Monday, July 11, 2011

Shipwreck Survival

Location of the wrecked ship Newry
Dabbling in genealogy I found out recently that my great grandfather James Armstrong, left Ireland in 1834 on the "Newry" bound from Belfast to Quebec. The ship was blown into the rocks in a storm and sunk in Wales on the Bay of Carnaron, but James survived, went to England where he worked and saved enough money for another passage to Canada. Eventually he made it to March, Ontario where he farmed and lived to be 100, dying appropriately on St. Patricks day, 1904. He had 11 children, the last one born when he was 65, the old devil. 

According to newspaper reports the crew of the "Newry" were pretty despicable. The captain ordered the mainmast be cut down to make a bridge for the passengers to get off the sinking ship, but the crew commandeered the bridge and rushed to save their own skins. Only the first and second mates stayed with the captain to help get passengers off the ship. They were assisted by a couple of local men. The survivors were aided by the honorable and kind local Welsh people who took them in and gave them what they could as they made their way to Holyhead and a ferry back to Ireland.

I imagine my great grandfather, naked, penniless and shivering but somehow having the guts and determination to get back to work and accomplish his goal.

The aunt I was named for survived not one but two ship wrecks in the twenties. I think of her every time I set foot on a boat. She was lucky enough to be on ships where the Birkenhead Drill was observed.     

HMS Birkenhead
The Birkenhead Drill is also known by the phrase "Women and children first". When the HMS Birkenhead sunk off the coast at Capetown in 1852, troops who were being transported on the ship were ordered by their commander Colonel Seton to stand fast while the women and children found places in the few life boats. 193 of 643 on board survived. Rudyard Kipling later immortalized the soldiers chivalry in the poem,  "Soldier an' Sailor Too":  

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies - 'Er Majesty’s Jollies - soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too!


  1. Fantastic story! That's what makes studying genealogy so fun.
    You came from quite a family!!!

  2. I wonder if the phrase stand fast is directly or originally tied to the woman and children first drill?

  3. that's an amazing story. After reading it, I'm really surprised that you had the guts to take that cruise to so. america!!

  4. I'm sure you saw this on your research, but just in case you didn't, have a read through this.

  5. How wonderful to find such a story about your ancestor and to learn of his grit and determination in overcoming such misfortune.

  6. Great story of an ancestor who survived, and then lived so long! Loved hearing about your family making it to Canada!

  7. Now-a-days folks traveling & cruising on ships are more apt to suffer from wretched sickness due to the spread of germs in close quarters than from sinking - though some remarkably irresponsible and negligent captains, even now, have been known to sink their ships and lose passengers.

  8. Very appropriate 're-post', and your great grandfather certainly had an adventurous life! I didn't know that 'women and children first' was called the Birkenhead drill or anything about the origins of the rule. Very interesting.