Professor Lowe notes connection between Birkenhead disaster and 'complex systems such as politics, globalisation and economics' – the banking crisis perhaps?

Note from Professor Lowe,


The following is taken from J.E Gordon’s book, Structures, or why things don’t fall down.  I can’t help thinking it has lessons for globalisation.  I particularly like the last sentence, which has an unintended application to politics and economics and to many complex systems.

“A much better-known accident of this type, in which a great many lives were lost, occurred with the troopship Birkenhead. This iron steamship had started life as a warship in 1846 with adequate strength and well supplied with continuous water-tight bulkheads.  When she was converted into a troopship, however, the War Office insisted that very large openings should be cut in the transverse water-tight bulkheads so as to give more light and air and apparent space for the troops.

In 1852, the Birkenhead was dispatched to India, by way of the Cape, with 648 persons on board, including twenty women and children.  By an error of pilotage, the ship struck an isolated rock about four miles off the South African coast.  The vessel was badly holed forward, and, since the bulkheads had been cut away, all the troop-decks in the forward part of the ship were flooded so quickly that many of the troops were drowned as the lay in their hammocks (the time being 2 a.m.).

Under the weight of the incoming water the flooded fore-part of the ship broke off and sank almost immediately, leaving the survivors crowded into the after-part, which sank more slowly.  It was dark, the sea was full of sharks and the life-boats were inadequate.  The troops behaved with great courage and discipline, smartly fallen in on the after-deck, while the women and children were sent ashore in such boats as there were.  All of the women and children were saved, but only 173 men survived: the rest were drowned or eaten by sharks.

The most obvious effect of cutting holes in the bulkheads was, of course, that the various compartments in the ship flooded very rapidly, and this was undoubtedly the prime cause of the ship’s loss.  Fewer lives might have been lost, however, if the ship had not broken in two, and this must be attributed, at least in part, to the weakening of the hull as a whole by cutting away the bulkheads on which its strength depended.

The loss of the Birkenhead immediately became famous as an example of discipline and heroism – deservedly so.  When the news reached Berlin, the King of Prussia ordered the story to be read aloud to all units of his army, specially paraded for the purpose.  But perhaps it would have been better still if he had instructed his War Office not to interfere with the structure of ships, a matter which soldiers do not always understand.”  pp 347-348


Robert Lowe

Prof of Energy and Building Science

Bartlett School of Graduate Studies

University College London

1-19 Torrington Place

London WC1E 7HB

+44 (0)20 7679 5981

Note from Admin – the above disaster is an example of the effects of the Relevance Paradox, and lack of Tacit Knowledge networks, both of which the Claverton Network is designed to address in the Energy and Environmental sield.

See also Titanic Disaster article

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