Women and Children First: The Origin of the Myth

Updated on February 11, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

One of the earliest steel-hulled ships came to grief off the coast of South Africa. In the event, great gallantry was displayed by the men aboard as the women and children made it to safety.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Royal Navy was having great difficulty finding enough quality timber to keep its fleet in trim or to build new vessels. Some shipyards started tinkering with using metal for hulls, but this was frowned upon by the top brass.

A website dedicated to naval matters points out that, typical of military establishments, there was resistance to the innovation: “Despite all evidence to the contrary, the British Admiralty believed that an iron-hulled warship would sink, would not last as well as a wooden vessel, would be too difficult to repair, and that iron would play havoc with compass accuracy.” The gold-braided admirals were dragged to the new technology reluctantly.

The sinking of HMS Birkenhead.
The sinking of HMS Birkenhead. | Source

Iron-hulled Paddle Steamer goes into Service

In December 1845, the John Laird shipyard in Birkenhead launched an iron warship that was built as a frigate. She was then modified into a troopship and christened HMS Birkenhead.

Although steam-powered and using paddle wheels she was also rigged with sails. Under the command of Captain Robert Salmond she began ferrying British soldiers to wherever they were needed.

Last Voyage of HMS Birkenhead

Capt. Salmond was not in command long before, in January 1852, he received orders to take several hundred soldiers, accompanied by a few wives and children, to South Africa. He put in to Cape Town for fresh water and supplies and, in the late afternoon of February 25th, steamed out of the harbour headed for Algoa Bay about 680 km up the east coast of South Africa.

Historic-uk.com records that, “With weather conditions perfect, a clear blue sky and a flat and calm sea, the Birkenhead continued steadily on her passage.” Salmond was under orders to make all possible haste because the soldiers he was carrying were needed in the Frontier War, so to make good time, he hugged the coastline.


Uncharted Rock Cripples the Ship

Historic-uk.com writes that, “It was in the early hours of 26th February, approaching a rocky outcrop called Danger Point, some 180 km from Cape Town that disaster struck.”

The crew taking soundings reported plenty of water under the ship’s keel when she suddenly slammed into a submerged rock that was not marked on the charts. The side of the vessel was ripped open, water gushed in and hundreds “of soldiers were trapped and drowned in their hammocks as they slept.”

Shipwreck.co.za picks up the story: “All the surviving men, officers, women, and children went up on deck. Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Foot Regiment took charge of all the military personnel. The men were commanded to stand drawn up in line and to await orders and 60 men were sent to man the pumps.”

Soldiers aboard the Birkenhead await their fate.
Soldiers aboard the Birkenhead await their fate. | Source

Women and Children First

With difficulty, three lifeboats were launched and the women and children placed in them and rowed to safety. HMS Birkenhead was breaking up quickly and Seton recognized that if the men under his command tried to swim to the lifeboats they would likely swamp them.

A website dedicated to the Birkenhead reports that Col. Seton “drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast. The soldiers did not budge even as the ship split in two and the main mast crashed on to the deck.”

Of the 643 people aboard only 193 were saved, including all the women and children. Colonel Seton perished and all but three of his men obeyed his order to “Stand Fast.” The courageous actions of the soldiers became known as the “Birkenhead Drill” and described heroism in the face of impossible odds. The phrase “women and children first” sprang from the disaster but did not come into common usage until about 1860.

“To stand and be still

to the Birken’ead Drill

is a damn tough bullet to chew.”

Rudyard Kipling

George Costanza has no time for women and children first

The Myth of Sacrifice

The code of gallantry exemplified by the Birkenhead incident is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Dr. Mikael Elinder is an economist at Uppsala University, Sweden. He told The Independent (July 2012) “In the majority of shipwrecks, women have a much lower survival rate than men, which is consistent with the idea of every man for himself. Male chivalry seems to be completely unimportant or non-existent in reality when it comes to maritime disasters.”

He comes to this conclusion after studying 18 shipwrecks involving 15,000 passengers. Women had a survival rate about half that of men, while children fared even worse.

Dr. Elinder demolishes some other myths about the stoic behaviour of crew members, as reported by Jennie Choen at History.com. Ms. Cohen writes that “Rather than manning their posts until every last soul is evacuated, crew members tend to save themselves, achieving the highest average survival rate of all - 61 percent.”

Even captains don’t always go down with their ships; skippers have a higher survival rate than passengers. But this hasn’t worked out so well for Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia. A reckless piece of seamanship smashed his huge cruise ship onto rocks off the coast of Italy in 2012. Captain Schettino chose to get off his crippled vessel even though there were still passengers aboard. He is now serving a 16-year prison sentence.

When the Lusitania sank in 1915 the survival rate for males and females was roughly the same

Bonus Factoids

The women and children rule certainly applied with the Titanic disaster. Seventy-four percent of women and 52 percent of children survived but only 20 percent of men did. The stricken vessel’s Captain Edward Smith ordered his crew to give priority to women and children, an order that was backed up with the threat of violence to those who might disobey. There were reports of the ship’s officers using guns to enforce the captain’s orders.

Titanic survivors.
Titanic survivors. | Source

Two years after the Birkenhead sank, the paddle steamer SS Arctic collided with a smaller ship off the coast of Newfoundland. There were ugly scenes as crew and male passengers scrambled for the few places aboard lifeboats. Of the 400 people aboard the Arctic only 88 survived; all the women and children perished.

The rules for evacuation at sea are set by the International Maritime Organisation. There is no guidance given on whether some groups should be given priority over others.


  • “Women and Children First.” Ben Johnson, Historic UK, undated.
  • “HMS Birkenhead 1852.” South African Historical Wreck Society, 2011.
  • “Women and Children First? It’s Every Man for Himself on a Sinking Ship.” Steve Connor, The Independent, July 30, 2012.
  • “ ‘Women and Children First’? On Sinking Ships, It’s Every Man for Himself.” Jennie Cohen, History.com, August 2, 2012.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)