The Ship
A new type of ship

In considering the loss of the Birkenhead, it's important to touch on the history of the ship, which is also the history of the Royal Navy's first use of iron steamships, rather than wooden sailing vessels.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the shipyards of Europe began experiencing shortages in the supply of the immense amounts of timber required for the construction of wooden ships, and were forced to consider other materials for the construction of these vessels. Iron began to replace wood for certain structural elements of ships, and it wasn't long before the first iron hulled commercial vessels were being built. 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 to difficult to repair and that iron will play havoc with compass accuracy and steadfastly refused to consider the new technology.

However a number of iron paddle steamers - particularly the frigate Nemesis built by John Laird of Birkenhead - were very successfully employed in naval conflicts in Mexico and the Far East and this finally persuaded the Admiralty to consider buying iron warships of their own. Amongst the shipbuilders whose plans were accepted by the Admiralty was Laird, and in December 1845 a vessel named Vulcan by Laird and designed as a frigate, but to be renamed Birkenhead by the Admiralty and modified to serve as a troopship, was launched.

Displacing 1 918 tons, the Birkenhead was representative of early attempts to marry sail and steam. She was rigged as a brigantine, but carried a tall funnel between fore- and main masts, while below deck two single-pistoned engines, with a collective 350 horse power were coupled to a pair of paddlewheels set on the outside of the hull, each six metres in diameter. Her construction too reflected a stage in the transition from wood to iron shipbuilding, with her hull constructed of riveted iron plating, and her decks, paddle boxes and masts made of wood. Another important feature were a number of iron bulkheads which divided the vessel into several watertight compartments. However, the integrity of these bulkheads were compromised during her conversion to a troopship in 1850 when they were pierced by doorways to improve ease of access and movement for the troops she was to carry. This in all probability, ultimately contributed to the speed of her loss in February 1852.

In 1852 the Birkenhead under the command of Captain Robert Salmond, began her career as a troopship, ferrying troops to the Channel Islands and Lisbon and visited the Cape. Early in 1852 she once again left on what was to be her last journey for the Cape Colony. 

Text by: John Gribble 
Maritime Archaeologist 
South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) 
P O Box 4637 Cape Town 8000 
Tel: +27 (021) 462 4502 
Fax: +27 (021) 462 4509

Name of Ship: Birkenhead
Command: Captain Robert Salmond
Design Stats 64m long displacing 1918 tons. and 11.3 m wide.
Date of Wreck: February 26, 1852 at 02h00.
Depth of Wreck: 21-meters
Site of Wreck: Danger Point South Africa
Impact to Sinking: 25 minutes
Passengers: 638 -Ship Crew, Soldiers, Women and Children
Casualties: 445 men went down with the ship. All the women and children were saved.
Manifest: Military stores, Horses, 300,000 in gold coins (never recovered).
Historical Relevance: Set the precedent of "Women and Children First" as naval protocol throughout the world.




The Birkenhead Cannon, outside the Strandveld Museum, near Gansbaai.

Photo  Copyright JJ Steenekamp 2001