HMS Birkenhead, a steam frigate built by John Laird’s shipbuilders in Birkenhead, sank off the coast of Gansbaai, South Africa on February 26th in 1852. Out of 638 people onboard, only 193 survived. Many victims were taken by sharks. The tragedy was the first occasion when troops were ordered to ‘stand fast’ and the protocol of ‘women and children first’ was used. As a result, all women and children aboard the vessel survived. The action became famous as the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ throughout the British Empire, capturing a spirit of Britishness, and was used when RMS Titantic sank in 1912. The phrase was also used by Rudyard Kipling in his poem A Soldier An’ Sailor Too, which was read at the memorial service.
The memorial was unveiled on Woodside Promenade, Birkenhead, by the Mayor of Wirral Cllr Dave Mitchell and the Lord-Lieutenant of Merseyside, Dame Lorna Muirhead. They laid commemorative wreaths as did representatives of the Armed Forces. Pebbles from Gansbaai beach, where the survivors swam ashore, surround the memorial which consists of three steel panels.
The memorial was designed through a competition organised and judged by Cammell Laird shipyard, Andy Liston of New Brighton Lifeboat Station and Wirral Council. The winning design was submitted by Jemma Twigg of Birkenhead Sixth Form College.
The memorial was then created by Cammell Laird’s apprentices with materials donated and costs met by Cammell Laird.
Cammell Laird Chief Executive John Syvret CBE said the company is immensely proud to build the memorial: “This is a very powerful initiative that the company immediately wanted to support given our connection to HMS Birkenhead. It is very fitting that the tragic story of the ship, and the origins of ‘women and children’ first, should be remembered in the form of such a striking memorial on Merseyside for future generations.
“It is important that our apprentices understand the long history of Cammell Laird and what happened to many of the ships built here, some of which, like HMS Birkenhead, became very famous for what they did or what happened to them. This memorial helps ensure even after more than 160 years that the heroism and courage of the men that day is not forgotten.”
The Mayor of Wirral, Cllr Dave Mitchell said: “This memorial is dedicated to those who lost their lives off the coast of South Africa 162 years ago. I am particularly honoured to be able to welcome our Armed Forces to remember this event, and to bring together the people of Wirral and South Africa in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.
“The memorial will take its place alongside Wirral’s other important monuments to the fallen, including those at Hamilton Square and Woodside Promenade along with the wider Wirral community.”