The Wreck of the Birkenhead: “STAND FAST”

The troopship “BIRKENHEAD” sailed from Portsmouth in February 1852, amongst the troops on board were 1 Sergeant and 70 privates of the Suffolk Regiment. As well as the troops and crew there were 7 women and 13 children sailing that day. She was travelling around the coast of Africa when she struck a rock off Danger Point and began to sink. As she began to break up the Captain ordered the soldiers and crew to “Stand Fast” and allow the women and children to enter the lifeboats first. Their discipline and courage saved the lives of all the women and children – of the 618 officers and men, 454 died that day.

Although the ship was only a mile from shore the men were hampered by darkness, dense seaweed, breakers over the rocky coastline, the sharks that infested the African water and the fact that not all of them could swim.

The discipline and courage of the British soldiers so impressed the German Emperor that he ordered that an account of the incident should be read to all the Regiments of his army.

This is one of the most well know shark attack stories. There are several accounts held in the Bury St. Edmunds Record Office within the Suffolk Regiments collection of this incident. From an account by Cpl Wm Smith “I believe many of the poor fellows were pulled down by sharks, as the water was tinged with blood in some places”.  From Lt Lucas “others swimming strong went down with a yell”. “When day broke we found ourselves about a mile from the beach, on which the sea broke with fearful violence”, (the bay was full of “blackfins”). There is a memorial in the Parish Church of St. Mary Bury St Edmunds to the memory of the 55 men drowned at the Wreck of the Birkenhead.

Jean Deathridge

Searchroom Assistant

Bury St. Edmunds Record Office