THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 20
THE WRECK OF THE 'BIRKENHEAD' (1892?)
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Pages 19 & 21 relate to the 'Birkenhead'
On my first 'Birkenhead' page, mention was made of the exemplary act of Ensign Russell. Ensign Alexander Cumming Russell, just 19 years old, was in one of the Birkenhead cutters & "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." (Thomas Hemy's words) A quite amazing selfless act of heroism under all of the then circumstances. Ensign Russell was with the 74th Highlanders - now The Royal Highland Fusiliers.
The story is not very pretty. He gave up his position, jumped into the sea, was attacked by a shark five minutes later, & vanished beneath the surface of the water.
A word about the circumstances. The Birkenhead left Simon's Bay, Simonstown, South Africa, (left in above map) on Feb. 25, 1852 with Port Elizabeth, on Algoa Bay (extreme right of map) as its destination. En route, it would seem that the Birkenhead struck an uncharted rock off Danger Point at 2 o'clock in the morning on Feb. 26, 1852, just 8 hours after leaving Simon's Bay.
Now had the vessel been travelling just a few feet to port or starboard of its actual course, it would have missed that rock entirely.
Some 20 minutes after she struck, the Birkenhead had split into three pieces & only a mast and its rigging remained above the surface of the water. Only three of the ship's many boats could be launched, two cutters & a gig. The seven women & all 13 children that were on board the Birkenhead were, with difficulty, placed aboard one of the cutters. In command of that cutter was Rowland B. Richards, Master's Assistant of the Birkenhead. It would seem that the cutter carried 36 persons in total.
I have not read the names of all of the men on board that cutter. Certainly the list included George Till who acted as coxswain, Thomas Drackford (Seaman), Thomas Daly or Daley (Able Seaman), William or perhaps Charles Matthews (Second Class Boy) & Ensign Alexander Russell. Clearly there were other men aboard. It would seem, from Thomas Hemy's words on page 19, that Thomas Coffin (or Cuffin), a seaman on the Birkenhead, was also on that cutter. But I think that was not so, despite Thomas Hemy's words, & that Thomas Coffin (or Cuffin) was coxswain of the second cutter.
The cutter stayed near the Birkenhead for about half an hour & then pulled for land 2 or 3 miles away. The coast there is thick with kelp seaweed which entangled the oars. A treacherous coast indeed with no place to be able to safely land. The cutter accordingly turned to travel up the coast in search of a better landing. All of this in the dark & cold, of course, with most of the survivors improperly dressed having had no time to put on clothes when the ship hit. Just before 3:30 a.m., Ensign Russell spotted a man in a state of total exhaustion in the water, presumably one who had made it that far from the disaster by swimming. Russell ordered that the man be hauled aboard & that he would take the man's place in the water since the boat was at total capacity. For the next few minutes he swam strongly behind the cutter - until, that is, he was attacked by a shark, screamed & vanished from sight.
While it would be good to know the name of the man whose life Ensign Russell so gallantly saved, I cannot do that though it may well be known. Was it indeed the husband of one of the women that were aboard that cutter?
Such heroism deserves more mention that the Webmaster can provide. Indeed, no words that I may choose to use could possibly do justice to such a selfless act.
I understood, from a reference, which appears in 'Stand Fast' by David Bevan, (published in 1998 & again in 2002 by Traditional Publishing of New Malden, Surrey), that a 5ft by 4ft work by Thomas Hemy, a work that features Ensign Russell, hangs in the Regimental Museum of the Highland Light Infantry in Glasgow, Scotland. It would now seem that there IS a work there which depicts Ensign Russell. It is, I learn, the property of Mrs Eleanor Russell & is on loan to the museum. David Bevan states it was painted by Hemy. My data was received in Nov. 2003, (thank you so much!), from Major Willie Shaw, MBE, Regimental Secretary at the Regimental Headquarters of The Royal Highland Fusiliers. There would seem to only one army museum in Glasgow today.
I do hope, in due course, to provide in these pages additional data about the heroism of Ensign Russell. And hope to be able to show you also an image of that painting in Glasgow, Scotland. But I cannot, alas, do so today!
Colin B. Innes, Major (Ret'd), late of The Black Watch, told us at a site no longer operative, that 7 members of the Russell family attended a 150th anniversary service re the Birkenhead disaster, held on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002, at the Royal Hospital, in Chelsea, London - where the official Memorial to the Birkenhead lies within the Colonnades of the Royal Hospital. Hopefully one of those family members might see this page & wish to contribute an image of the painting & further data, perhaps, on the extraordinary actions of their most distinguished ancestor. I have read that James Russell has joined Colin Innes in lectures about the disaster & that two great great granddaughters & two great great great nephews of Ensign Russell attended that 150th anniversary service.
Contact me here if you can help.
Now to change subjects just a little, I am advised (attributed to 'Stand Fast' as above) that there is another Thomas Hemy work of 'soldiers on the deck of the Birkenhead with a bugle-boy in the foreground'. It covers, I am told, 'a huge wall in the Regimental Museum of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders at Stirling Castle' in Scotland.
Alas that is NOT SO! Rod Mackenzie of the Regimental Museum in Stirling says that the reference is quite in error. That they never had such a work. They do now have, but only in recent years, a print of the work which is shown in black & white in 'Stand Fast' but that print is 'after a painting by Lance Calkin' (1859-1936). He was, I learn, an artist who indeed painted a Birkenhead work entitled "A story that will never die". And, as luck would have it, I found a copy of that print! And here is an image of that Lance Calkin work that appears in black & white in 'Stand Fast', scanned by the webmaster a section at a time & pieced together with an image program - because the print is far larger than my scanner bed.
The print itself is approx. 21 3/4" x 14" & the whole print is 24 1/4" x 17 7/8". I learn that it was published as a 'supplement to the Christmas number of The Graphic, 1899'. Strangely, the words below the print have the location incorrectly! They read "A STORY THAT WILL NEVER DIE" - 'The sinking of the "Birkenhead" off Cape Agulhas, near Cape Town, on February 25, 1852, when over 400 British soldiers went down standing firm in their ranks. From the painting by Lance Calkin.' (All text is in block letters) Can you possibly provide additional data re the work?
I have now been most kindly provided with a copy of David Bevan's book 'Stand Fast' a most comprehensive work indeed on the whole matter, indeed the source of my data above about Ensign Russell. Mr. Bevan visited all of the museums of the 10 Birkenhead regiments whose personnel were involved in the tragedy. And researched contemporary sources to be able to provide the 1972 volume ('Drums of the Birkenhead') & the later editions that were published including the extensive 2002 (maybe 1998, I need to check the date) volume that is available today.
In what I will now say, please understand that my intent is NOT to be in any way critical.
My purpose is accuracy on the subject of Thomas M. Hemy & his works. I well understand that an error in these web pages is easily corrected, but correcting a book once published is quite impossible until the next edition.
David Bevan wrote in 'Stand Fast' as follows:
"Artists, too, found themselves compelled by the grandeur of the disaster to capture the scene on canvas, and paintings and prints soon appeared depicting the last few moments on deck. Possibly the most well known and famous of these were those executed by Thomas M. Hemy. Thousands of printed reproductions of his works sold to a public who wanted a constant reminder of one of the most noble acts of heroism ever recorded. Originals of three of these magnificent paintings are in the possession of descendant regiments of the drafts on board. They hang proudly in their respective regimental museums amongst other treasured items from the regiments' histories".
Let me state what seems to be so, as best I can determine it today from the distance of Canada:
1) Nobody seems, in fact, to know today where the original of perhaps the most famous of Thomas Hemy's paintings is today. It would appear NOT to be in the Black Watch Museum in Perth, Scotland.
2) The second work attributed to Thomas Hemy, image second above, is NOT by Thomas Hemy, but is rather after a work by Lance Calkin. The location of the original of Lance Calkin's work is unknown - to me at least.
3) The third work attributed to Thomas Hemy, which shows the exemplary action of Ensign Russell, would seem to be owned by Mrs. Eleanor Russell, previously & perhaps today of the county of Somerset, U.K. It is on display in the Regimental Museum of the Highland Light Infantry in Glasgow, Scotland. I do not have an image of that work, which however did appear in 'Stand Fast' with Mrs. Russell's kind permission. This would seem to be the Hemy work which was referred to in the artist's own words in his book 'Deep Sea Days' - words set out towards the bottom of page 19 which I did not previously understand.
4) There clearly was another Thomas Hemy Birkenhead work, called an 'original sketch', as set out on that same page 19. I do not know if that 'original sketch' was ever published elsewhere than in Boy's Own Paper.
5) The Hemy works would all seem to have been painted some 40 years after the actual disaster. He was, in fact, only born in 1852, the exact year of the Birkenhead disaster - though I do not think I know his exact date of birth.
6) There is also a miniature oil painting of Ensign Russell in the possession of Mrs. Eleanor Russell. An image of it appears also in 'Stand Fast'. Details about the work, including the name of the painter, are unavailable to the webmaster. It would seem not to have been painted by Thomas M. Hemy, however.
May I repeat, my wish is for accuracy about Thomas M. Hemy, the subject of this website, & for that reason alone I set out the above as I best see it today. Corrections, however tiny, would be welcomed.
After making that last comment, here is as good an opportunity to say that the Thomas M. Hemy & Lance Calkin paintings of the Birkenhead disaster depict it in a way that never happened. What do I mean by that? I mean that the images of the military lined up on the deck of the Birkenhead in full uniform, as depicted by both artists, was not a reality. Rather, perhaps, a presentation of what the public at that time wished to see & wanted to think actually had happened. An image manipulation of its day if you will. As national pride & empire required.
Why do I say that? You should understand that the vessel's bow broke off a mere 15 minutes after the impact. And 5 minutes later the whole vessel had sunk beneath the surface of the ocean. 20 minutes after hitting Danger Rock the vessel was gone. Just 20 minutes! The Birkenhead hit Danger Rock in the middle of the night, at about 2 o'clock in the morning. Everyone, apart from the few Birkenhead crew who were on duty were asleep in their bunks below decks. When the ship hit the rock, panic ensued. Soldiers in the lower troop deck were trapped & drowned. In pitch darkness, those passengers & soldiers who were able, grabbed what they could. They scrambled up ladders to the upper deck pushing & shoving one another to do so. They emerged on the deck, half naked, in nightshirts, barefoot & some just in trousers. A few had grabbed tunics & were trying to put them on.
In that regard I was interested to read Bernard Edward's words on the subject in his book 'The Grey Widow-Maker'. 'Historians have long romanticized over this scene, portraying the troops in full uniform, drawn up in tight ranks and with fife and drum sounding defiance to the sea. In reality, the ranks were ragged, the men only partly clothed - some even naked - and all half-crazed with fear. Yet Sefton held them.'
On deck, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton & his officers soon brought the soldiers under control. To restore order out of chaos. A splendid achievement & a display of outstanding leadership? Yes indeed. But a neat parade in full dress uniform it was surely not.
And a word about Seton. I have read accounts of the disaster in which he was referred to as Major Seton. Was he correctly then Major Seton? Or Lieutenant-Colonel Seton? I read that he was in fact promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel prior to the disaster, such promotion being retroactive to Nov. 1851 and published in the Gazette on Jan. 16, 1852. So it would appear that he did, indeed, have the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
There is a Seton family web site with data about the Birkenhead disaster & particularly about Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, which you can view here & here.
Webmaster's Note The map I have placed at the top of this page is a portion only of an 1885 map of South Africa, entitled 'Sketch Map of South Africa showing British Possessions - July 1885', published by the Scottish Geographic Society. And to assist the visitor, I moved the map scale from where it was on the map to a spot where you can see it. The image is available through the website of the Online Library of the University of Texas at Austin, Texas, whom I most sincerely thank.
More about all of the above when I have more to tell you!
And I do have a little more! Two more related items kindly advised by site visitor Andrew MacDonald. The first is a fine image of the plaque that commemorates the 1852 disaster, a plaque that was erected in 1936 & is located on the side of the Danger Point lighthouse, at Gansbaai beach, Western Cape, South Africa. I thank the photographer, whose name I cannot in fact spot on that linked page. The second is of a poster that features none other than the distinguished Lance Calkin painting that is shown above. Re 'Birkenhead Pride', an old English bitter, brewed by the 'Birkenhead Brewery' of nearby Stanford, South Africa. Enjoy... or maybe Cheers!
Now Andrew MacDonald is familiar with Gansbaai so in answer to my questions, Andrew advises (thanks!) that where the ship went down is 1 1/3 miles from the plaque location. A spot frequented to this very day by Great White sharks, indeed Gansbaai, per Andrew, is THE place for those sharks. He also advises that the area is still very seaweedy, and still not a good place for a vessel to sink - if there is such a thing as a good place. The seaweeds attract the flies in the midday so go there in the early morning or late evening hours. And 'Gansbaai' means 'Geese Bay'. All most interesting.
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