THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 19
THE WRECK OF THE 'BIRKENHEAD' (1892)
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Before we get to Hemy's famous work, I should make a first attempt to tell you a little about the Birkenhead. Thanks to the Wikipedia page about the vessel. A vessel that to my eye, in Hemy's work & in other artworks of the vessel too, looks to have been a sailing ship. It was and it wasn't. It was built for the Admiralty, at the John Laird shipyard at Birkenhead, as an iron-hulled steam frigate, & launched on Dec. 30, 1848. With two 564 HP engines by Forrester & Co. that powered a pair of 20 ft. paddle wheels, one on either side of the hull, of course. 210 ft. long. She was initially named HMS Vulcan and featured a large figurehead of Vulcan at her bow. She soon became HMS Birkenhead however, named after the city where she was built. A sailing ship? She initially had two masts in addition to her engines & was rigged as a brig, but when she was converted to a troopship, in 1851, a third mast was added & she became a barquentine.
I read that Birkenhead was never commissioned as a steam frigate. Which would mean, I think, that in her early years, she did not officially become a warship in active duty for the Royal Navy? She was still, correctly HMS Birkenhead during such period? Was she commissioned as a troopship, if so when? Did she have guns? She was originally intended, I read, to have two 96-pounder pivot guns & 4 68-pounder broadside guns. Were those guns installed? And possibly later removed? Would a troopship have had no guns at all? I clearly need to do some further research re these & other matters!
What did she look like? There are a number of artworks which depict the vessel, but it would seem that the only image of her as she actually existed is a picture that was owned by a survivor of her 1852 wreck. As follows. Again thanks to Wikipedia.
Now to Hemy.
I am hopeful that we will, one day, be able to provide you, in these pages, a large & detailed image of this, Thomas Hemy's most famous work. I cannot provide that today, but do present, lower on this page, a large thumbnail of the work, available as a print for purchase from EasyArt right here (search for 'Hemy'). Do drop by & see the many 'Hemy' prints they have available. The print is also available at a number of other print sources - search for 'Hemy Birkenhead' for those sources. If anyone can help me in my search for data about the artist, or provide data as to where the original painting is today located, I would welcome your writing to me.
On page 01 of this site, I stated that the MV Birkenhead was a troopship which sank off the coast of Africa on Feb. 26, 1852. The expression 'women and children first' originated with that sinking. It would seem that there were approximately 638 passengers aboard the Birkenhead (the exact number is rather confusing since different numbers are quoted by the various sources I have accessed & the records that exist are very old & very contradictory) when she hit a rock off Cape Danger (how appropriate that name!) about 100 miles south east of Cape Town. 207 people would seem to have survived the wreck, the number I state being the number of survivors as established by author David Bevan, after extensive research of the historical records, & quoted in his fine volume 'Stand Fast' (see next paragraph).
Colin B. Innes, Major (Ret'd), late of The Black Watch, stated a number of years ago that the painting 'shows Colonel Seton drawing up his officers and men on deck to the sound of a drummer, with the women and children being assembled on the deck prior to being loaded into a lifeboat.' He also said that he was trying to find out where the original of the 'Wreck of the Birkenhead' work is today. He told us that 'a smaller copy of the picture is in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead' (across the Mersey from Liverpool ~ no data on line that I can find). (A 2017 aside. Glyn Evans advises that the work is described as being painted in 1922 & acquired in 1923, being an oil on canvas measuring 119.3 x 91.4 cms. The ART UK website apparently describes it as 'a smaller version of the large painting which is now lost.') He (Colin Innes) also states that it does not belong to The Black Watch however, as stated in David Bevan’s book. The book he refers to is 'Stand Fast' by David Bevan, published in 1998 & again in 2002 by Traditional Publishing of New Malden, Surrey. Another site, now long gone it would seem, 'the-executive.com', had an article that I found to be most interesting in its description of the incident & anecdotal data also. The site is long gone indeed. But the words live on on this page, below! And, I now find them here also by 'Skegness'. That article also stated that the picture is in the Black Watch Museum in Perth, Scotland, but surely that is wrong in view of Colin Innes' words above - and he should know! The original painting then? Perhaps someday its location will be known, I trust. Hopefully it still exists, somewhere. A message (no longer available it would seem) (by John Ling of Norfolk, England, thanks John!) states that the painting was in the Officers' Mess in Kiel, Germany, but many moons ago.
An article about the shipwreck is here. Nor should you fail to access this site 'www.palmiped.btinternet.co.uk/ Birkenhead.htm' which used to have details about a number of the disaster survivors, but no longer works.
Before continuing with data about Thomas Hemy's Birkenhead works, an aside! It would seem that the Birkenhead had a ship's dog. Nothing unusual about that, I guess. But what is unusual is that the Birkenhead ship's dog, name unknown, survived the disaster, but later that same year was swept off the barque 'Eglinton' in mountainous seas off the west coast of Australia, & survived that experience also! It was adopted by a family in Fremantle, Australia. Lucky pooch! Doubly so! I lost, for a while, the site which told me that. But have since both found it & lost it again. 'Leo' seems to move his sites around with some frequency. I cannot find the site today (it was maintained by Leo van de Pas of Perth, Western Australia) but what it said is here. Who says history is dull!
Now before showing you such images as are presently available to the webmaster, I should state that there would seem to be at least two 'Wreck of the Birkenhead' Thomas Hemy works. And a third, which relates to one specific incident of the tragedy - see this page, 3), re Ensign Russell. And probably many more by other artists, which concern this site in a lesser way. There is, of course, the major Hemy painting that was so well received when it was exhibited in England in 1893 & distributed to the public in the form of a print (see below) There was also, what was termed 'an original sketch', presumably painted before the final work was commenced. That 'original sketch' was published in full colour in Volume 21 of the Boys Own Paper, the Annual re 1898/99 (Now that is a puzzle. The final painting was exhibited in 1893 & the 'original sketch' was published 5/6 years later in 1898/99?) And here it is, together with the text which accompanied it. Now the text & the image come, in fact from the very same book. Randy Trass of Oregon, U.S.A., gave me the text from the book that he purchased from Donna Sullivan, of Ontario, Canada, who provided the image. Thank you both! The full text of the article referred to at left, i.e. 'Some Stirring Sea Pictures', can be read in its entirety on page 03.
Mentioned above is a reference to the fact that the 'Wreck of the Birkenhead' was published in 1893 in the form of a print. But I had not heard details of such a print or seen one listed for sale. I am so pleased then to be able to advise that a visitor to this site, William Burbridge of Colorado, has or had a copy of such a print, which he indicated is approximately 20 inches wide by 28 inches high. At the very top, in very small print, is the following text:
"London Published, May 15th 1893, by Henry Graves & Co, the Proprietors, Publishers to H.M. The Queen and T.R.H. The Prince and Princess of Wales, 6 Pall Mall. Copyright registered.--- U.S.A. Copyright, 1892, by Henry Graves & Co".
An image of that print is next. The entire image is here.
It was purchased, in the last few years, (that means at or about 2000/2001) in Austin, Texas, & after the purchase, a raised-letter stamped seal at the lower left corner was discovered. The stamped seal is that of the Printsellers Association and has the initials 'JZN' in the center of the seal. Is it possible that any visitor to this site would know the value of such an item? If so, I would be very pleased to know. An Austin, Texas, art appraiser stated, presumably at about 2000/2001, I understand, that the print was worth in excess of U.S. $2,000.
Most interesting to the Webmaster was that at the right bottom of the print was an image of the artist and his signature. As next follows:
Gavin Clackworthy was in touch via the guestbook to advise that he has a similar print. With a similar heading at its top as is recorded above. With, at bottom left, a raised stamp seal with Printsellers Association & the initials KAW (rather than JZN) in the centre of the seal. And with the same greyish panel with a signature that to Gavin's eye looks, behind its glass, i) to be an original signature & ii) seems to read 'Thomas M. Hemmy'. Gavin adds that he was lead to believe that this signed copy constituted the artist's approval to proceed with the publishing of the print. Thanks Gavin for your being in touch with your additional info.
Christine Wallace, of Scotland, has been in touch to say that she too has such a print.
Her print has, immediately below the print - 'PAINTED BY THOS. M. HEMY' And ... 'London Published May 15th 1893, by Henry Graves & Co. The Proprietors Publishers to H.M. The Queen & The Prince & Princess of Wales. 6. Pall Mall. Copyright Registered U.S.A. Copyright 1893 by Henry Graves & Co.'
Then the title - WRECK OF H.M.S. "BIRKENHEAD".
And underneath that 'The Birkenhead went down in 1852 with 500 officers & men standing in the presence of death as calmly as on parade ground whilst the women & children were saved. The then King of Prussia caused that splendid story of iron discipline & perfect duty to be read aloud at the head of every Regiment in his Kingdom'.
And last but not least, added in hand writing at the very bottom are the words 'The 73rd regiment in particular lost heavy.'
And with the artist's signature at bottom left of the print. As follows.
And here, at right, is the large thumbnail image of the final painting, as it (used to be) available as a print for purchase from EasyArt. At left is a scan of the black & white image that appeared in Boy's Own Paper. The two images, i.e. the coloured sketch image above & the twin images of the final work both below & now above also, are quite different as I am sure you will agree.
THIS PICTURE IN WORDS
1) THE ARTISTS OWN WORDS - FROM 'DEEP SEA DAYS'
THE WRECK OF THE "BIRKENHEAD"
When my painting of "The Wreck of the Birkenhead" was on exhibition at Bristol in 1893 it led to my getting into touch with one of the survivors of that disaster, and obtaining a story of it which I am able to give here for the first time.
Mr. Coffin was at the wheel when the ill-fated vessel struck the rocks off Danger Point in 1852, and witnessed the troops fall into line on the deck by order of the officer; everything being done as at a formal parade.
Mr. Coffin was coxswain of one of the cutters and the boat of which he was in charge, with its freight of women and children, was the first to leave the ship. He was afraid to keep too near on account of the swell that lashed around her, but managed to pick up several other survivors. He verified an incident which I had introduced into my picture on hearing the detailed stories of other survivors with whom I had been in personal touch while the picture was in progress. It related to a young officer, Ensign Russell, who gave up his place in a boat to make room for a soldier rescued from drowning, probably the husband of one of the women in the boat. When the picture was first exhibited there was much discussion about this "melodramatic incident," but Mr. Coffin verified it fully, and said that when the ensign jumped out of the boat, he was immediately dragged down by sharks.
The account of the last moment of the soldiers up on the poop was gathered from some of the sailors who had taken refuge in the rigging of the mast which remained above water when the ship went down.
As the deck began to be submerged Colonel Seton, the commander of the troops, told the men they had better fall out and do the best they could for themselves. Most of them took to the water. Colonel Seton, Captain Salmond and a number of others, got into the little gig, but their weight snapped the frail craft in twain whilst it was still hanging from the davits, and they were all thrown into the sea.
Mr. Coffin told me that the adventures of the survivors were by no means over when the Birkenhead sank. As the day grew brighter a schooner was seen standing out to sea, and Coffin and seven others manned a small gig which had been saved from the wreck, and pulled after the schooner. They endeavoured for hours to reach her without avail. Then the strong currents carried them for miles away from the scene of the wreck and they eventually beached their boat in Fish Bay. Owing to the heavy surf the two larger boats were unable to land anywhere near the place where the disaster occurred, and they were eventually rescued by the Seahorse, the schooner which Coffin had unsuccessfully pursued. When the vessel was tacking, the topmast of the Birkenhead was noticed sticking out of the water, and the course altered towards it, with the result that twenty men who were still clinging to the rigging were saved. The schooner then searched round and picked up the boats referred to.
Coffin and the rest of the crew were some days before they managed to cross the country which lay between their landing-place and Simon's Bay, where the rest of the survivors had been landed from the rescuing vessel.
In the meantime, the list of the survivors had been forwarded to England, so that Coffin and the others who were with him in the gig were for a time mourned among the lost and it was not until the next mail arrived that their friends knew of their arrival.
An image of Thomas Coffin stated to be from a 1902 National British newspaper is available here. Ex e-Bay in Aug. 2017.
2) THE STORY IN SUMMARY
May I direct you to the following site that has set out the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead.
A fine page from the South African site on the whole subject.
3) FROM THE EXECUTIVE MAGAZINE (dating from 2002, I think).
Women and Children First - The story of the sinking of the Birkenhead – of the men who showed bravery beyond belief
Most of us are familiar with the rule ‘women and children first’ when disaster strikes at sea. But behind the tradition lies a story which might not be quite so well-known – and which represents one of the most remarkable acts of heroism in British military history.
The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, provided the backdrop earlier this year for a moving service to mark the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the troopship Birkenhead, just 20 minutes after hitting an uncharted rock two miles off the coast of South Africa.
The event was attended by descendants of many of those who were aboard the ship that fateful day, when, worried that the men might swamp the lifeboat carrying the women and children if they jumped from the sinking ship, their commanding officer ordered them to ‘stand fast’.
To a man, they all stood in quiet dignity as the Birkenhead broke up and sank beneath them, taking them to certain death in the shark-infested waters. More than 430 men died in the tragedy, with The Black Watch – then the 73rd Regiment of Foot – suffering the heaviest losses. An oil painting by Thomas M. Hemy, entitled ‘The Wreck of the Birkenhead’, which hangs in the Black Watch Museum in Perth, Scotland, movingly depicts this extraordinary event, capturing the haunted expressions on the faces of the young men as they joined hands and awaited their fate.
Among those attending the service were two great great granddaughters and two great great great nephews of 19-year-old Ensign Alexander Russell, of the 74th Highland Regiment, whose bravery in the incident cost him his own life.
Placed in charge of the cutter carrying the seven women and 13 children, Ensign Russell spotted a drowning man in the water, and without hesitation gave up his place on the crowded vessel so that he could be pulled aboard. Just five minutes after diving into the sea, a spine-chilling scream was heard as he was taken by a shark.
Also at the service were two great granddaughters of ship’s captain, Captain Robert Salmond RN, who had ordered all those who could swim to jump overboard and make for the boats. But it was Colonel Alexander Seton who begged: “I implore you not to do this thing, and I ask you to stand fast”.
There was barely a murmur as the Birkenhead sank. Moments later, the ship broke up, taking both Captain Salmond and Colonel Seton with it.
In all, there were 10 regiments aboard the ill-fated vessel, and a large proportion of the young recruits were Irish, having joined up after the potato blight and subsequent potato famine in their home country. Amongst them was Sergeant Bernard Kilkeary from Kings County, a Black Watch soldier whose account of the tragedy can be found in the Regimental Museum.
Sgt. Kilkeary was the ship’s sergeant-major for the voyage, and it was he who disembarked the women and children into a lifeboat and went after them. It was his intention to land them on shore and return to the ship, but within minutes it had listed and sunk before his eyes.
It was 12 hours before they were picked up by a Capetown schooner, The Lioness, and many men were still clinging to the Birkenhead’s rigging. Many of those who had bravely tried to swim ashore were devoured by the sharks which inhabited the inhospitable waters, while others became inextricably tangled in long seaweed.
Only 207 of the 636 people on board survived the tragedy, amongst them Captain Edward Wright of the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment, who told the subsequent court martial: “The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the moment the ship struck till she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything that I had thought could be affected by the best discipline; and it is the more to be wondered at seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the service.
“Everyone did as he was directed and there was not a murmur or cry amongst them until the ship made her final plunge – all received their orders and carried them out as if they were embarking instead of going to the bottom – I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.”
The court martial found no-one to blame for the incident – indeed, the Board of Admiralty praised the soldiers’ amazing conduct.
King Frederik Wilhelm of Prussia was so impressed by Captain Wright’s words that he asked for them to be read to every one of his regiments, and it was Queen Victoria who ordered the erection of the official Birkenhead monument at the Royal Hospital. Even the aged Duke of Wellington made his last appearance in public to praise the men’s discipline.
The Birkenhead tragedy happened at two in the morning on 26 February, 1852, as the ship made for South Africa with reinforcements to help quell a native uprising during the Kaffir War.
It was rumoured that the ship was carrying £240,000 in gold bullion to pay the troops already serving there but, though numerous salvage expeditions have been mounted, as far as is known the money has never been found.
The tragedy also resulted in some extraordinary incidents. Private Patrick Mullins of the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment had no idea whether his wife and two children, who were also on board, had survived – but they met quite by chance seven years later, and went on to produce another five children.
And both Captain Wright and Cornet Sheldon Bond of the 12th Lancers were re-united with their own horses, which had been freed from their stable on deck to give them a chance of swimming to safety.
Eerily, it is only in the past year, as the 150th anniversary approached, that three bodies from the Birkenhead were discovered near the coastline where the ship went down. Though unidentifiable, the men were given a burial service at the naval base at Simon’s Town, while services of remembrance were held around South Africa and local schoolchildren scattered poppies out to sea. It was the Birkenhead tragedy which gave rise to the tradition to this day known as ‘The Birkenhead Drill’ – most memorably demonstrated in recent times in the film ‘Titanic’ – which requires a ship’s crew to show complete disregard for their own safety; to remain calm; to give priority to the rescue of any women, children and civilians aboard, and to display endurance and courage beyond the call of duty.
Many of the soldiers aboard the Birkenhead on that calm, clear day in February 1852 were raw recruits still in their teens. But the discipline and heroism they displayed will forever remain legendary throughout the British forces and beyond.
Webmaster's note to all of the above. Both of the 'stories' above (the-executive.com story and the first linked page) state that the schooner which picked up many of the Birkenhead survivors was the Lioness, which was, it seems, the rescue vessel. Thomas Hemy's own book, states that it was the Seahorse. Strange! But these inconsistencies easily creep into written material, as we all know. And his book was written, I presume, rather later, many years after he created the painting. And I am puzzled by Thomas Hemy referring to the Ensign Russell incident (Alexander Cumming Russell of the 74th Highlanders - now 'The Royal Highland Fusiliers') that he had 'introduced into his painting'. I can see nothing in the images that could relate to that particular matter. Perhaps when we find a larger image, the reference will become clearer. (It has. But re another Hemy work on the subject. See page 20.) And one final matter. It would seem that the coxswain of the cutter which carried the women and children to safety was in fact George Till, as per testimony at the court martial held later aboard the Victory in Portsmouth Harbour. There was indeed a Thomas Cuffin, (alas that link no longer works all these years later in 2019) a seaman on the Birkenhead, who retired to Eastville, Bristol. Thomas Cuffin was in fact the coxswain of the second cutter. There is a fine image of him at that link! Where he is named 'Coffin'. (Since the link no longer works, here is what may or may not have been that image). His exact name is a bit of a mystery. David Bevan, in his book 'Stand Fast' reproduces extensively the testimony given at the court martial into the matter - and in that detailed documentation he is named Thomas Cuffin, despite that image! I would hope that the official court martial record, especially in respect of a witness who gave extensive testimony, would be accurate in such matters.
More about all of the above when I have more to tell you!
I'll list the books that I learn about that cover the Birkenhead disaster in a tidy form, in due course. Here is the name of the first eight such books, in publishing sequence as best I can determine it.
1. 'A DEATHLESS STORY' by Albert C. Addison & W. H. Matthews, published in 1906 by Hutchinson & Co. of London, England. 318 pages. 'A full and authentic account of the famous shipwreck'. Republished in 2001 by Naval and Military Press Ltd., but manufactured on demand. ISBN: 1843420570.
2. 'THE UNFORTUNATE SHIP', The Story of H. M. Troopship ''Birkenhead'', by J. Lennox Kerr. Published by Harrap and Co., London, in 1960.
3. 'DANGER POINT; The Wreck of the BIRKENHEAD' by Scott Corbett, Little Brown, 1962. Most probably written for children.
4. 'The History of the Battles and Adventures of the British, the Boers, and the Zulus, &c, in Southern Africa, Volume 2', (with a chapter on the wreck of the Birkenhead), by Duncan C. F. (Campbell Francis) Moodie (1838 - 1891). Originally published, Murray & St Ledger, in 1888. Republished by Frank Cass and Co., London, 1968.
5. 'DRUMS OF THE BIRKENHEAD, published 1972. See 'STAND FAST' below.
6. 'THE GREY WIDOW-MAKERS' by Bernard Edwards (1926 - ), published in 1990 by Robert Hale Limited. ISBN 0-7090-4191-8. A little over six pages about the disaster.
7. 'SALVAGE OF THE BIRKENHEAD' by Dr. Allan Kayle, 151 pages, published in 1990 (republished in 1992) by Southern Book Publishers (Pty) Ltd. of Johannesburg, South Africa. ISBN 1868122603. Dr. Kayle was involved in the mid 1980s Birkenhead dives where small quantities of gold coins were recovered. He has written extensively about diving generally. A copy of the book was sold via e-Bay in Feb. 2006 for GBP 9.35 or approximately U.S. $16.31.
8. 'STAND FAST' by David Bevan. A soft cover published in 1998 by Traditional Publishing of New Malden, Surrey, U.K. ISBN 0 9525 531 1 2. Previously published (1972 & 1989) as 'DRUMS OF THE BIRKENHEAD' but enlarged & updated in the 1998 publication.
And, since the covers include two of the famous 'Birkenhead' artworks, the works by Hemy & Calkin, here (at left) are the covers from two editions of 'Drums of the Birkenhead' by David Bevan - see item 8. above. And, at right, the cover of the Dr. Allan Kayle volume (#7 above).
It would seem there is an artwork by Peter Briles 'of the Birkenhead disappearing beneath the waves'. No image of the work has come to the webmaster's attention. He notes, however, that a print of the work was sold at a 'Spink and Son Limited' auction held at Bloomsbury, London, on Apr. 20, 2007. Item 107 here, (a large 'pdf' file). Hopefully, in due course, an image of the Peter Briles work will come to hand for inclusion in these pages. That link no longer works, & a search for Peter Briles provides nothing. But I see that if you are skilled to an extent the webmaster is not, you can download every 'Spink' catalogue by use of an app. I must leave that for others to accomplish.
A SITE SEARCH FACILITY THE GUEST BOOK - GO HERE