A red tunic that tells a tale of sinking ships, man-eating sharks and stupendous bravery, one of the National Trust’s finest treasures

We're taking a look at nine of the greatest objects on display in the National Trust's properties across Britain — and the choice today is a piece whose simplicity belies its story of tragedy, heroism, survival and recording of a dreadful incident.

The National Trust’s collections are not only vast, but contain objects of astonishing beauty, quality and human interest. To coincide with the Trust’s 125 anniversary, we asked nine senior curators — including national experts in painting and sculpture, textiles, furniture and decorative arts — to choose their favourite object from among those in their care.

Red flannel tunic, part of a uniform of the 12th Lancers by an unknown maker, about 1851, at The Argory, Co Armagh

Chosen by Frances Bailey, lead curator, Northern Ireland

A paper label inside the neck reads: ‘Cornet Bond 12 Lancers, swam ashore from the wreck of the Birkenhead Troop ship on the 26th Feb 1852, he had this vest on at the time’.

In this red flannel tunic, young Cornet Bond, 12th Lancers, swam ashore from the sinking troopship, HMS Birkenhead. Heading to the 8th Xhosa War, the ship was crowded with cavalry troops and horses when it sank. Bond’s trousered legs proved less attractive to sharks than the bare legs of his companions, asleep in their hammocks when the ship struck rocks off Western Cape Province.

Bond’s horse also miraculously survived the sinking and the sharks. The soldiers’ discipline as wives and children disembarked first led to the protocol known as the Birkenhead Drill. For me, the tragedy, heroism, survival and recording of this dreadful incident imbues this simple costume with immense significance and poignancy.

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