The Birkenhead Horses

Various sources mention that between 9 and 30 horses boarded the Birkenhead at Simon’s Bay. The conclusion drawn by diligent researchers, however, is that there were no more than nine horses on board – belonging to military officers, Wright, Bond-Shelton, Seton, Dr. Laing and Booth. They concluded that the Birkenhead was too small to safely accommodate and convey more than this number of horses along with the bales of hay needed for the voyage. 

When HMS Birkenhead struck the rock off Danger Point, the horses were cut free to give them a fair chance of surviving. However, it soon became apparent that the panicked horses would be a hazard as they were sliding about on the tilting deck. It was then decided to heave them overboard in the hope that they would swim to the shore. Of the nine horses, one broke its leg whilst being forced overboard and was said to have been devoured alive by sharks. The rest of the horses managed to swim to shore and local folklore has it that they, and later their offspring, roamed freely as a wild herd on the plains of the Strandveld until well into the 20th century. There is, however, documented evidence that five of the Birkenhead horses were captured and sent for safe-keeping to Mr. Mackay, Civil Commissioner of Caledon. The other three horses had ‘tales’ attached – true or otherwise.

A resident of nearby De Kelders was said to have captured one of the horses and kept it hidden at Die Stal while he tried to find a way of removing the distinctive branding on its flank. Then there was the Baardskeerdersbos farmer named Groenewald who later boasted that his horses were the offspring of a ‘captured’ Birkenhead horse. Finally, there’s the unlikely tale that persists to this day of a Birkenhead horse that made its own way to its stable in Simon’s Bay - just two days after the Birkenhead went down! 

There were happy endings to the plight of at least two of the horses – they were eventually reunited with their officer owners, Edward Wright of the 91st Regiment and Ralph Bond-Shelton of the 12th Lancers. 

Two other happy endings were those of the ship’s dog (name unknown), and a couple named Mullins and their two children. The dog not only survived the sinking of the Birkenhead, but also survived being swept off the barque Eglington off the West Coast of Australia later that same year. As for the Mullins couple – Private Patrick Mullins of the 91st Regiment became separated from his wife and two children during the sinking of the Birkenhead and each presumed the other/s had drowned. Seven long years went by before Patrick and his wife were reunited by a chance encounter. The happy couple went on to produce five more children!

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