Everyone is familiar with the maritime call of 'women and children first' when disaster strikes however the origins are less well known especially in this country.
On a visit to the Western Cape area of South Africa 7 years ago Andy noticed the term 'Birkenhead' used in many places. He learned that this was the area where on 26th February 1852 the troopship HMS Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock off Gansbaai and sank with great loss of life.
This brought back the a story of heroism that he had heard when a child.
The troopship was taking soldiers from several regiments to take part in the eighth frontier Xhosa war in South Africa when disaster struck. During the initial impact many lost their lives below decks and with the situation grave the women and children were put on board the limited number of serviceable lifeboats on the ship.
Lieutenant Colonel Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot took charge of all surviving military personnel and instilled the importance of maintaining discipline particularly as many were very young, newly trained and on their first expedition.
When ships Captain Salmond RN decided that the ship was lost he commanded everyone to abandon ship, however Lieutenant Colonel Seton realising that this may result in the lifeboats with the women in children on board being swamped ordered the men to stand firm. The soldiers maintained silence and order and did not move, even as the ship broke in two.
This was the origin of the term 'Birkenhead Drill' maintaining courageous behaviour when faced with hopeless circumstances.
This was the first known time in maritime history when the concept of 'women and children first' was applied and the loss of the Birkenhead was the most famous shipwreck for the 60 years prior to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The Titanic also famously used the 'Birkenhead Drill' when placing women & children into the lifeboats first.
Reports of numbers varied but of the 643 on board only 193 were saved, with many being taken by sharks attempting to swim ashore, others clung to debris and the masts until rescued.
The iron hulled paddle steamer had been built by John Laird in 1845 as a frigate, and during 1847 she became famous for helping free Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Britain which had run aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland. The navy changed its plans for the HMS Birkenhead soon after Brunel's famous paddle v propeller tug of war. All future warships would be propeller driven rather than paddle and so HMS Birkenhead was converted into a troopship.
There is an annual remembrance service in Gansbaai, South Africa and memorial to the ship and its men, however following investigations when Andy returned to UK he discovered that there was very little in this country. A memorial to all on board exists in the Royal Chelsea Hospital, London which was commissioned on the express wish of Queen Victoria. There is also a memorial to the Suffolk Regiment in St Mary's church, Bury-St-Edmunds. However other than a painting of the shipwreck created c1892 by Thomas Hemy and residing in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, nothing existed in the town that built the ship and to whom she was named after and more importantly to Andy there was nothing to link Gansbaai with Birkenhead.
Thus started what turned out to be a four year marathon to achieve a proper and permanent memorial and bring together the communities of South Africa and Wirral.
He made contact with and secured the assistance of the Mayor of Wirral and Wirral Borough Council who were bewildered as to why nothing other than the painting existed in Wirral other than the painting which had not been on display for a long time. Following on the support of John Syvret the CEO of Cammell Laird was readily given once the history became known and the services of their apprentice team secured to build a monument.
The site for a monument on the sea front next to the Ferry Terminal at Woodside was agreed and secured.
What this monument was to look like would be decided by a competition sent to Merseyside Art Colleges with a £500 prize on offer with £250 each from Andy & Cammell Laird. In addition the winning design would be built by the Cammell Laird apprentices.
The winning design was submitted by Jemma Twigg of Birkenhead Sixth Form College and then the complex and impressive monument was built at Cammell Laird by their apprentice team. During this time further links were established with South Africa and Andy was invited to attend their annual HMS Birkenhead memorial and commemoration events in February this year taking with him a letter from the Mayor of Wirral to the Mayor of Overstrand.
On the 5th March, 2014 at 11am following an introduction from the Mayor of Wirral, Councillor Dave Mitchell and an introduction to the HMS Birkenhead memorial by Andy Liston the memorial was unveiled by the Queens representative on Merseyside Dame Lorna Muirhead DBE and the Mayor of Wirral. Following the unveiling Dame Lorna laid a wreath on behalf of the Queen, the Mayor on behalf of the people of Wirral and Andy was asked by the South African High Commissioner to lay a wreath on behalf of the Republic of South Africa.
This was followed by a reading by Wirral's Young Poet Laureate Xanthe Brennan from Rudyard Kiplings poem 'Soldier an Sailor too'
To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too
This was followed by a memorial Dedication and Blessing by Rev John Williams MBE Chaplain to the Royal Navy.
Before the sounding of the Last Post by Royal Marines an Act of Remembrance was read Captain George Waterfield of The Royal Anglian Regiment. He represented the former Suffolk Regiment of which many on board the HMS Birkenhead belonged to.
A two minutes silence followed The Last Post.
The exaltation being 'The Legion of the Living salutes the Legion of the Dead and was read by RN Commodore Dickie Baum who represented the First Sea-Lord.
The event was attended among others by many members of the armed forces both current and past including a contingents from Glasgow's for the Highland Light Infantry Association, The Royal Anglian Regiment, Royal Marines, Royal Navy. In addition representatives from Cammell Lairds, Wirral Borough Council, veteran associations, RNLI and many others.
A reception was held at Birkenhead Town Hall where Dame Lorna presented certificates to runners up of the design competition and Jemma Twigg, the award winner. Small replica's of the memorial were presented to Andy Liston, Cammell Laird Chief Executive John Syvret CBE and Jemma Twigg, in addition a gift and letter from the Mayor of Overstrand was presented to The Mayor of Wirral by Andy Liston.
The Williamson Art Gallery & Museum had arranged for the display of the famous painting of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead. This was particularly appreciated by the HLI kilted contingent from Glasgow representing Lieutenant Colonel Seton's Regiment the 74th.
When the painting returns to the Williamson it is intended that it will go on display again.
The Mayor of Wirral, Councillor Dave Mitchell said ' I was very pleased to dedicate this new memorial to those who lost their lives off the coast of South Africa 162 years ago. I am particularly pleased 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.'
'I would especially like to thank Mr Liston, who has worked tirelessly to help this memorial come about, and to raise awareness of the HMS Birkenhead and its place in naval history'
'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.'
Cammell Laird Chief Executive John Syvret CBE said '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',
He added 'It is important that our apprentices understand the long history of Cammell Laird and what happened to many 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'.
Chairman of RNLI New Brighton Lifeboat Station Tony Jones commented 'Andy Liston has been a lifeboat crew member for many years and his dedication and commitment to turning an idea into reality with this memorial is typical of him. It is surprising that such an event as HMS Birkenhead's sinking and its immense effect on the international maritime community has not been properly recognised in this country till now. However down to the efforts of one individual this omission has become a reality and we are proud to have him as a member of our team at New Brighton'.
He added 'The tenacity of taking an idea to reality is exemplified in the spirit of the RNLI throughout the whole organisation'
Notes to Editors:
Andy Liston has been a volunteer at RNLI New Brighton for many years and has been a member of crew on both our Atlantic 85 lifeboat and our Hovercraft.
He is also our hovercraft mechanic.
Station website: http://www.newbrightonlifeboat.org.uk/
RNLI Media Contacts
For more information please contact Bob Warwick, RNLI New Brighton Volunteer Press Officer on mobile 0784 765 8922 - email email@example.com
or Alison Levett, RNLI Media Relations Manager North on 07786 668912