on the Birkenhead with many establishments proudly carrying this name. The collection has been added to by items on loan from Italo Martinengo who was also involved in the salvage attempt.”

Wilfred was also recently gifted a limited edition print of a painting by Peter Bilas of the Birkenhead, in full sail, one of only 600 printed. This was donated by Simon Dickens (UK) whose parents had been at the unveiling of the Birkenhead Memorial many years before.

One of the memorable talks was by another shipwreck diver, Gavin Clackworthy, who shared footage, more than thirty years old, showing the salvage operation. More recently Dr James Gray moved guests to tears with the heart gripping story of the events that unfolded on that fatal day. Gray quoted from a Rudyard Kipling poem Soldier an’ Sailor too: ‘To stand and be still to the Birkenhead Drill is a damn tough bullet to chew.’ In leading the service, he said, “By commemorating these events we can retrieve the lessons learned from them. By remembering and hearing the story, we are moved to these lessons and to be better people ourselves.”

Descendants of Michael Healy, Michael and Doreen Venables, wouldn’t be here today if his great grandfather hadn’t survived the Birkenhead disaster. He visits every year from the UK to attend the memorial, “It is amazing to see that after all these years’ people are still remembering and commemorating this tragic event. It is an honour to attend”.

Sponsored post – words Brenda du Toit / pics Marine Dynamics

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