Secondary History

Secondary History – Women and Children First

Whenever I hear the phrase ‘women and children first’ I always think of the Titanic, the unsinkable luxury liner that sank after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic 100 years ago, with the loss of over 1500 lives. Outdated regulations meant there didn’t have to be a space in a lifeboat for everyone on board – in fact there were lifeboats for only about half of the complement. One of the enduring stories of the tragedy is that the band played on as the Titanic sank, helping to keep passengers calm. The 1997 feature film ensures the story of the Titanic lives on in popular culture, indeed a new Titanic Museum has just opened in Belfast, Titanic’s home port.

But the phrase ‘women and children first,’ and even the idea of an unsinkable ship, is much older than 1912. In 1845 HMS Birkenhead, one of the first iron steam ships built for the Navy, was ordered. She had 12 watertight compartments, designed to prevent her sinking if she was holed. Unfortunately she was obsolete before she was launched as trials in 1845 showed that screw propellers, rather than paddle steamers which powered her, were much more efficient. In 1848 HMS Birkenhead was transformed into a troop ship and used to carry troops to Africa.

In January 1852 she left for South Africa with about 643 men, women and children on board – no one is sure quite how many. On leaving Cape Town, heading for Algoa Bay, HMS Birkenhead hit a rock and sank within 20 minutes. Despite the captain giving the order to abandon ship, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, the highest ranking Army officer on  board, insisted on the men assembling on deck and assisting the women and children into the boats. Every woman and child on board was saved. As there were not enough boats for everyone, many of the soldiers – mostly new recruits – knew they were going to die but still complete order prevailed. The band played as the ship sank. Nearly 100 men were saved, some swimming the 3 miles to shore through shark-infested waters, others by clinging to the rigging until help arrived the next day.

At the time the men on board HMS Birkenhead were hailed as heroes. Queen Victoria ordered a memorial to them to be built in Chelsea Hospital. The Kaiser of Prussia had an ‘order of the day’ read out to every one of his soldiers asking them to ‘act like those on the Birkenhead.’ Later, Kipling wrote a poem about the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ – ‘to stand and be still, like the Birkenhead drill, is a damn tough bullet to chew.’ Paintings of the event, copies of which you can easily find online, adorned most Victorian classroom walls.

So why do we not know about these events today? Why do we remember the Titanic, and not HMS Birkenhead? HMS Birkenhead is credited with starting the tradition of ‘women and children first,’ and the parallels between both events are striking. It made me wonder which other events, famous or infamous at the time, no longer appear in our national story. Why do we remember some things and not others? And who decides what we remember, or what we teach? At a time of Curriculum Review perhaps we ought to be asking these kinds of questions about what we teach and why we teach it.

Alf Wilkinson
CPD Manager for the Historical Association and previously National Strategist for Key Stage 3 History. Alf has over 30 years history teaching experience and was lead author for Collins Key Stage 3 History resources.


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