I’d like to share with you a fascinating story that enfolded in the Local Studies Library recently. It begins with an email sent by a kind gentleman from Ontario, Canada, last year who had a book he felt might be of interest to Wiltshire Local Studies in terms of its local connection. He wished to donate the item to the library if we were agreeable, and we most certainly were!
The book was entitled ‘The Story of the “Birkenhead”: A Record of British Heroism in Two Parts’ by A. Christopher Addison. It included an illustration of a shipwreck on the front cover and was published in 1902. Inside was a handwritten dedication:
“Lady Madeleine Tonge With Catn Bond Sheltons .x. Kind regards 25th Decm 1903”
A modern biro note underneath, made by Raymond Antony Addington (6th Viscount Sidmouth) contained the words: X one of the survivors.
Time to investigate further…
Captain Bond Shelton was the son of a large landed proprietor in County Armagh, who also held property in Wiltshire, and who had first-hand knowledge of this story. The objective of Addison’s book was to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, about the Birkenhead which has long been neglected’. The event itself had occurred some time ago, with a magazine article covering the events, but it did not give the all the facts or circumstances, or the testimony of the survivors. Addison wanted to fill that gap and introduce the reader to those ‘gallant men who survived 50 years after the disaster, so that, within the covers of this book, he may make their personal acquaintance and come to know and understand both them and their story’. At this point in time, the event remained a national legacy ‘of which we are all proud!’ but I had never heard of the story; I don’t know about you…
So, what did happen?
In January 1852 Britain was at war with the Kaffirs in South Africa, and reinforcements were being sent out to aid Sir Harry Smith at the Cape of Good Hope.
The Birkenhead was a ‘fine paddle-wheel steamer’, reported to be one of the best of her type in the Royal Navy, being used as a troop ship. She set out from Cork and called at Queenstown, leaving on 7 January. On board were men from the 2nd Queens Foot, the 6th Regiment, 12th (Royal) Lancers, 12th Regiment, 43rd Light Infantry, 45th Regiment, 60th Rifles (2nd Battalion), 73rd Regiment, 7th Regiment, 91st Regiment, plus staff and 56 women and children, totalling 551 souls on board.
They reached Simon’s Bay on 3 February with three women having died of child birth and one of consumption. Three children were born. 35 women and children disembarked here, plus some sick troops with the voyage resuming on 25 February. The troops were in high spirits; the weather was favourable. By midnight the Commander and Master were below deck and look-outs were on duty. At two o’clock disaster struck. ‘Suddenly, and without the least warning of the presence of such a danger, she crashed on the rocks and there remained.’ She was ‘hopelessly doomed’ and water was rushing in through the torn hull. Many troops drowned in their berths; others hurried up on deck. Sixty men were told to go to the chain pumps and another sixty to haul on the tackles of the paddle boat boxes. The ‘terror stricken’ women and children had been collected under the awning. It is noted that the men faced the situation bravely and rockets were fired but no help was at hand.
Only three small boats could be lowered; the large boat at the centre of the ship could not be retrieved at all. The men found rotten tackle. Pins and bolts had rusted from sheer neglect. As a gig of the starboard side was being lowered one of the ropes broke and the boat was swamped, drowning most of the men who were aboard her.
The women and children were saved, but with much difficulty, as the ship was rolling heavily. Women with babies embraced their husbands for the last time. The horses were brought on deck and thrown overboard to give them a chance, the men risking their lives in the process.
Lieutenant Girardot called for all hands to go aft. She ship was sinking by the head, and was breaking apart in the middle. When the stern reached high into the air, the Commander called out, “All those that can swim, jump overboard, and make for the boats,” a short distance away. Captain Wright and Lieutenant Girardot begged the men not to do this; the boats would be swamped. In response, the men ‘almost to a man “stood fast”.’ To ‘their honour’, not more than three jumped. The ship went down with those on board struggling in the water.
The Birkenhead took 25 minutes to sink. Even if the men could reach the shore, it was covered in ‘deadly kelpweed’. The men also knew that sharks patrolled the waters. Some of the men managed to cling to flotsam, and Cornet Bond of the 12th Lancers was able to swim to the shore with the help of his lifebelt. Five horses also managed to swim to safety. Captain Wright, of the 91st was among those who made it to shore, afterwards doing great deeds to help is fellow-survivors. Lieutenant Giardot also survived.
Cornet Bond, later to become Captain Bond-Shelton, worked hard with his Lancers after the ship became stricken. They helped get the horses above deck and Cornet Bond risked his own life to carry up two young children from the saloon cabin when they’d been left behind in the panic. Amazingly, when Cornet managed to struggle ashore, his horse was one of those who’d made it too and was ‘standing on the beach to welcome him!’
The Lioness schooner came to the assistance of some fifty men who had initially clung to the mast; some of these had not managed to maintain their grip due to the cold and exhaustion. The first two boats were also rescued by the schooner, but the third went adrift, finally reaching Port D’Urban with exhausted men. Of those on board the Birkenhead, only 193 were saved. 445 lives were lost.
The event became known as the originator for the “women and children first” code of conduct.
Captain Bond-Shelton’s artistic representation of the loss of the Birkenhead came from his recollection of events. The picture was shown in 1890 and 1891 at the Military and Naval Exhibitions in London where the Captain, of the Royal Lancers, gained diplomas for his work.
The Duke of Wellington gave tribute to the men of the Birkenhead, paid at the annual banquet of the Royal Academy at rooms in Trafalgar Square on 1 May 1852.
The author, Addison, notes with regret that only the services of Captain Wright, the last surviving senior officer, were officially recognised with a promotion, the C. B. and a small service pension. Captain Wright was indeed deserving, but so too were the ‘other surviving officers’ (and I’d suggest probably the ratings too).
A ‘Relief Fund’ was set up to support the families of those who had perished. Beneficiaries included Miss F. Salmond, the eldest child of the Commander of the Birkenhead, who was nominated for admission into the Royal Naval Female School.
The ‘Birkenhead Monument’, a memorial to honour those who perished was erected in the colonnade at Chelsea Hospital.
If you would like to discover more about the steamer, statements from the survivors (including Captain Bond-Shelton), the events of the court-martial of the Naval survivors, the ‘popular’ version of the story and the later lives of the surviving officers, please feel free to take a look at the book which can be found at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, ref LAT.922.
We now know more of this terrible tragedy but must still go full-circle. Lady Tonge (born in Scotland in 1859) was the wife of Francis H. Tonge of Highway near Calne, and Captain Ralph MacGeough Bond-Shelton (1832-1916) had an estate 20 miles away at Water Eaton in Latton. The family connection may have been naval.
The depositor of our book also had another amazing donation to offer us; the India General Service Medal of Louis Charles Henry Tonge. It appears that Louis was aboard HMS Inconstant in 1838 and moved to HMS Excellent in 1840. He became a Lieutenant RN in 1845. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is an archive and library, unable to accept these kinds of items but the medal has received a warm welcome and a safe home at the Calne Heritage Centre where it will be well cared for.
As for Captain Bond-Shelton, he was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, after his death in 1916. The Belfast Evening Telegraph printed his obituary on Monday, 13 March, as ‘The last of [a] heroic band’.
The Lord Primate’s funeral address contained these words:
"Surely no other words were needed before they committed the body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes; but to-day they might well make an exception for a few minutes from the general rule, for they were about to lay in its last resting-place the body of a man who has helped to lay the foundation stones of our Empire, for Captain Bond-Shelton was the last survivor of that most gallant band whose deeds had helped to make England great, and whose daring lay at the basis of our national character and conduct. Did he say national character? The present Provost of Trinity College, who knew Germany better than most men, told him a few days ago that for many long years the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead was read in Germany to the cadets of the army and navy before they left college.”
The artist Paul Curtis completed his latest work on 25 February 2020, a mural entitled ‘The Birkenhead Drill’ after the term coined by Rudyard Kipling in an 1893 poem to describe the courageous behaviour of those on board the HMS Birkenhead as it sank in 1852. The mural has been painted onto the side of Gallagher’s Traditional Pub in Birkenhead, Merseyside, which contains lots of naval and military memorabilia. The mural pays tribute to a time when Birkenhead was at the heart of the shipbuilding industry.
Julie Davis County Local Studies Librarian Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre
Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn has often been described as “one of England’s leading Impressionists” due to his ability to capture variations in sunlight and shadow as well as a painterly style and a feel for colour that perfectly captured his subject. He has been highlighted while researching for Creative Wiltshire, a Heritage Lottery Funded project and we discovered that we hold one of his pieces within the county; a portrait of Dr. Edwin Sloper Beaven dated 1939 and held at Dewey Museum in Warminster. (Ref. WAMDM:D4414)
However, while he was known for his portraits and received regular commissions, it is perhaps his landscapes that inform us of the man; often capturing a sense of place with huge accomplishment and care. He worked in oils or watercolours and travelled widely, so his subject matter is hugely varied and genuinely reflects his love of people and places.
In 1891 he was invited to assist in the murals for Boston library by Edwin Austin Abbey and so began his long association with America, leading to his marriage in 1904 to Jane Erin Emmet, cousin of the novelist Henry James. He also began a lifelong friendship with John Singer Sargent and the three often travelled together, painting side by side as they visited wonderful locations such as Venice, Rome, Corfu, Granada, St. Tropez and areas in the south of France along with locations closer to home, such as Hampshire, Wiltshire and Cornwall. Wilfrid and Jane settled in London, in Cheyne Walk, close to Sargent’s studio, and Wilfrid began to establish himself as a portrait painter, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and other private galleries in the early part of the 20th century.
His painting was interrupted by the First World War when he and his wife worked as orderlies in a French field hospital and this contrast with his earlier pre-war life had an impact on them both. He took time to return to painting after the war but had produced watercolour sketches during his experiences depicting patients resting in the landscape, playing cards and recuperating, and these demonstrate his eye for figures and a wonderful ability to capture a sense of place and nature.
Visits to France became part of the couple’s lifestyle; both had studied in Paris and they regularly returned to the city as well as favouring the area around Chartes, the Seine valley and Provence. Wilfrid’s portraiture work funded these summer trips to Europe and in turn fuelled his interest and love of landscape painting. Both he and Jane travelled with their artist’s tools and regularly set up their easels together to enjoy their painting. A love of the English countryside grew and Cornwall became a firm favourite, as well as Hampshire and the River Avon. A theme of castles brought de Glehn to Wardour Castle in the south of the county, and a visit to Downton led to them renting the rectory at Wilton during the 1920s and 1930s, introducing them both to the Wiltshire countryside. The rectory backed onto Wilton Park which provided de Glehn with more subject matter, and he became fascinated with the Palladian bridge spanning the River Nadder. He also painted Heale, a seventeenth century house owned by a friend and many of these paintings were shown at Wilfrid de Glehn’s exhibition at Knoedlers in 1935.
By 1941 the couple were searching for a new home, having lost Cheyne Walk, London in the Blitz and it was at this point that they bought the Manor House in Stratford Tony where they settled for the remainder of his life while still returning regularly to Provence.
This year is one of commemorations, significant anniversaries and celebrations. Many people will have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday but last month it was the monarch who was leading the birthday celebrations for another long-lived institution – the Royal Artillery which marked its 300th anniversary on 26 May with a royal visit, parade and displays at Larkhill.
A rather more sombre commemoration this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that dominates Britain’s collective memory of the First World War in the same way the Battle of Verdun occupies French history or Gallipoli tends to define Australian and New Zealand participation in the Great War. All these landmark events have come together as I work my way through a single archive – a treasure-trove of sketchbooks, diaries, letters and photographs that belonged to Hetman Jack Parham.
Jack Parham was born on 27 July, 1895 at Norrington near Alvediston in Wiltshire. He was raised on the family farm, educated at Sherborne School, and pursued a long and successful career in the Army. He retired a Major General and went to live in Suffolk – at Hintlesham near Ipswich – where he died in 1974. He lived the Royal Artillery’s Latin motto – Ubique – Everywhere.
I never knew the man. I was eight when he died and it would be another 22 years before I found myself living and working in Ipswich and sailing the River Orwell just as Jack, a keen sailor, had done.
But that is the beauty of archives – I have been able to get to know something of Jack’s remarkable story. This collection of drawings, photos and letters has taken me on an amazing journey through the early years of manned flight and Jack’s passion for aeroplanes; transported me to the battlefields of the First World War; and given me a brief insight into the thoughts of a senior military commander on D-Day 1944.
That journey began 13 months ago with a single sketchbook that had been identified by a researcher back in 2013/14 among a whole host of First World War resources. When I joined the History Centre in May 2015 I embarked on a number of centenary projects and was directed to the ‘Parham sketchbook’ from 1915-17 as a great resource. And what a resource.
Young people involved in the Dancing Back to 1914 project visited the History Centre to gain an understanding of Wiltshire 100 years ago. They were captivated by the detailed sketches that somehow closed the yawning chasm of the century separating them from the young men and women who experienced the Great War.
I was just as fascinated. Each sketch had been annotated at the time of drawing, while further notes were added (by Jack) at a later date to clarify a location or situation. I wanted to know more and periodically have been able to dip back into the Parham archive. Opening up each box has offered up something new and amazing.
We are used to looking at a wonderfully rich source of materials in our Local Studies Libraries, Archives and Museums, but how many of you have ever wondered how those books, photographs, newspapers, archive collections and museum objects got there? Some material of course has been collected over many years, some of it gifted and others purchased; while for Archive services material is often deposited but still owned by the depositor. When material comes up for sale, usually at auction, a decision whether to attempt to buy an object or an archive collection is made on case by case basis (with the help of grants from various bodies raised at short notice). Now this can work well, but as you might imagine this is a reactive process rather than proactive; consequently gaps in our collections can emerge. This means that the heritage for future generations is incomplete and does not tell the full story of our communities past and present.
In Wiltshire and Swindon we have been thinking about this problem and looking at how libraries, archives , museums and art galleries can work together to identify and fill significant gaps in our collections; thinking about what we should collect, what do local communities think is important to their heritage, what would we leave for future generations? In particular we have been looking at the heritage of our local creative industries, something that is part of our everyday lives now and has been for past generations, but not always given the full attention it deserves. Now, with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are able to take a strategic approach to collecting materials for our creative industry and, importantly, we have a significant fund to purchase items.
The National Archives has recognised the unique nature of the work that has been happening at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre to engage artists and develop new creative ways of working. On the 30th of September the History Centre will host Artists in the Archives, a regional conference to draw together best practice from across the south west and provide an opportunity for artists to learn more about what opportunities there are to explore the creative potential of archives.
The Centenary years of the First World War offer a unique opportunity for communities to work with artists to explore their heritage. Communities hold within their collective memories the most fascinating glimpses into the real lives of people during the First World War and the History Centre is keen to develop a vibrant network of community lead projects that research and explore these fragments of our county and nation’s story.
For more information about what the History Centre is doing to support both artists and communities to commemorate the Centenary years and to develop creative projects please follow the links below.