Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria

To be Sold on: 17th March 2021

Estimate: £1,800 - £2,200

A scarce ‘Birkenhead Survivor’s’ South Africa Medal awarded to Colour Sergeant J. O’Neil, 91st Foot, who had the misfortune of twice being shipwrecked, and was wounded in action during the Third Kaffir War

South Africa 1834-53 (J. O’Neil. 91st. Regt.) traces of brooch mounting, edge bruising, otherwise nearly very fine £1,800-£2,200

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A scarce ‘Birkenhead Survivor’s’ South Africa Medal awarded to Colour Sergeant J. O’Neil, 91st Foot, who had the misfortune of twice being shipwrecked, and was wounded in action during the Third Kaffir War

South Africa 1834-53 (J. O’Neil. 91st. Regt.) traces of brooch mounting, edge bruising, otherwise nearly very fine £1,800-£2,200
Provenance: Glendining’s, September 1990

John O’Neil, ‘the son of a farrier-major in the 7th Dragoon Guards, was born on board ship near Malta in 1827. Enlisting in the 91st Foot, he set sail for South Africa in 1842. His ship, the Abercrombie Robinson, was wrecked in Table Bay in a cyclone, and the impedimenta of the regiment was lost. After a delay of six months he went to the frontier until 1844, when war broke out with the Kaffirs, and two years later he was engaged in the war with the Boers. His first adventure in this was when his regiment made a forced march from Grahamstown to Boomplats, where they encountered General Joubert, President Pretorious, and Paul Kruger, commanding a large number of burghers. The British were commanded by Sir Harry Smith. In 1850 he was again engaged with the Kaffirs, and in 1852 he went on escort duty to Robbin Island with prisoners, and afterwards went on board the ill-fated Birkenhead at Simonstown. Between that harbour and Port Elizabeth, in the locality of Danger Point, the Birkenhead went down through the recklessness of the skipper, seven hours after the embarkation, and Sergeant O’Neil was shipwrecked for the second time in his life. There were over 600 persons on board, and of this number 450 were drowned or fell victims to the sharks. Sergeant O’Neil swam ashore, and had to walk 16 miles under a scorching sun before assistance could be obtained. In 1853 he was again battling with the Kaffirs, and before the conclusion of the campaign was wounded in the leg by a bullet. He returned home in 1855, and two years later was ordered to India, where he served for two years.’ (Recipient's obituary refers).

The Birkenhead Disaster
O’Neil’s own account of the Birkenhead disaster is as follows: ‘I and my escort had only been on board seven hours when the vessel struck on a rock between Simon's Bay and Port Elizabeth, somewhere near Danger Point. She struck a mile and a quarter from shore. It is fair to suppose the disaster was caused by reckless navigation, because outside the breakers the seas was as smooth, almost, as a floor; there was scarcely a ripple on the surface of the water. It was a strange scene when she struck. The Captain of the ship rushed down below and told the sailors to man the boats. "Lower your boats, men", said he, "We are all lost!". I never saw him again. Captain Wright [the only officer of the 91st Foot on board] gave the order: "All hands fall in on deck", and we fell in, every man. He told off so many soldiers and so many sailors to each boat, to get them out and save the women and children. I forget how many boats there were, but every boat available was got over the side. No man was allowed to leave the ranks till the boats were pushed off. Any rush would have swamped the boats for certain, but no one thought of doing it. Discipline was maintained till the last. The ship went down twenty minutes after striking. It was a terrible time, but we stood on. We all expected to die, but the women and children were got safely off. Not one of them was drowned, thank God. They and their escort comprised the greater part of those who were saved. The water rose as the ship was sinking. Before we left her we were up to our necks in water on the top deck. Just before the end came Captain Wright addressed us. "You men who cannot swim", said he, "stick to some wreckage- whatever you can lay hands on. As for you who can swim, I can give you no advice. As you see, there are sharks about, and I cannot advise you how to avoid them." There was many a quiet hand-shake and silent good-bye. Few of us hoped to live through it. The breakers between us and the shore were awful. At last the ship sank. There was a lurch and a plunge, and all was over. I found myself in the water and struck out for shore. I had next to nothing on in the way of clothing. It was a fight for life. We were not above a mile and a quarter from land, as far as my eye served me; but that is plenty far enough when there are breakers and sharks! The breakers were so big. Luckily I knew how to swim breakers, or I should not be here now. Any one not knowing how to would have been drowned, as sure as fate! They would smother him. With proper management a breaker will sometimes sweep you in for hundreds of yards. The backwash was the worst. I stuck to it, and got ashore at last, escaping the sharks. I saw nothing of the rest, or of the ship’s boats. All the trouble was not over when I got ashore. I had to walk sixteen miles stark naked under a blazing sun before I met anyone or obtained any assistance. I shall never forget Captain Wright. If it had not been for him all hands would have been lost, women and children and all.’

Promoted Corporal in June 1856, Sergeant in October 1859, and Colour Sergeant in June 1861, O’Neil was discharged in November 1864, after 21 years and 75 days’ service. The following January he was appointed Sergeant Instructor of the Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers, and served with them for over twenty years, finally retiring in March 1885, after a total of 41 years and 131 days’ service. A public testimonial was organised as a mark of appreciation to his services, to which Field Marshal Lord Roberts contributed. O’Neil died in Boston, Lincolnshire, December 1904, and was buried with full Military Honours; at the time of his death he was said to be the last military survivor of the Birkenhead disaster.

Sold with copied research, including a copy of the book ‘Drums of the Birkenhead, by David Bevan.