The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (RWY) in Syria. Operation Exporter June 1941.

on Thursday, 04 June 2020. Posted in Military

Lt Col Stephen Keoghane

In 1941, Syria like Iraq and Persia was under German influence, and garrisoned by the hated Vichy French. The strategic concern at the time, was that Syria could be utilised by the Axis forces to mount attacks on Egypt. The RWY less one squadron was part of the 4th Cavalry Brigade and with the Household Cavalry and the Warwickshire Yeomanry were given the objective of the ancient and ruined city of Palmyra, one hundred miles from the Iraq border.


The Temple of Bel, Palmyra

On 2I June 1941 the CO Lt Colonel Williams led the advance which was joined by a company of the Arab Legion, reaching Juffa, fifty miles inside Syria where a lone French aircraft escaped to warn the main Vichy garrisons at Homs and Palmyra. Arriving at the outskirts of Palmyra at 11 a.m. the CO briefed his squadrons overlooking the ruined city and the objective of Yellow Ridge the most prominent landmark occupied by dug in French machine guns. With no air support or artillery, numerous foot patrols were sent forward but progress was painfully slow against such a well-prepared enemy. Sheltering in slit trenches and suffering in the intense heat for twelve days, the Regiment’s vehicles were systematically destroyed. These relentless Vichy bombing attacks that followed from the air were difficult to counter with rifles and old Hotchkiss machine guns. Lt M. St J.V. Gibbs distinguished himself assaulting the hills but had to withdraw due to a combination of exhaustion and overwhelming opposition.

Trooper Ken Batt, in an interview with the author in 2018 recalled his orders from Sergeant Bannister ‘get up that hill and if you see anyone in front of you, shoot them.’ Lieutenant Kenneth Mcllwraith, a Canadian born liaison officer, was tasked to take a French prisoner back to Brigade HQ but his car was attacked and he and his batman were taken prisoner on 2 June by a French patrol. He was handed over to a French Foreign Legion officer and flown 145 km to Homs in an ancient biplane whose Gallic pilot was far more concerned with the cases of wine he was transferring than the welfare of his prisoners. From Homs he was flown to Greece and then onwards to Salonika. The conditions in which he and other British prisoners were held in a dockside warehouse were appalling but after five days he was moved to a passenger ship. Following the armistice between the British and Vichy forces on 14 July, Mcllwraith was transported through Germany to Toulon in southern France, again in horrific conditions and finally by sea to Beirut and Cairo. He re-joined the Regiment but missed the battle of El Alamein due to jaundice and desert sores, the crewman who replaced him was killed in the battle. Mcllwraith was clearly traumatised by these experiences because he rarely spoke about them after the war. Returning to the battle unfolding in Syria, by 26 June, the daily bombing and strafing had reduced as the RAF stepped up activity against the French airfields. Water was now rationed to a gallon a day but thankfully artillery support had arrived to turn the tide. Further attacks by RWY patrols and soldiers from the Essex Regiment were made on the prominent ridge overlooking the town and repeatedly repulsed but on 3 July the enemy garrison finally surrendered. By 29 June 1941, both A and C Squadrons could only muster seventy-eight fit men.

Soldiers of the RWY

Somerset de Chair in his book The Golden Carpet described the air bombardment of the RWY:

South of Palmyra bluff John Morrison of the Wilts, who was to join me in Parliament a year later, told me he had seventeen vehicles under his command on the first morning and only four left including the water wagon, the next day; the rest were destroyed by air attack.

The regimental war diary records the whole of A Echelon destroyed by machine gunfire from the air. Following the fall of Palmyra, the Regiment prepared for an attack on Homms but the Syrian armistice intervened and the yeomen trekked northwards to Aleppo where the 4th Cavalry Brigade was concentrating. They bivouacked in olive groves north east of the town, where shade following the incessant heat and glare of the desert sun was most welcome, as was the abundance of fresh fruit after a diet made up of bully beef and biscuits for two months. The yeomen were allowed into Aleppo in the evening which was full of French soldiers, an odd sight as the French Foreign Legion had previously been the despised enemy at Palmyra.

Lt Col Stephen Keoghane is the author of Primus in Armis: An illustrated history of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, published in May 2020 by Fonthill Media. The author served as Regimental Medical Officer for 22 years.

Primus in Armis: An illustrated history of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry

Tracing Your Military Ancestors Online

on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. Posted in Military

A few weeks ago Max posted two blogs listing some of the fantastic online resources available to family and local historians during the lockdown. It looks like we’ll all be waiting a little while longer for archives to start reopening, so in the meantime I thought it would be useful to highlight some more valuable sites that can help us scratch the history itch during these strange times. We often get enquiries from customers looking to find out more about a relative who served in the armed forces and given the recent VE Day celebration this seemed like a timely topic.

Trooper George Sweetman, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry (WSA 3560/10/22)

Before we dig into some of the websites that offer access to soldiers’ records, it’s worth bearing in mind a few things. First, the sources that follow largely deal with historic records from before 1922. It is possible to get some material after that date, but soldiers’ service records after 1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence. Access to these records can be provided, for a fee, as long as the service member is no longer living - please see https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/requests-for-personal-data-and-service-records for more details.

Secondly, as with many other types of historical records the further back in time we go the sparser and less revealing the records become, and this is particularly true for ‘other ranks’ (Privates, Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants and Warrant Officers). Before the First World War ‘service records’ as we would recognise them today did not exist for enlisted men, though they are more complete for officers. As such, if you are looking for soldiers serving before World War One you will very likely need to piece together information from multiple different sources, and even then, it’s likely that many of the records have not survived. Personnel records were more comprehensive after 1914, however more than two-thirds of these were destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1940 and so the surviving papers are very incomplete.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry collection WSA 3560/10/22

Finally, looking at military records can be quite confusing if you don’t know which unit your relative served with, where that unit was stationed at a given time, or whether they were an enlisted soldier or an officer. Just as we recommend when taking your first steps in family history, it’s worth asking relatives what they remember and checking family documents to gather as much information as you can. A little work before you start can save you a huge headache further down the line.

With that, let’s have a look at some of the sites providing access to military records. Sadly, not all sites offer free access, but those that charge offer a free trial and I have provided a link to these trials where possible.

Most military service records are held at The National Archives, mostly but not exclusively in the War Office files. Obviously we can’t access the originals right now, and the majority of the files aren’t digitised, but at the moment any that are available electronically are free to download for as long as TNA remains closed (you will need to register with the site first). Luckily for us a lot of the War Office’s records are also available through TNA’s Digital Microfilm Project. This link will take you to the project home page which has instructions on how to access the material; to see which records are available from the War Office, scroll down until you see reference numbers beginning ‘WO’. It’s also worth searching TNA’s catalogue Discovery as some of the records are searchable by the soldier’s name, for example WO25 (registers of service) and WO374 (officers’ service files, 1898-1922). TNA also have an excellent series of guides on how and where to find information on members of the armed forces and they’re well worth a read.

Findmypast has an excellent collection of British Army Service Records transcripts and digital images which are indexed and searchable. It is a subscription service, but they’re currently offering a free 14-day trial for new members. The transcripts give a wealth of information including service number, rank, regiment and unit, birth year and birth county. The images accompanying the transcripts can give you even more information, including the soldier’s physical description, occupation, name and address of next of kin, religion and their service history.

Ancestry is, like Findmypast, a subscription service, but they also offer a free trial. Ancestry’s collection of Military Records covers everything from First World War pension records through to the Roll of Honour for seamen 1914-1945 and is well worth searching.

Some of the material on Ancestry is provided via their affiliate fold3 which hosts military records. Once again it’s a subscription service but they also offer a free trial, albeit only for seven days. The material is primarily American, but there’s a vast amount of material relating to Britain and the Commonwealth. Most useful will be the British Army Lists which contain information on officers in the regular army between 1882 and 1962, British Army WW1 Service Records, Medal Roll index cards, and British WW1 Wounded and Missing, though there are many other excellent collections on the site, all of which seem to be indexed by soldier’s name.

Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry WSA 3560/10/22

If you know that the soldier you are searching for was killed during a conflict then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website can also be helpful. You can use its search function to find fallen soldiers, which in turn can give you information such as the soldier’s rank, service number, service branch, date of death and place of burial. If there is an inscription on the grave marker, this can be shown as well.

Finally, the websites of regimental museums can also provide a wealth of information. For example, The Wardrobe (The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum) has a comprehensive history of the regiments related to Wiltshire, and also offers excerpts from unit War Diaries (which give an indication of what a unit was doing on a given day). These can be invaluable for getting a flavour of the actions soldiers took part in during a conflict.

Tom Plant

Community History Advisor

Being a Newbie in Lockdown

on Wednesday, 20 May 2020. Posted in Archaeology

Joining any new organisation can be a daunting prospect, but joining one when you can’t even travel to your place of work or meet your new colleagues? Yes, life in a time of C-19 has presented all kinds of unique situations to people across the country and while my issues were trivial compared to those faced by others, I must say it been quite an experience.

First, to introduce myself. I am Neil Adam, recently the Senior Archaeologist at Hampshire County Council, who has finally come ‘home’ to Wiltshire (I live in Warminster!) to serve as the new Assistant County Archaeologist, mainly covering Salisbury and the south of the county. I spent the first 25 years of my time in archaeology working for various commercial field units across southern England (Wessex, AC, Cotswold, Oxford), (which included working at such sites as West Kennet Farm, Silbury Hill and Stonehenge) before moving into consultancy in early 2010 and then into curation with Hampshire in 2015 (poacher turned gamekeeper). I am extremely excited about the prospect of working in my home county and one filled with some of the most iconic archaeological sites in the country, and in the case of one particular site, the world.

My favourite sites in Wiltshire:

Any my local vista:

When I was offered the post in late February this year all seemed set for the move to the History Centre, a new commute, new colleagues and a new building to find my way around. I did warn Melanie that I also had a trip planned for May across Florida, so having got settled in, I would then be away for a couple of weeks (I was actually supposed to leave yesterday…). However, as with everyone else on planet Earth all that came to nothing and I found myself instead taking a very extended staycation at Chez Adam.

As you all know starting a new job usually involves an overload of new work practices, registrations, P45s, trying to remember who everyone in the team is (not very good with names, better with faces) and then lots of e-induction courses. Well, that went out of the window following the closure of my new workplace, just 2 weeks before I was due to start. However, thanks to the efforts of Terry, Melanie, Tom, the IT department and many others at the History Centre, the basics of the job (my Wiltshire Council ID badge, laptop, phone and headset) were all ready for me to pick up from Chippenham in a social distancing operation worthy of any government leaflet. Back home it was set up time and soon I was on the road to full induction thanks to the wonders of modern technology (well Skype and Teams anyway). A few weeks have followed where I have got up to speed on who is who and who does what at the council (and yes that did include e-learning!) and then began the process of familiarising myself with the ins and outs of my new job.

Good points? Well, being stuck in my little back room I have had the time to work through a lot of material at my own pace without the day to day back and forth of an office environment and as a result I think I got up to speed on a great many things at a faster rate than I otherwise would have. I must have also saved a fair bit in petrol and wear and tear on the car.

Bad points? It has been a bit strange getting to know my new colleagues through the small window of an online communication system and you miss that vital human contact where so many minor queries and issues can be sorted. The strangest thing is that as I arrive at the end of my first month in the job I am still to learn how to get into the building I am meant to work in and were to find the nearest café. I wonder if my colleagues look the same in person as they do on video?....

By Neil j. Adam

Assistant County Archaeologist

The Creative Wiltshire Journey

on Tuesday, 12 May 2020. Posted in Archives, Art, Museums, Photography

Back in 2014 we were fortunate in securing a National Heritage Lottery Fund award as part of their Collecting Cultures project. This gave us funding to connect and support museum collections throughout the county of Wiltshire in a variety of ways. We could add to collections, perhaps filling gaps where creativity was unrepresented, provide conservation, training and support for museum staff and volunteers and generally connect with our museum network in a way that would build strong links for the future. We hoped to create a legacy that would reflect the creative influence of our county.

The journey has taken five years to complete and we have recently submitted our final evaluation and report to mark the journey’s end. And what a journey it has been; we have learnt so much and connected with so many different people and organisations along the way, it has been an absolute pleasure to be part of it.

Our focus has been primarily on the creators who have associations with our county and the chart below will give an indication of the mediums represented and objects subsequently purchased.

It would have been easy to concentrate on fine artists alone, but we quickly realised that there were many different creative industries within the county, so we tried to represent as many as possible. Generally, the work purchased reflected the twentieth century and mid-century design in particular. It was a time of great change as WWII ended and new ideas about art and design began to emerge, some of our objects purchased certainly reflect those changes. The whole project has been supported by accredited Wiltshire museums and we need to especially thank Salisbury Museum, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and Chippenham Museum, all supported by a range of organisations and individuals associated with the creative industries and museum service.

Many of our purchases were made direct from the makers and this has led to detailed background knowledge and provenance to accompany the objects, as well as developing strong ongoing relationships that will lead, in some instances, to the deposit of an artist’s archive at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. These archives will be available to all for further study. For some more expensive items, the purchase became a joint effort as partners applied for matched funding from larger organisations, making such additions to collections possible.

A selection of items acquired for the Creative Wiltshire project

Inspired by and supporting this project a wide range of activities and events have been delivered increasing access to, knowledge of and participation in heritage. These have been enjoyed by over 47,000 participants. A mapping project was produced to help museums work together, supporting purchases and collecting policies so there is less overlap and more efficient working. 105 individuals have attended a series of training courses for museum staff and volunteers, covering a variety of topics that will help make their own museums and heritage organisations as sustainable as possible. Exhibitions have been held across the county highlighting newly acquired material and encouraging responses from the audiences and other artists and creators.

This wide-ranging project created the landscape for other activities to grow, raising the profile of creatives across the county and it has been wonderful to focus on this type of contemporary art and give it recognition. Many makers enjoyed the new-found connection with heritage and were inspired to create new works.

Please allow me an indulgence to choose my favourite object purchased during the project; this is a painting by Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn of the countryside surrounding Stratford Tony, where he lived. He was a painter previously unrepresented in a main collection in Wiltshire and his impressionistic work is an important addition. His association and friendship with John Singer Sargent resulted in many painting trips abroad, especially to France and Italy, where they were also accompanied by de Glehn’s wife, Jane Emmet. The painting is now part of the collection at Salisbury Museum and I hope that we can add more works in the future by this accomplished artist.

Stratford Tony by Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn

We are fortunate to have had such a unique opportunity to connect with each other in this way and are so pleased that we have been able to put new collecting practices in place to reflect the legacy of the project. The work does not stop here, it is the start of so much more and we look forward to showing you future collections and acquisitions that reflect the creativity of the county and its people.

Discover more about the project at www.creativewiltshire.com 

Joy Bloomfield

Creative Wiltshire Project Officer

Tackling loneliness and isolation with heritage

on Wednesday, 06 May 2020. Posted in History Centre

Last year I completed a dissertation that looked at how archives and archival activity could help tackle the widespread issue of elderly loneliness. As an archive professional I wanted to see what was being done within the profession that could aid the mental and physical well-being of those experiencing loneliness, but also to ask what else could be done. My research showed archival institutions are well placed to contribute to tackling loneliness, indeed they are already actively doing so. This blog hopes to highlight the positive effect of using archives during lockdown (and beyond!), and update readers on our work behind the scenes.

Anyone who frequents an archive may note its popularity with those of retirement age; retirees may have more time to undertake research and so may visit an archive more often. However, it should be emphasised that archives are friendly, welcoming places for anyone with an interest in history or any form of local history research to conduct: be it students researching for their degrees, house historians searching historic building applications, or family history enthusiasts. Anyone and everyone is welcome: provision of access to historic documents is at the forefront of our work, and we would encourage anyone to visit Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, regardless of age and, furthermore, that feelings of isolation and loneliness are universal and not confined to any one demographic!

So, in these unprecedented times, where isolation and loneliness for all age groups is more prevalent than ever before, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre is looking at new ways of serving all of our community. While we’re unable to carry out any physical outreach work during lockdown, promoting and ensuring continued access for as broad an audience as possible is still a fundamental and highly enjoyable part of the work of the archive team at WSHC, except now we must find new ways to reach out to anyone unaware of what we can offer!

In terms of our ability to interact with the community, our intrinsic knowledge of the local area ensures that we are well placed to do this. Archivists can relate to tales of old and offer suggestions on how to find out more on such subjects, but we can also bring to light fascinating new stories, that were hitherto forgotten or hiding in the strongrooms. In Wiltshire, our County Local Studies Librarian, Julie Davis, does exactly this with her ‘Memory Box’ reading groups – follow this link to see some of her recent isolation sessions from her living room. Julie’s work shows how heritage professionals are adapting to fulfil their duties during this period. Not yet available on the website, but done in preparation for the VE Day celebrations is her extract readings on the event. This is available here.

The entire nation would normally be planning events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE day. However, new and innovative ways are being sought to celebrate and mark the occasion during lockdown. The talk we had planned at WSHC has been made available online, again by Julie Davis, and is available here (you may need to sign in to Google for this).

A VE Day celebration

Of course it is a great shame not being able to celebrate with our family, friends and neighbours, but Wiltshire Council has put together a VE Day Toolkit, that will hopefully provide inspiration on how best to celebrate this momentous occasion at home or in the garden.

Even if we cannot be in the immediate vicinity of our friends, family or community, we can continue to be connected, and being connected can contribute to people’s well-being. Did you know that there is evidence to show that tracing your family tree can have a positive effect on your mental health? Indeed, any form of research that engages the mind will be positive during these times, so why not take a look at some of the fantastic online resources that are available and start a new research project or learn about the local area? You can find out more about these resources here in our recent blogs.

Connectedness does not need to be confined to the present. Relating to the past, be it family members researched as part of a genealogy project, or even past occupiers of your house, can help ease feelings of isolation. Documents usually consulted in the searchroom, are increasingly available as online resources, for example: Wiltshire parish registers and wills are now temporarily available for free on Ancestry. Follow this link to see what’s available and for guidance on how to proceed. So, if you’re at home struggling for things to do, why not start your family history? We have starter packs available here too!

The heritage community really is pulling together in the response to the pandemic. The National Archives have recently announced that their digital records are available for free access until they re-open to the public, follow this link to find out more. Further to this, British History Online have made over 200 volumes of primary material available to researchers for free until 31 July 2020:  https://blog.history.ac.uk/2020/03/british-history-online-makes-all-research-content-free-to-individual-users/

A valuable and hugely valued part of all heritage institutions is the volunteer workforce, being part of which is a great way to fend off feelings of loneliness and isolation. Volunteering gives people the chance to utilise skills honed during their careers or learn new ones and keep the mind active. It’s also a great way to meet new people, be it other volunteers or members of staff. We have a great working relationship with our volunteers at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and we would encourage anyone interested in helping out when we re-open, to get in touch with our Volunteer Team to discuss the opportunities available: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

There are multiple agencies working locally and nationally to assist us in these difficult times. If you, or anyone you know, is struggling in isolation in Wiltshire, check out the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub. Charities are naturally at the forefront of the effort to keep loneliness and isolation at bay. At a local level, Celebrating Age is a fantastic project aimed at tackling the issue of loneliness by delivering arts and heritage events in community settings for frail, vulnerable older people unable to access concert halls or theatres. Their current programme of events has understandably been called off, however they are looking at ways of delivering digital programme. Follow this link for 90 minutes of live music and storytelling from the comfort of your living room! Also, keep an eye on their website when lockdown is over because they are doing great things across the county.

The Celebrating Age Wiltshire project

At a national level, the Campaign to End Loneliness website has a really useful section specifically for Corona virus related issues and anxieties, as does the Age UK site.

I’d just like to sign off by wishing all of our readers well. Do share, re-tweet or pass on this message with family, neighbours, colleagues or anyone you know who may be struggling with loneliness during lockdown and whose well-being may benefit from some of the suggestions here.

Follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook and keep a close eye on our website for more information, as well as updates on re-opening. Happy researching!

Max Parkin, Archivist

The Story of the Birkenhead

on Monday, 27 April 2020. Posted in Military

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.

The Story of the Birkenhead by Addison, 1902

 

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.

Loss of the 'Birkenhead', 26 February 1852 RMG ©Royal Museum Greenwich, ref: PY0930


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 Water Eaton estate accounts of Capt RM Bond Shelton, 1877-1905 held at WSHC (Ref: 374/250)

Contents of the estate book, 1878 including the rent of a farm and cottage, and the bill for building a new veranda, 1878

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 Birkenhead Drill’ by Paul Curtis, 2020

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

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