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14th June 20052nd Bn(The Buffs) 1876 Cape shipwreck Beer & No Rum
By Sean Sweeney
I don't know if anyone is aware, but prior to the Zulu War, the 2nd Bn/3rd Rgt 'The Buffs' were shipwrecked onboard the troopship SS St Lawrence on 7th November 1876 on the 'Paternosters' off the Cape of Good Hope, with more than 400 men, 43 women and 76 children aboard.
Lawrence Green in 'Almost Forgotten, Never Told' writes;
'She was ill-found and rat-infested when she left Dublin, and it was an unhappy passage"
Most of the soldiers were recruits.
Colonel Pearson was a hard man.
He sentenced one hungry young soldier to 25 lashes for stealing three herrings, but the Master Cpt Hyde interceded after the man had been tied up, and saved him.
After the initial impact on the rocks, the Companies were at once formed up on deck, clad in such garments as they had been able to collect in the darkness, and according to Cpt CRB Knight, 'and fell in as if on parade, and order maintained to such a degree that one officer was actually checked by Col Pearson for not having sized his Company.'
Women and Children first, Col's lady over the side first, then the soldiers in full marching order with muskets and equipment, the rum casks having been ordered to be stoved in.
All were saved plus most of the baggage and supplies, and the Mountain Guns and gunpowder.(and the beer,... Canned ?, probably not !, Rorkes Drift ?...probably not !)
One likes to think that it was Wells Fargo or Ruddles, but being a Kent Regiment, probably Kent's 'Fuzzy Duck' !
At daybreak, each grateful soldier received one pint of beer.
An Officer galloped to Cape Town with a letter to the Governor asking for help.
The men-of-war, 'Active' and 'Spartan', and the tug 'Gnu' were despatched .
There was no hope of saving the ship.
SInce that time, the reef where the St Lawrence lies has been known as 'Soldiers Reef'.
My Gt Grandfather Robert Sweeney was onboard with wife and three children, one of them my Grandfather.
I was told that they walked and wagonned to Cape Town, however Green says that they were brought to Cape Town in the men-of war ?
Fortunately, they were saved, otherwise I wouldn't be here now typing this missive,
I would probably be the new Pope, or even maybe an Indian,
as there is some doubt as to the Buffs original destination.
I was always told that they were en-route to India ?,
but were retained by the Governor due to the Frontier situation, and the growing threat of the Zulu ?
Anyone have anything definite on the above ?
(not necessarily the beer !)
Sean Sweeney
14th June 2005TREVOR
No info mate.
But a very interesting story.
My ancestors claim to fame was in Ireland in the mid 1800's. Hung for sheep stealing!!!
14th June 2005Sean Sweeney
Yes 'good on you' Trevor, they were pretty quick with the rope and the 'Cat' in them days.
No doubt I've got a few in the cupboard as well !
(Sheepshxxxng is still a capital offence here in New Zealand, you know !)
Floggings were obviously a part of every day discipline in the British Army, and not just on campaign.
What is of note is the discipline of the Buffs on a sinking ship.
Only 4 years previously, the infamous 'Birkenhead' had gone down with great loss of life on an unchartered pinnacle rock nr Danger Point at the Cape, and the 94th Highlanders set the precedence of 'Women and Children First'. (Up untill then, it had been 'Every Man for Himself' !)
358 officers and men and 87 ships crew were lost. All the women and children were saved.
The Buffs and Colonel Pearson don't appear to have received due recognition for their feat !,
and then just when they thought it was safe to......, they were shipped up to Zululand, .....and the rest, as they say is History !
Also, we all know about the 'Rum Ration' in those days, especially when about to face the enemy !)(The Russians in the Crimea were convinced that the troopers must have all been drunk at Balaklava !)
What I wasn't aware of is the Beer ration,
which seems like a much more pleasant pastime in tropical climes !
I wonder if the amaZulu made the most of the 'real' beer that they liberated at Isandhlwana ?
Must be the origins of your 'Rorkes Drift' brew Martin ?
Sean Sweeney
14th June 2005Peter Ewart

This episode is mentioned in both general histories I have on the Buffs.

In Brig E. Foster Hall's "Short History of the Buffs" (1950), which was handed to each new National Servive recruit to the regiment in order to acquaint them with their regimental history and traditions, he says the 2nd Bn "received orders to proceed to S Africa", which suggests that India was not the destination, especially as three companies embarked in the spring of 1876 on the SS St Lawrence and the HQ & remainder of the battalion followed in the same ship in the autumn. So the "advance party", as it were, was already there when the second voyage came unstuck, when "the ship was totally lost in calm weather about 90 miles north of Cape Town."

A "considerable amount of baggage" apparently "went to the bottom." The officer who rode to "the nearest occupied place" had a night time journey of some 60 miles. The admirable discipline of the officers and men was acknowledged in a letter of thanks for the C-in-C of the army and they also received compliments from the authorities locally.

In Gregory Blaxland's book on the newly amalgamated regiment (Queen's Own Buffs, the Royal Kent Reg't) published in 1963 or 1964, it is recorded that they were on their way to S Africa. The shipwreck took place on a wild and barren part of the coast & the troops arrived in Cape Town in November.

Both of these works cover the whole span of the regiment's history and are therefore very general and don't go into as much details as you have. Whether they have examined reliable sources or repeated what has been published previously, I don't know - I haven't got a copy of the official history of regiment for the pre-Great War period. Both authors would have had access to the regimental magazine, "The Dragon", as the Regimental Association still has a good run of the journal for that period, although it has now been transferred from Canterbury to the National Army Museum in London.


P.S. There were countless small breweries in eastern Kent at the time, including, of course, those great survivors Shepherd Neame of Faversham, who continue to prosper into their fourth century.
14th June 2005Peter Ewart
"a letter of thanks for the C-in-C" should, of course, read "from the C-in-C."

14th June 2005Sean Sweeney
Thanks Peter.
Have a pint on me !
I must get a copy of the regimental history one day, but just haven't got around to it yet.
I have had handed down to me that the Regiment was bound for India. Maybe nobody thought to inform the ranks ?.....just like in my day !
Lawrence Green notes that the ship struck at 3:30 in the morning, probably brought closer in-shore by a strong current.
The Officer despatched to summon help reached 'Darling' in seven and a half hours, and then hurried on.
Sean Sweeney
15th June 2005Sean Sweeney
Just a thought.
It's possible that a Posting to India from the Eastern Frontier was delayed by Governors Barkley or Frere at the end of the 9th Frontier hostilities ?, due to the growing threat in Zululand ?
I have on record that my Gt Grandfather was embarked for Natal on 19th February 1877.
I think I've read somewhere that the 3rd were pretty scattered about. Certainly not the main garrison of Fort Napier which was the 80th and then the 24th, the 1/24th having arrived at the Cape in 1875.
Sean Sweeney
6th July 2005Rosemary Dixon-Smith
On the matter of the wreck of the SS Saint Lawrence, I note that Malcolm Turner in his 'Shipwrecks and Salvage in South Africa' states numbers on board as being '411 men, 43 women and officers, and a crew of 67'. No mention of the 76 children as given by Green. Another discrepancy is that according to Turner the 9 mountain guns were lost in the wreck. I will be going to some original sources in due course to check these details. Incidentally, included in Turner's book is an engraving of the wreck of the SS Saint Lawrence, taken from the Illustrated London News (no edition given).
Regards from Rosemary in SA
7th July 2005Sean Sweeney
Thanks Rosemary,
Green is possibly correct, as some of the Military would no doubt have had their families accompanying them, and the Masters often had their families on board as well.
We were always lead to believe that all the Sweeney family were there.
I would be very surprised if in fact there were no children on board.
Any other information that you have would be appreciated.
I haven't seen anything of Turner's book.