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Saturday, 9 March 2013


My great great grandfather Richard William Ralph Sadleir remains elusive, my knowledge of him tantalisingly free of detail. But he was one of ten brothers, and lately I have pieced together some of the life and death of his brother, my 3x great uncle John. (Toler was the surname of their paternal grandmother.)

Colours of the 1st Bn. Of the 2nd Regiment of Foot, with Queen Catherine's Colour in the centre

On the 2nd June 1843, the London Gazette reported, John Toler Sadleir, gentleman, was to be an ensign “by purchase” in the 2nd Regiment of Foot. John was from Tipperary, and the regiment was a natural choice for an Irish gentleman in need of a military career. It had a long history, having been founded in 1661 to guard Tangier, part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, from where it holds the oldest battle honour in the British Army: Tangier 1662-1680. Since 1798 it had been based in Ireland, where it was sent to suppress the Irish rebellion that year; but throughout its history it fought in Britain’s many overseas campaigns.

When John signed up he first saw action with the 2nd Foot in India during the First Sikh War. The regiment sailed back to England on 17th September 1846 and was stationed for a while in Gosport. Its troops were certainly there long enough for John to meet and – in St Thomas’s Church, Old Portsmouth – to marry his wife, Mary Mitchell in May 1847.

Presentation of new colours to the Second (Queen's Royal) Regiment, at Gosport, 10th July 1847

The following year the regiment came home to Ireland where they remained until 1851. I assume that John and Mary spent time in the family home, Sadleirswells, northeast of Tipperary. There is no record of children, and unfortunately the next we hear of Mary is her second marriage, as a widow, in 1854. What follows here is conjecture as far as John's part in it is concerned, but fits with what little I know of his life.

In 1851 the regiment returned to Portsmouth to be fitted out for action in the Kaffir War fought against the Xhosa of South Africa. John may have sailed from there when the paddle steamer HMS Birkenhead embarked at the start of January 1852, or he may have joined ship at Cobh in southern Ireland where it stopped on 5th January to pick up further troops with wives and families.

HMS Birkenhead (built 1845) - in 1846 it pulled Brunel's stranded SS Great Britain off the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland

After seven weeks at sea, most of the families were put ashore near Cape Town on 23rd February. Two days later the Birkenhead set off again to deliver the troops to their final destination, Algoa Bay. But at 2am on 26th February the ship struck a submerged rock two miles off Danger Point. Water rushed in, and as the captain tried to reverse his vessel it struck again, ripping open the bulkheads, flooding the engine rooms and drowning over 100 soldiers in their bunks.

The surviving men mustered on deck where they manned the pumps and assisted with the disembarkation of the women and children who had remained on board. Through poor maintenance many of the troopship’s lifeboats were unusable, and only three were successfully launched.

The commanding officer realised that if he allowed his men to seek their own safety he risked overloading and capsizing the lifeboats and their precious family loads. Instead he ordered all soldiers to stand to attention in their ranks. With the discipline and stiff upper lip for which the British Army in the nineteenth century was most admired, this is what they did, in silence, as HMS Birkenhead sank in the space of twenty minutes beneath them.

The Wreck of the Birkenhead, painted by Thomas M. Hemy in 1892

Of those who now swam for shore, most were killed by sharks or died on the perilous rocks of the aptly named Danger Point. We’ll never know whether John Toler Sadleir was amongst them because the muster books went down with the ship. Did he drown in his bunk? Did he get to shore and die fighting the Xhosa? Was Mary with him? News of the selfless courage of the British men spread quickly, and their final assembly on the decks of the ship became known as Birkenhead Drill after Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase in a poem, Soldier and Sailor Too:
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.

Of the 643 people on board at the time of the accident, 450 were lost, none of them women and children (although in fact only twenty family members had remained with the ship beyond Cape Town). 113 soldiers, 6 marines and 54 seamen also survived. The behaviour of those men who went down with the Birkenhead directly inspired the now established shipwreck practice of shouting, and saving,
Women And Children First.

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