Tracing Relatives of the Birkenhead Heroes
Submitted by - Colin Innes, Major (Retd )C.B.Innes

In February this year, I was the Birkenhead Liaison Office in the United Kingdom who organised a Service of Remembrance to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Birkenhead. The Service was held on Sunday 24th February, at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where the official Memorial to the Birkenhead lies within the Colonnades of the Royal Hospital.

All the ten Birkenheads Regiments were strongly represented and so too were the South African High Commission in London, the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Army Medical Corps. The town of Birkenhead also sent along a representative of the former Cammell Laird shipyard, the Curator of the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum and some 20 Sea Cadets from Training Ship Blackcat in Birkenhead.

We exchanged messages of goodwill with all those in South Africa who were also commemorating the 150th Anniversary of this very well known marine accident. 

We had some 23 relatives of the Salmond family present and 7 from the family of Ensign Alexander Russell. Russell and Salmond (Drury) relatives were also present at the Danger Point Service in South Africa. We made contact with the Girardot family but they were sadly unable to send anyone to our Service. We also had relatives (Tremletts) of one of the children on board Richard A. Nesbitt who later became Colonel Nesbitt who commanded Nesbittís Horse in the Anglo-Boer war.

During my negotiations with the ten (in fact now nine) Birkenhead Regiments, I asked them whether they were still in contact with any of the relatives of those who died or indeed with those who had survived.

Sadly, after 150 years, the Regiments have lost contact with almost everyone, but they all said that they would very much like to re-establish a connection if relatives wished to contact them.

I will now offer to put any such relatives who may come forward, as a result of reading this  website, in touch with the Regiment with whom their ancestor served.

Some of the contacts are, in a way, more important than others for they feature in the various books that have been written about the Wreck of the Birkenhead. I now attach a list of these people, in the hope that relatives can be found and contact can be made with the various Regiments. Note " S " denotes a Survivor.

"But anyone with a Birkenhead connection is welcome to contact me and I will try and put them in contact with their ancestor's Regiment."

12th Lancers now The 9th/12th Royal Lancers 

Cornet Ralph Shelton Bond (sometimes Bond-Shelton ) " S " An Officer who came from Co Armagh, Ireland. An artist who drew a very fine picture of the Birkenhead. See David Bevanís book Ď Stand Fast Ď, Page 88 .He helped the women and children get away and also helped push the horses on deck overboard. When he finally swam ashore, he found his own horse on the beach! Where is the original of this drawing  now? 9th /12th may have contacts with relatives?

Cornet John Rolt

297 Sergeant John Abraham Straw

2nd Queenís Surreys now The Princess of Walesís Royal Regiment 

Ensign George Augustus Boylan, Regimental Detachment Commander. Started to swim ashore but was taken by a shark. 

Bandmaster Zwyker was drowned but Mrs Zwyker and their children were saved.

6th Royal 1st Warwickshire now The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers

Ensign Lawrence Growden Nickleson Metford. He got married just a few days before he and his wife went aboard the Birkenhead at Cork for passage to South Africa. Metford was drowned but his wife was saved.

12th East Suffolks now The Royal Anglian Regiment

Sergeant George Walker "S ". The senior rank from the 12th. 

45th Nottinghamsshire Regiment now The Worcestershire and Sherwood Forester Regiment

3230 Private Adam Keating " S ". The only survivor of the four Privates of the 45th on board.

60th KRRC now the Royal Greenjackets

1096 Sergeant David Andrews " S ", later Staff Sgt Major, wrote a letter to Mr David Seton, brother of Colonel Alexander Seton, the senior Army Officer on board the vessel, describing the gallantry displayed by Colonel Seton.

73rd Regt of Foot now The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regimant)

Lt Gould Arthur Lucas, " S " Later Captain. Illustrated in " A Deathless Story " by Addison and Matthews on Page 204. Later became Chief Magistrate of Durban. Co-Founder of Hilton College, near Durban, where to this day, one of the Houses is named after Lucas. Returned to England and lived at Penkridge in Staffordshire and later at Abersoch in Wales. Died aged 18 in 1914 but was around at the 50th Anniversary in 1902. Wrote a very good account of his experiences during the wreck which tallied exactly with the testament of Captain Wright (91st Argylls). 

One of the Officers "On watch "at the time of the accident.

Sergeant Bernard Kilkeary, "S", from Parsonstown, Kingís Country, Ireland, illustrated on Page 214 of " A Deathless Story ". Gave a very good account of the Wreck. Served for 32 years in the Army including the Kaffir War 1852-3 and in India in the Indian Mutiny. Was appointed Sergeant Major for the voyage by Colonel Seton. Was placed in charge of the boat containing the women and children . The boat was eventually picked up by the Lioness after 12 hour in the water. Kilkeary persuaded the Captain of the ship to proceed to the scene of the wreck where 40-50 men were picked up.

Lieutenant Audley Henry Booth. Was placed in charge of the pumps where he had about another 50 men were later drowned as the vessel split in two.

Lieutenant Charles Williams Robinson

2337 Private David Sullivan "S"

2831 Private John Sullivan "S" (brother of David Sullivan).

The Black Watch Regimental Headquarters in Perth received a telephone call in February 2002 from a relative of the Sullivans, sadly the details were lost and so contact was never established. Letís hope the Sullivans will see the Overberg website and will ring RHQ The Black Watch again.

74th of Foot now The Royal Highland Fusiliers 

Lt Colonel Alexander Seton of Mounie, Aberdeenshire. Senior Army Officer aboard ship. Was on his way to command the 74th of Foot in The 8th Frontier War 1846-1858. A fine Officer who controlled the men aboard the ship so that the women and the children would get away first, he also delayed the men from swimming for their lives, until the life boats had rowed well away from the side of the ship.

Efforts to contact members of the Seton family have not been succesful. We particularly wish to have a representative at the London and Edinburgh Talks, if relatives could get in touch.

91st (Argyllshire) Regiment of Foot, now The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 

Captain (later Colonel) Edward William Carlye Wright (later CB ) . "S"

Illustration in David Bevanís book "Stand Fast " page 24. The senior Army officer survivor whose excellent account of the disaster was used as evidence at the subsequent Naval Court Martial, where all were acquitted. Received a pension of £100 per annum. from The Duke of Wellington for distinguishing service aboard the Birkenhead .. Has a Memorial plaque at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. After 38 years service, he ended up as Deputy Inspector General of Reserve Forces for his last 7 years .

Army Surgeons now the Royal Medical Corps

Robert Bowen, Staff Surgeon, later Surgeon General F.R.C.S. "S". Served for many more years in the Army including the Crimea 1854-56. Died at Eastfield, Westen-Super-Mare on 7th June 1895.

Photograph on page 176 in " A Deathless Story". There is a story about Dr Bowen swimming ashore atop a white charger, though this is not true, for he lowered himself into the water and was picked up by the schooner Lioness.

Staff Surgeon Laing, drowned, but his body was recovered on the shore where it was recognized
By a gold watch and £18  in money which he had about his person. His horse was one of the five that reached the shore. 

Naval Surgeon
William Culhane, Assistant Surgeon. "S".
Illustration on page 162 in "A Deathless Story". Landed with the Gig and procured a horse to ride to Cape Town, and afterwards to Simon's Bay, bringing the first news of the Birkenhead disaster. Died in 1860.

William Brodie, Acting master. Responsible for loosing the port paddle boxes but washed overboard. 

C.R.Renwick, Assistant Engineer First Class "S" Describing the flooding of the shipís Engine Room.

John Archbold, Gunner Third Class. "S" Was standing besides Colonel Seton when he ordered the troops not to make for the boats, for fear that they might swamp them. Illustration on page 206 in "A Deathless Story " His statement was used at the Naval Court Martial. Fired rockets to draw attention to the disaster. Was washed overboard but climbed aboard a raft and floated ashore. 

Royal Marines 

Colour Sergeant John Drake "S". Illustration Bevan Page 67 and "A Deathless Story" pages 208 and 282.

Was standing on the forecastle when the ship struck the rock. Remained on the scene saving lives and clung to the maintopmast from which he was later rescued by the Lioness. Served until 1864 in the Royal Marines. Was an attendant at Westminster Abbey until 1905. Died the same year.

One Final query for which someone may Know the answer. Where is the original Thomas Hemy picture of the Birkenhead which shows Colonel Seton drawing up his Officers and Men on deck to the sound of a Drummer, with the women and children being assembled on the deck prior to being loaded into a lifeboat.

"There is a smaller copy of this picture in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead, but I do not know where original oil painting is hanging, and would very much like to track this well known picture down. It does not belong to The Black Watch however, as stated in David Bevanís book."

"I am giving two lectures about "The Wreck of HM Troopship Birkenhead" later this year."

Wednesday 6th November 2002. at The Physician's Hall, Queen Street, Edinburgh. 6.45 pm for 7:30 pm Lecture.


Lecture in aid fo The Army Benevolent Fund (Scotland) from whom tickets at £ 15 each can be obtained from:-

The Director
Army Benevolent Fund (Scotland)
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh
EH1 2YT

Tel  0131-310-5132
Fax 0131-310-5075

Thursday 5th December 2002. at The National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. 6.30 for 7.30 Lecture.

Lecture in aid of The Army Benevolent Fund from whom tickets at £ 15 each can be obtained from :-

The Director of Special Events
Army Benevolent Fund Ofice
41 Queen's Gate
London SW7 5HR

Tel  020-7591-2000
Fax 020-7584-0889

It would be very good to be able to say that I have recently made contact with several families of those who perished or survived in the Birkenhead tragedy.

Yours sincerely 
Colin Innes
Major (Retd )C.B.Innes
Late The Black Warch (RHR) 
E-mail: Colin.Innes@btopenworld.com

References:

"Stand Fast-Women and Children First" by David Bevan. The most recent book, published in 1998 by Traditional Publishing, Box 216,
New Malden, Surrey. KT3 5YX ISBN 0 9525 531 12.

"A Deathless Story" by A.C. Addison and W.H. Matthews. Published in 1906 but since republished by the Naval and Military Press Ltd, Unit 10, Ridgewood Industrial park, Uckfield, East Sussex. TN22 5QE.

"The Unfortunate Ship" by J. Lennox Kerr, published in 1960 by George G. Harrap and Co Ltd. Not easy to botain.

 

 

 

The Birkenhead Memorial, near the Danger Point Lighthouse in Gansbaai.

The position of the rock is in line with the 
groove at the top-edge of the memorial and 
about 1500 metres from the coast.

Photo  Copyright © JJ Steenekamp 2001

 

Most of the information on this website was obtained from the book "Stand Fast", 
with permission from the author, David Bevan.

 


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