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The meaning and origin of the expression: Women and children first

Women and children first

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Women and children first'?

The seafaring command that women and children be the first to board the lifeboats when a ship abandoned.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Women and children first'?

Women and children firstHMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of South Africa on 26th February 1852. This incident is widely believed to be the origin of the phrase women and children first. The ship was carrying 480 British troops and about 26 women and children. When the ship foundered the soldiers' commander Colonel Seton told them to 'Stand fast!' and allow the women and children to make use of the few lifeboats. Most of the soldiers and sailors on board were drowned or eaten by sharks, but all the women and children survived. The women and children first ethos was later called the 'Birkenhead Drill' and was celebrated in verse by Rudyard Kipling in his moral boosting work 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!

There's no reason to doubt that the events on HMS Birkenhead were the origin of the women and children first practise. It seems that the phrase wasn't used until later though. It doesn't appear in any of the contemporary reports of the wreck. Something very close is cited in reference to a later wreck - that of the Central America, which went down on a voyage to New York in 1857. This reference is from the magazine Godey's Lady's Book, December 1857:

"Captain Herndon's first order, 'Save the women and children!' was the test of this Christian heroism... Every man on board that doomed ship knew the captain was acting rightly."

The first use of the precise phrase is from a work of fiction - W. D. O'Connor's Harrington, 1860:

"Back from the boats... The first man that touches a boat I'll brain. Women and children first, men."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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