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Women and Children First: The Origin of the Myth

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

The sinking of HMS Birkenhead.

The sinking of HMS Birkenhead.

The Royal Navy

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 had difficulty finding enough quality timber to keep its fleet in the trim or 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.

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. 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.

The last voyage of the HMS Birkenhead

The last voyage of the HMS Birkenhead

Uncharted Rock Cripples the Ship 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.” 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.

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

The Myth of Sacrifice

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

Dr. Mikael Elinder is an economist at Uppsala University, Sweden. He told The Independent “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 Cohen at 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.

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.

  • 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,, August 2, 2012.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor