During lockdown the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre has worked to bring our collections to you in as many different ways as possible. This difficult period has emphasised the importance of having a strong digital presence and we are continuing our endeavours to help everyone gain better access to our county’s wonderful heritage resources.
One method of doing this is increasing our capacity on the Know Your Place website. This project, which began in Bristol and later expanded across the south west of England, layers historic maps of the region and provides interactive layers of historic data, archival collections and community input. This enables the public to compare and contrast contemporary OS maps with historic maps, such as tithe and estate maps, which is great when studying the development of areas and communities. But not only this, it pinpoints (geotags) heritage collections of all shapes and sizes to their relevant locations on the maps – these are known as information layers. Watch this short video to get an idea of why you might use Know Your Place and the ethos behind this progressive project, which is always looking to add documents and detail for public consumption.
Here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre we have been working hard during lockdown to improve our part of the site, KYP Wiltshire, by creating more layers to assist with local history research across the county. A huge amount of work has been done during the last 6 months, by multiple members of staff, to recreate the tithe awards layer. Some of you may have noticed this layer before, or even used it in the past, but not every tithe award was uploaded, and some were found to be faulty. The layer is now up and running, with every tithe award (over 350 T symbols as below) accessible on the site.
For detailed information on tithes, we recommend browsing The National Archives’ handy research guide, but here’s some brief information on how are they can benefit local history research. In 1836 the Tithe Commutation Act was passed, which put an end to tithes being paid in kind to the church (as was often the case previously). Tithes (one tenth of agricultural produce) were now a monetary tax to be paid to the church, but in order to ascertain who would have to pay what, a nationwide survey was taken, with the whole country being mapped (tithe maps). Alongside the maps, the tithe awards (part of a larger document called the tithe apportionments) were produced, which detailed landowners and occupiers of the land.
Plot numbers, listed alongside names, link the award to the map, and show how much each plot of land is due to pay in tithes. Any historic document that lists names in relation to a place is going to be useful for family historians. The tithe award will place a family in a specific location, give an idea of how wealthy (or not) they were, e.g. if they are listed as a landowner that would infer wealth, and they sometimes throw unexpected names into the mix. For example, their relatives may be living nearby and would thus be recorded in the same document. In terms of local and social history, tithes give us a great sense of how the land was being used at a certain point in time, and by whom.
We thought it might be of interest to describe exactly what’s gone into making this data available. Our fantastic volunteers from the Wiltshire Family History Society had previously transcribed the documents in our search room and created a mammoth Microsoft Word document, so this needed to be split up into single documents for each parish. We then needed to convert every document into a PDF (the preferred file format for Know Your Place). Finally, we had to get easting and northing grid references for every individual parish, which proved very time consuming and required some serious local knowledge from various members of staff. This enabled the team in Bristol to upload the tithe awards very accurately over each parish church, or otherwise in the centre of the town, village or hamlet.
To activate the tithe award layer and find the data, follow these simple steps:
Thanks to the interactive nature of the website, you can view the award data in conjunction with any of the historic maps available, or indeed the present-day OS. To change the map, simply click on ‘basemaps’ on the legend to the right of the screen and choose whichever map you’re interested in, though in this instance you may wish to view the tithe award data in conjunction with the tithe map, which can be found at the very bottom of the ‘basemaps’ section. You can also bring a second map into the equation, by clicking ‘comparison map’ at the top of the legend, choosing your map and then using the drag and slide function across the main screen.
There is also a spy glass function, on which you can change the transparency to examine change in a precise spot on the map – this can be used by clicking the small square towards the top right of the page and then the slider beneath it manipulates the levels of transparency. This may all seem a bit fiddly to begin with, but you soon get used to it.
The drag & slide, together with the spy glass function, is a valuable tool to local and house historians. Area development is easy to examine, as is property history. For large or very old properties, it is often possible to see boundary changes over time, as well as structural changes or additions, such as extensions to properties.
It is well worth exploring the webpage further, such as the Historic Environment Record section of the information layer which includes monuments and listed buildings – each item in the list can be accessed in the same way as the Tithe Award data.
It has come to our attention that certain tithe maps have enlarged scale drawings of town or village centres on the physical document, but due to the nature of the digitally stitched together maps, these could not be included on the tithe map on Know Your Place. However, we are now in the process of creating image files of these sections of maps, that will be included as data points in due course, which will be accessed in the same way as the tithe award data.
As I mentioned earlier, this project welcomes community input. This is done through the ‘community layer’ which is automatically active each time you open the webpage (the green dots all over the screen). So, if you have a local monument, church, school or an old photograph of your ancestor’s home, you can take the picture, add some information, and add it to the layer. This can be done by clicking the pencil like symbol on the far right of the screen, then clicking directly on the relevant location and then following the instructions from there.
We’ve been helping get the community layer started by adding some examples from our History Centre collections. You will find images of schools and churches. There’s also the results of the Public Art Project, a fine array of images of public art in the county. If you spot any gaps, why not take a photo and add it to the community layer yourself?
Other organisations have been adding to this layer, Chippenham and Salisbury Museums, the Swindon Heritage Action Zone project to name just a few, plus members of the public and local history groups.
So why not take a look and digitally explore Wiltshire, both past and present. Check to see if you can spot your house on the 1st edition OS map or see if you can find any family members’ names in the tithe award data, but be warned – you may spend more time than you intend when you get ‘lost in the map’!
Finally, keep an eye out on our social media announcements of more historic documents being added to the information layers and feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns. You can find our KYP centred Facebook page @KYPWilts.
Just like many, many others, at the end of March we picked up laptops, chargers, diaries and the odd office chair and settled down to life and work in lockdown at home.
My work is centred on the Wiltshire and Swindon HER (Historic Environment Record), a database and fantastic resource that holds information on all the currently known archaeology and historic monuments for the county. This still functions extremally well for any enquiries we have had, from commercial searches undertaken during planning applications to the finding of interesting flints when someone is out walking on the Wiltshire downs.
I now start work in the morning at my kitchen table and am very lucky to have my garden to look at with the myriad of spring and summer life that goes with it, from baby long-tailed tits to a sparrowhawk sitting on the garden chair, an inquisitive crow and a less welcome rat.
A family lockdown walk developed fairly quickly and I’ve used the route frequently from March onwards, enjoying the seasonal changes and the variety of architecture and countryside in and around Corsham.
The following is a brief description of some of the associated sites from the lockdown walk which are also present on the HER. Each site is identified with its unique number.
My route takes me past the playing fields of The Corsham School. Second World War allotments are visible on this site from aerial photographs taken in 1946 and these were created as part of the Dig for Victory campaign that was introduced in September 1940. MWI74074 - Second World War Allotments, The Corsham School. On my left is Hatton Way, named after Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite courtier of Elizabeth I. Sir Christopher, when expressing devotion for his queen, always signed his letters with a hat drawn over the word ‘on’. Hatton spent about four years at Corsham House (Corsham Court) until financial problems caused him to sell up. Down Hatton Way is MWI65896 - Site of Purleigh Barn, a demolished 19th century outfarm of regular courtyard plan. The farmstead and all historic buildings have been lost.
The Wiltshire and Swindon Farmsteads and Landscapes Project Report summarises the results of mapping the historic character and survival of more than 4000 farmsteads and 2700 outfarms and field barns, all mapped onto the HER. Knowledge and protection of these historic farmsteads is inevitable if they are to be retained as a distinctive part of the rural landscape: otherwise, they risk decay and dereliction.
The route now reaches Pickwick, once a separate settlement from Corsham with strong Quaker roots. The area contains some 44 listed buildings and is a designated Conservation Area in its own right. Although the A4 speeds through the middle, it is always a great pleasure to admire the Georgian architecture. To my left is Pickwick Manor, MWI34416 - Pickwick Manor or Pickwick Farm Grade II* listed, described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as an "unusually impressive example of a late 17th century manor house, having remnants of a 14th-century wing”. In the 1920’s the building was restored, altered and lived in by Sir Harold Brakspear, noted restoration architect and archaeologist, renowned for the restoration of St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
Crossing the road and passing some lovely 18th century houses, the walk reaches Academy Drive, named after the Bath Academy of Art, which was established in 1946 by Clifford Ellis after the destruction of the original premises. The then Lord Methuen, artist Paul Ayshford, allowed his home Corsham Court to become the centre of the Academy and Beechfield House, where the drive leads, was an annex to this and accommodation for male students. Aerial photographs taken in 1946 show several military buildings dispersed within the grounds of Beechfield House, presumably associated with the nearby military quarries, MWI74106 - Military Camp, Beechfield House. More aerial photographs taken in 2009 show the area to have been redeveloped and the wartime structures demolished - their locations are now partly occupied by the houses on Academy Drive and Woodlands.
Continuing along the main road our route passes a lovely roundhouse or toll house, MWI34400 - Roundhouse or Toll House, a Grade II listed building once locally known as the ‘Pepper Pot’, a sweet shop, kept by an elderly lady called Sally Watts. It is now a summerhouse.
Further on we can see the Church of St Patrick, which was originally built as the Pickwick District School in 1858. Later used as a glove factory and then a gas mask factory in WWII, the building has had many uses in its comparatively short life MWI34419 - Church of St Patrick and Pickwick School.
The footpath that takes the walker away from the road branches off to the right across a 24-acre field. On first glance, the field looks like any other large area of agricultural land but a quick look at our HER database gives a more detailed description. The entry states ‘These fields appear to have been created by converting an area of designed landscape associated with Guyer's House and Beechfield House into agricultural use. This former character is faintly legible through small plantations and scattered trees’ HWI4496 - Re-organised fields. The information for the field is part of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project. This complete dataset of c.14,500 records covers every part of the county, giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel. This was done by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon.
NB - This data is free to use but is the copyright of Wiltshire Council and Historic England and not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.
Back to the field! The scattered trees stand tall over a landscape that was once divided into smaller portions, as field boundaries and ridge and furrow, (ridges and troughs created by a system of ploughing, possibly medieval), were identified by a geophysical survey MWI74428 - Field Boundaries, North of Bath Road & MWI74430 - Ridge and Furrow. A small pit was also discovered during some archaeological fieldwork, which contained pottery possibly dating to the earlier Neolithic period MWI76326 - Neolithic Pit. The field also contains evidence of undated ponds but possibly the most exciting feature to wind its way through the land is underground. This is a former stone quarrying tunnel which probably ran from the Hartham Park Quarry and sometimes known as the Pickwick Quarry. Bath Stone, a warm, honey-coloured oolitic limestone, has been sought after since Roman times and Brunel's cutting of the Box Railway Tunnel, close to Corsham, revealed a rich seam of high-quality stone. The Corsham mines were extensively worked with miles of tunnels, chambers and air shafts and became the ideal underground storage location for the War Office during the Second World War and of further use during the Cold War – but that’s for another blog! MWI31707 - Stone Quarry Tunnel.
The path makes its green way through the field (hovering kestrels are a bonus) and crosses a lane which leads to Guyers House, MWI65891 - Guyer's House, originally a 17th century farmhouse and now a hotel and restaurant. It was the home for 14 years of Lancelot Charles Brown, the great grandson of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscape architect who enhanced Corsham Court and laid out the gardens and parkland. Hopefully he had a chance to admire the work of his great grandfather!
After a short distance across a paddock, the next field is reached, one which became a golden sea of colour in May and June. I’ve never been a fan of rapeseed fields but to walk through the crop was quite a pleasure during the dark news of Covid-19.
In late July the field is brown with drying oil pods, but the eye is drawn away from this to the spitfire swifts, flying just overhead for their insect meals.
To the right of the path a square, concrete structure sits in the field – is this a ventilation shaft from the tunnels?
The path reaches a country lane which leads to Pickwick Lodge Farm, a beautiful 17th century farmstead of regular courtyard plan. Note the 19th century gabled stone porch.
MWI65890 - Pickwick Lodge Farm.
If you are very lucky, you will be escorted on your walk by the farm cats for quite some way…
On 20th March the History Centre temporarily closed its doors to staff and public in line with national guidance for dealing with Covid-19. Unsure when we would return staff from all teams faced the challenge of working from home without face-to-face contact with our colleagues and community of visitors, as well as the loss of physical access to our extensive collections and resources.
Despite these restrictions, our industrious and enterprising teams have been working away on a range of projects and initiatives, from the comfort (or discomfort) of our own homes. In addition, several colleagues have combined their History Centre commitments with voluntary community support work, helping the more vulnerable members of society. As Wiltshire Council employees we have also been supporting the local authority’s response to the pandemic.
Here is an update from the first of our teams, detailing some of the ventures we have undertaken to adapt and maintain our services during lockdown.
Wiltshire Buildings Record
The WBR normally opens its doors to the public on a Tuesday. Because of the restrictions we have not been able to see any visitors since the end of March, but that has not stopped enquirers emailing. It seems that while people have time on their hands, not being able to work, researching the history of their house seemed like a great pastime. Without physical access to our own records and the archive collections, we have had to manage researchers’ expectations and point them to online resources.
Of course, there are several different ways of doing research online, and I have managed to direct some enquirers to useful websites that can answer their questions without the need for a visit. A great jumping off point is the map comparison website Know your Place. We are extremely fortunate that for Wiltshire, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Bristol you can tell immediately whether a building existed at a certain period right back to c1840.
Other ways of researching are:
Check the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives online catalogue to see if there are any immediately relevant documents. The documents are not available online but once the History Centre is open again to the public you will be able to look at sources such as deeds, maps, censuses, Enclosure awards etc.
Victoria County History gives an excellent overview of Wiltshire parish histories that have been covered so far and is available online.
With the easing of lockdown, we were able to resume searching our own WBR records and our specialist research service has restarted in a limited way. WBR is now beginning to undertake commissioned histories for interest again, so please do call or email for a chat. You can find all our contact details on the WBR pages of this website.
The Archaeology team has had an eventful lockdown period which has seen two members of staff leave and two new colleagues arrive, while we also sadly lost one of our World Heritage Site team, Sarah Simmons, who left her post after 14 years to pursue new goals.
The challenges of working in lockdown were mostly faced by our two new recruits; Neil Adam and Michal Cepak who are now the Assistant County Archaeologists under Melanie Pomeroy-Killinger. Both Neil and Michal have had to go through staff inductions and learn the job while working from home, but happily this task has been greatly aided by superb help from Melanie as well as from the HER (Historic Environment Record) team of Tom Sunley and Jacqui Ramsay.
In terms of the day to day, little has changed for archaeology. The business of local government continued with planning applications to be assessed and major public works, such as the A303 Stonehenge by-pass, to be planned for with other colleagues in the Council as well as colleagues in Historic England and a myriad of other government departments and interested parties.
Lockdown has meant the cancellation of our heritage walks this summer, along with a number of other public events that we had planned, but we do plan to reach out to you through a digital strategy that should see far more content going online for the public at large to access.
Living and working in lockdown has brought a unique set of challenges, but as things slowly ease, we will return to what is nowadays called a ‘new normal’, probably never exactly as it was prior to 26th March 2020, but with the same sense of public service along with a few new ways of working and presenting our data to you.
In Part 2, we will hear how the Archives and Local Studies team, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) and Education Service have kept busy during lockdown.
Neil Adam, Assistant County Archaeologist
Dorothy Treasure, Buildings Recorder, WBR
Heather Perry, Conservation and Museum Manager (CMAS)
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?....
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).
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!
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.
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!
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