Women and children first

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Thomas Hemy's famous painting (circa 1892) of soldiers standing fast on HMS Birkenhead while the women and children head off in a lifeboat in the background

"Women and children first" (or to a lesser extent, the Birkenhead Drill[1][2]) is a historical code of conduct whereby the lives of women and children were to be saved first in a life-threatening situation (typically abandoning ship, when survival resources such as lifeboats were limited).

While the phrase first appeared in the 1860 novel Harrington: A Story of True Love, by William Douglas O'Connor,[3][4] the first documented application of "women and children first" occurred during the 1852 evacuation of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead. It is, however, most famously associated with the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. As a code of conduct, "women and children first" has no basis in maritime law, and according to University of Greenwich disaster evacuation expert Professor Ed Galea, in modern-day evacuations people will usually "help the most vulnerable to leave the scene first. It's not necessarily women, but is likely to be the injured, elderly and young children."[5] Furthermore, the results of a 2012 Uppsala University study suggest that the application of "women and children first" may have, in practice, been the exception rather than the rule.[6]


Novelist William Douglas O'Connor

The first-known appearance of the phrase “women and children first” occurred in the sentimental 1860 novel Harrington: A Story of True Love, during the recounting of the death of the father (Captain Harrington) of the eponymous character (John Harrington). Captain Harrington’s fictional death illustrates not only the concept of “women and children first” but also that of "the captain goes down with his ship".

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ships typically did not carry enough lifeboats to save all the passengers and crew in the event of disaster. In 1870, answering a question at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom about the sinking of the paddle steamer Normandy, George Shaw-Lefevre said that[7]

in the opinion of the Board of Trade, it will not be possible to compel the passenger steamers running between England and France to have boats sufficient for the very numerous passengers they often carry. They would encumber the decks, and rather add to the danger than detract from it

By the turn of the 20th century, larger ships meant more people could travel, but regulations were generally still insufficient to provide for all passengers: for example British legislation concerning the number of lifeboats was based on the tonnage of a vessel and only encompassed vessels of "10,000 gross tons and over". The result was that a sinking usually involved a moral dilemma for passengers and crew as to whose lives should be saved with the limited available lifeboats.

The practice of women and children first arose from the chivalrous actions of soldiers during the sinking of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead in 1852 after it struck rocks. Captain Robert Salmond RN ordered Colonel Seton to send men to the chain pumps; sixty were directed to this task, sixty more were assigned to the tackles of the lifeboats, and the rest were assembled on the poop deck in order to raise the forward part of the ship.[8] The women and children were placed in the ship's cutter, which lay alongside.[9] The sinking was memorialized in newspapers and paintings of the time, and in poems such as Rudyard Kipling's 1893 "Soldier an' Sailor Too".

RMS Titanic survivors aboard a collapsible lifeboat

The phrase was popularised by its usage on the RMS Titanic.[10][page needed] The Second Officer suggested to Captain Smith, "Hadn't we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?", to which the captain responded: "women and children in and lower away".[11] The First and Second officers interpreted the evacuation order differently; one took it to mean women and children first, while the other took it to mean women and children only. Thus one of the officers lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women and children waiting to board, while the other allowed a limited number of men to board if all the nearby women and children had embarked.[12] As a consequence, 74% of the women and 52% of the children on board were saved, but only 20% of the men.[13] Some officers on the Titanic misinterpreted the order from Captain Smith, and tried to prevent men from boarding the lifeboats.[14][15] It was intended that women and children would board first, with any remaining free spaces for men. Because not all women and children were saved on the Titanic, the few men who survived, like White Star official J. Bruce Ismay, were initially branded as cowards.[16]

There is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first in international maritime law—according to International Maritime Organization regulations, ships have 30 minutes to load all passengers into lifeboats and maneuver the boats away.[5]

A more recent application of "women and children first" occurred in March 2011, when a floating restaurant in Covington, Kentucky, tore from its moorings, stranding 83 people on the Ohio River. Women were rescued first; there were no casualties of either sex.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rudyard Kipling (2005). Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling. Kessinger. p. 305. ISBN 1-4179-0750-9. 
  2. ^ Heinlein 1978, p. 169.
  3. ^ "Women and Children First". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2010-04-16. 
  4. ^ O’Connor (1860), pp. 187-188
  5. ^ a b Castella 2012.
  6. ^ Elinder & Erixson 2012.
  7. ^ The Parliamentary debates (Authorized edition), Volume 200, 21 March 1870, pp. 323–324 H. M. Stationery Office, 1870
  8. ^ Kingston, William Henry Giles (1899). Our Soldiers: Gallant Deeds of the British Army during Victoria's Reign. London: Nick Hodson. 
  9. ^ "The Wreck of HM Steamer "Birkenhead" – 26 Feb 1852". Capeinfo. Retrieved 12 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Marshall 2004, p. ?.
  11. ^ Lord 2005, p. 37.
  12. ^ Barczewski 2006, p. 21.
  13. ^ Anesi, Chuck. "Titanic Casualty Figures". 
  14. ^ Lord 1997, p. 63.
  15. ^ Ballard 1987, p. 87.
  16. ^ Benedict & Gardner 2000, p. 204.
  17. ^ "Cris Collinsworth among 83 rescued". ESPN. Associated Press. 2011-03-13. Retrieved 29 September 2013. 


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