Motto of Alexander Seton of Mounie


Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seton, 74th Highlanders, 5th Baron of Mounie

"Women and Children First"


Alexander Seton, 5th of Mounie (of the second family), was born at Mounie in Aberdeenshire on 4 Oct. 1814, was the second but eldest surviving son of Alexander Seton of Mounie and Janet Skene Ogilvy of Airlie, daughter of Skene Ogilvy, D.D., minister of Old Machar, Aberdeenshire.

Alexander was educated at home until the age of fifteen until being sent abroad for his education in France and Italy, and he studied mathematics and chemistry for some months under Ferdinando Foggi at Pisa. On 23 Nov. 1832 he was gazetted second lieutenant in the 21st or royal North British fusiliers, and next year he was sent with part of his regiment to the Australian colonies. He returned to Scotland on leave in 1838, and was promoted to a first lieutenancy on 2 March. He rejoined his regiment in India, and received a company on 14 Jan. 1842.

Shortly after he exchanged into the 74th, he was stationed at Chatham, and there he studied for two years in the senior department of the Royal Military College, and in November 1847 received a first-class certificate. In 1849 he proceeded to Ireland as assistant deputy quartermaster-general of the forces there. He held this post till 24 May 1850, when he was promoted to a majority.

On 7 Nov. 1851 he obtained the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and about the same time was ordered to take command of the drafts destined for the Cape of Good Hope, where his regiment was engaged in the Kaffir war. He sailed in the steam troopship Birkenhead, which on the morning of 26 Feb. 1852 struck on a rock in False Bay, twenty miles south of Cape Town, and foundered in little more than ten minutes.  Seton was almost instantly known for his leadership and command, and his gallant actions during the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852.

The Birkenhead, an iron paddle ship, had sailed from the Cove of Cork in Ireland with 634 people on board, most of them soldiers, some with their wives and children, bound for action in the Frontier War against Kaffir and Hottentot tribesmen in the Cape of Good Hope. Lt-Col Seton was the senior officer on board, in charge of detachments from ten British regiments. The vessel was in the command of experienced Royal Naval Captain Robert Salmond.

In spite of the sudden nature of the catastrophe, Seton issued his orders with perfect calmness. The scene is said by an eyewitness to have resembled an embarkation, with the difference that there was less confusion. The boats could only contain the women and children, and out of 634 persons 445 were lost, Seton himself being killed by the fall of part of the wreck.

click to view large1096 Sergeant David Andrews " S ", later Staff Sgt Major of the 60th KRRC (now the Royal Greenjackets), wrote a letter to Mr. David Seton, brother of Colonel Alexander Seton, the senior Army Officer on board the vessel, describing the gallantry displayed by Colonel Seton:

"Lt Colonel Alexander Seton of Mounie, Aberdeenshire.  Senior Army Officer aboard ship. Was on his way to command the 74th of Foot in the 8th Frontier War 1846-1858.

A fine Officer who controlled the men aboard the ship so that the women and the children would get away first, he also delayed the men from swimming for their lives, until the life boats had rowed well away from the side of the ship.  

Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, whose high-mindedness, self-possession, and calm determination inspired all on board, was son and heir of the late Alexander Seton, Esq. of Mounie, Aberdeenshire, and represented the Mounie branch of the old and eminent Scottish house of Seton of Pitmedden, of the Seton's of Meldrum family line.

His death was undoubtedly a great loss to the British army, as all who knew him agree in stating that he was a man of high ability and varied attainments; he was distinguished both as a mathematician and a linguist.

Lord Aberdare (formerly the Right Honourable H. A. Bruce) speaks of Colonel Seton, from personal knowledge, as "one of the most gifted and accomplished men in the British army."

From the wreck and from Lieutenant Colonel Seton, came the naval protocol: "Women and Children First".

This disaster started the protocol of "women and children first!", which became a standard evacuation procedure in maritime disasters, although the phrase was not coined until 1860. Similarly, "Birkenhead Drill" carried out by soldiers became the epitome of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances. The phrase appears in Rudyard Kipling's tribute to the Royal Marines, "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

click to view largeAs Captain Salmond rushed on deck, he ordered the anchor to be dropped, the quarter-boats to be lowered, and a turn astern to be given by the engines. However, as the ship backed off the rock, the sea rushed into the large hole made by the collision and the ship struck again, buckling the plates of the forward bilge and ripping open the bulkheads. Shortly, the forward compartments and the engine rooms were flooded, and over 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths.

The surviving soldiers mustered and awaited their officers' orders. Salmond ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps, and sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, while the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship.

Seton issued the command declaring, "Gentlemen would you please be kind enough to preserve order and silence amongst the men and ensure that any orders given by Capt Salmond are instantly obeyed?", "the women and children first", and then the 6ft 3in, 38-year old stood by the gangway as the seven women and 13 children were put aboard the ships cutter, which lay alongside.

Two other boats were manned, but one was immediately swamped and the other could not be launched due to poor maintenance and paint on the winches, leaving only three boats available. The two large boats, with capacities of 150 men each, were not among them.

The surviving officers and men assembled on deck, where Lieutenant-Colonel Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot took charge of all military personnel and stressed the necessity of maintaining order and discipline to his officers.  Almost everybody kept silent, indeed nothing was heard, but the kicking of the horses and the orders of Salmond, all given in a clear firm voice.

Ten minutes after the first impact of the Birkenhead, the engines still turning astern, the ship struck again beneath the engine room, tearing open her bottom. She instantly broke in two just aft of the mainmast. The funnel went over the side and the forepart of the ship sank at once. The stern section, now crowded with men, floated for a few minutes before sinking.  Just before she sank, Salmond called out that "all those who can swim jump overboard, and make for the boats".

Colonel Seton however, recognizing that rushing the lifeboats would risk swamping them and endangering the women and children, issued the counter-order and, his sword drawn, ordered the men to stand fast: "You will swamp the cutter containing the women and children. I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast".  Seconds later the Birkenhead broke her back, not a man disobeyed Lt-Col Seton's orders and they shook hands and said goodbye as the water closed in over their heads.  Only three men defied and made the attempt. The cavalry horses were freed and driven into the sea in the hope that they might be able to swim ashore.

The soldiers did not move, even as the ship broke up barely 20 minutes after striking the rock. Some of the soldiers managed to swim the 2 miles (3.2 km) to shore over the next 12 hours, often hanging on to pieces of the wreck to stay afloat, but most drowned, died of exposure or were taken by sharks.

A number of sailors were court martialled as a result of the accident. The court was held on 8 May 1852 on board HMS Victory in Portsmouth, and attracted a great deal of interest. However as none of the senior naval officers of the Birkenhead survived, no-one was found to be to blame. Captain Edward WC Wright of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment told the 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.

In 1895 a lighthouse was erected at Danger Point to warn shipping of the dangerous reef. The lighthouse is about 18 metres (59 ft) tall and is visible for approximately 25 nautical miles (46 km). In 1936, a remembrance plate for the Birkenhead was affixed to its base by the Navy League of South Africa. A new Birkenhead memorial was erected nearby away in March 1995.  In December 2001, the plaque was moved closer to the lighthouse.

A memorial in St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh bears the following inscription:

In memory of Lieut.-Colonel Alexander Seton, Ensign Alex. C. Russell, and forty-eight N.C.O.s and men of the 74th Highlanders who were drowned at the wreck of H.M.S. 'Birkenhead' on the 26th February 1852, off Point Danger, Cape of Good Hope, after all the women and children on board had been safely landed in the ship's boats.


Frederick William IV of Prussia recognized the bravery of the soldiers and ordered an account of the incident to be read at the head of every regiment in his army, while Queen Victoria ordered the erection of an official Birkenhead monument at the Chelsea Royal Hospital.

In 1892, Thomas M. M. Hemy painted a widely admired maritime depiction of the incident, "The wreck of the Birkenhead". Prints of this painting were distributed to the public. In 1977, the South African mint issued a "Heroes of the Birkenhead Medallion" gold coin commemorating the 125 years since the sinking, featuring Hemy's painting on one of the faces of the coin.  The original Thomas Hemy picture of the Birkenhead 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.  There is a smaller copy of this picture in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead.

The heroism displayed by Seton and the rest of those on board the Birkenhead was also commemorated by Sir Francis Doyle in a poem on ‘The Loss of the Birkenhead,’ in ‘The Return of the Guards and other Poems’ (1866; cf. R. L. Stevenson, Essay on Admirals, and Rudyard Kipling, Seven Seas).  [A Short Memoir of Alexander Seton, 1854; Burke's Landed Gentry, 6th edit.; Annual Register, 1852, pp. 470–2; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ix. 492; Cornhill Mag. February 1897.]

Three placenames in the Canadian province of British Columbia were conferred in honour of the Birkenhead disaster by Hudson's Bay Company explorer Alexander Caulfield Anderson, a boyhood friend and cousin of Lt-Col. Seton of the 74th Regiment of Foot, on a traverse of uncharted country between the Fraser Canyon and the coastal Lower Mainland in 1846. Named after his cousin, SETON LAKE cuts west through the Coast Mountains from the Fraser Canyon town of Lillooet, beyond which is its twin Anderson Lake.A few miles southwest from the head of Anderson Lake is Mount Birkenhead, on the north side of the low pass connecting the valley of those lakes to that of the Birkenhead River. The river, the valley area near Mount Birkenhead known as Birken and Birken Lake at the summit of the pass were named after the mountain, and not directly by Anderson.

Lt-Col Seton died unmarried, and the Estate of Mounie passed to his younger brother, David.







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