I’d like to share with you a fascinating story that enfolded in the Local Studies Library recently. It begins with an email sent by a kind gentleman from Ontario, Canada, last year who had a book he felt might be of interest to Wiltshire Local Studies in terms of its local connection. He wished to donate the item to the library if we were agreeable, and we most certainly were!
The book was entitled ‘The Story of the “Birkenhead”: A Record of British Heroism in Two Parts’ by A. Christopher Addison. It included an illustration of a shipwreck on the front cover and was published in 1902. Inside was a handwritten dedication:
“Lady Madeleine Tonge With Catn Bond Sheltons .x. Kind regards 25th Decm 1903”
A modern biro note underneath, made by Raymond Antony Addington (6th Viscount Sidmouth) contained the words: X one of the survivors.
Time to investigate further…
Captain Bond Shelton was the son of a large landed proprietor in County Armagh, who also held property in Wiltshire, and who had first-hand knowledge of this story. The objective of Addison’s book was to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, about the Birkenhead which has long been neglected’. The event itself had occurred some time ago, with a magazine article covering the events, but it did not give the all the facts or circumstances, or the testimony of the survivors. Addison wanted to fill that gap and introduce the reader to those ‘gallant men who survived 50 years after the disaster, so that, within the covers of this book, he may make their personal acquaintance and come to know and understand both them and their story’. At this point in time, the event remained a national legacy ‘of which we are all proud!’ but I had never heard of the story; I don’t know about you…
So, what did happen?
In January 1852 Britain was at war with the Kaffirs in South Africa, and reinforcements were being sent out to aid Sir Harry Smith at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Birkenhead was a ‘fine paddle-wheel steamer’, reported to be one of the best of her type in the Royal Navy, being used as a troop ship. She set out from Cork and called at Queenstown, leaving on 7 January. On board were men from the 2nd Queens Foot, the 6th Regiment, 12th (Royal) Lancers, 12th Regiment, 43rd Light Infantry, 45th Regiment, 60th Rifles (2nd Battalion), 73rd Regiment, 7th Regiment, 91st Regiment, plus staff and 56 women and children, totalling 551 souls on board.
They reached Simon’s Bay on 3 February with three women having died of child birth and one of consumption. Three children were born. 35 women and children disembarked here, plus some sick troops with the voyage resuming on 25 February. The troops were in high spirits; the weather was favourable. By midnight the Commander and Master were below deck and look-outs were on duty. At two o’clock disaster struck. ‘Suddenly, and without the least warning of the presence of such a danger, she crashed on the rocks and there remained.’ She was ‘hopelessly doomed’ and water was rushing in through the torn hull. Many troops drowned in their berths; others hurried up on deck. Sixty men were told to go to the chain pumps and another sixty to haul on the tackles of the paddle boat boxes. The ‘terror stricken’ women and children had been collected under the awning. It is noted that the men faced the situation bravely and rockets were fired but no help was at hand.
Only three small boats could be lowered; the large boat at the centre of the ship could not be retrieved at all. The men found rotten tackle. Pins and bolts had rusted from sheer neglect. As a gig of the starboard side was being lowered one of the ropes broke and the boat was swamped, drowning most of the men who were aboard her.
The women and children were saved, but with much difficulty, as the ship was rolling heavily. Women with babies embraced their husbands for the last time. The horses were brought on deck and thrown overboard to give them a chance, the men risking their lives in the process.
Lieutenant Girardot called for all hands to go aft. She ship was sinking by the head, and was breaking apart in the middle. When the stern reached high into the air, the Commander called out, “All those that can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats,” a short distance away. Captain Wright and Lieutenant Girardot begged the men not to do this; the boats would be swamped. In response, the men ‘almost to a man “stood fast”.’ To ‘their honour’, not more than three jumped. The ship went down with those on board struggling in the water.
The Birkenhead took 25 minutes to sink. Even if the men could reach the shore, it was covered in ‘deadly kelpweed’. The men also knew that sharks patrolled the waters. Some of the men managed to cling to flotsam, and Cornet Bond of the 12th Lancers was able to swim to the shore with the help of his lifebelt. Five horses also managed to swim to safety. Captain Wright, of the 91st was among those who made it to shore, afterwards doing great deeds to help is fellow-survivors. Lieutenant Giardot also survived.
Cornet Bond, later to become Captain Bond-Shelton, worked hard with his Lancers after the ship became stricken. They helped get the horses above deck and Cornet Bond risked his own life to carry up two young children from the saloon cabin when they’d been left behind in the panic. Amazingly, when Cornet managed to struggle ashore, his horse was one of those who’d made it too and was ‘standing on the beach to welcome him!’
The Lioness schooner came to the assistance of some fifty men who had initially clung to the mast; some of these had not managed to maintain their grip due to the cold and exhaustion. The first two boats were also rescued by the schooner, but the third went adrift, finally reaching Port D’Urban with exhausted men. Of those on board the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. 445 lives were lost.
The event became known as the originator for the “women and children first” code of conduct.
Captain Bond-Shelton’s artistic representation of the loss of the Birkenhead came from his recollection of events. The picture was shown in 1890 and 1891 at the Military and Naval Exhibitions in London where the Captain, of the Royal Lancers, gained diplomas for his work.
The Duke of Wellington gave tribute to the men of the Birkenhead, paid at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy at rooms in Trafalgar Square on 1 May 1852.
The author, Addison, notes with regret that only the services of Captain Wright, the last surviving senior officer, were officially recognised with a promotion, the C. B. and a small service pension. Captain Wright was indeed deserving, but so too were the ‘other surviving officers’ (and I’d suggest probably the ratings too).
A ‘Relief Fund’ was set up to support the families of those who had perished. Beneficiaries included Miss F. Salmond, the eldest child of the Commander of the Birkenhead, who was nominated for admission into the Royal Naval Female School.
The ‘Birkenhead Monument’, a memorial to honour those who perished was erected in the colonnade at Chelsea Hospital.
If you would like to discover more about the steamer, statements from the survivors (including Captain Bond-Shelton), the events of the court-martial of the Naval survivors, the ‘popular’ version of the story and the later lives of the surviving officers, please feel free to take a look at the book which can be found at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, ref LAT.922.
We now know more of this terrible tragedy but must still go full-circle. Lady Tonge (born in Scotland in 1859) was the wife of Francis H. Tonge of Highway near Calne, and Captain Ralph MacGeough Bond-Shelton (1832-1916) had an estate 20 miles away at Water Eaton in Latton. The family connection may have been naval.
The depositor of our book also had another amazing donation to offer us; the India General Service Medal of Louis Charles Henry Tonge. It appears that Louis was aboard HMS Inconstant in 1838 and moved to HMS Excellent in 1840. He became a Lieutenant RN in 1845. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is an archive and library, unable to accept these kinds of items but the medal has received a warm welcome and a safe home at the Calne Heritage Centre where it will be well cared for.
As for Captain Bond-Shelton, he was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, after his death in 1916. The Belfast Evening Telegraph printed his obituary on Monday, 13 March, as ‘The last of [a] heroic band’.
The Lord Primate’s funeral address contained these words:
"Surely no other words were needed before they committed the body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes; but to-day they might well make an exception for a few minutes from the general rule, for they were about to lay in its last resting-place the body of a man who has helped to lay the foundation stones of our Empire, for Captain Bond-Shelton was the last survivor of that most gallant band whose deeds had helped to make England great, and whose daring lay at the basis of our national character and conduct. Did he say national character? The present Provost of Trinity College, who knew Germany better than most men, told him a few days ago that for many long years the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead was read in Germany to the cadets of the army and navy before they left college.”
The artist Paul Curtis completed his latest work on 25 February 2020, a mural entitled ‘The Birkenhead Drill’ after the term coined by Rudyard Kipling in an 1893 poem to describe the courageous behaviour of those on board the HMS Birkenhead as it sank in 1852. The mural has been painted onto the side of Gallagher’s Traditional Pub in Birkenhead, Merseyside, which contains lots of naval and military memorabilia. The mural pays tribute to a time when Birkenhead was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry.
Julie Davis County Local Studies Librarian Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".