Thursday 16 August 2018

The SS Great Britain: Sue Purkiss

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I'm afraid you're going to be hearing a good deal more about him and his ship, the SS Great Britain, because I recently started volunteering at the restored ship which is back in the dry dock in Bristol where it was originally built and then launched, in 1843 - and I'm finding it endlessly fascinating.

A visitor rather shyly asked me yesterday why it's so special, and you may be wondering the same. Well - at the time it was built, it was the biggest ship in the world. It was the first ship made of iron (which was why it was able to be so big; believe it or not, an iron ship is lighter than a wooden ship), and it was the first ocean-going liner to have a screw propellor, which made it much faster than sail-driven ships - or even than the paddle steamers which preceded it. It was also the world's first luxury liner. In many ways, then, it was the grandmother of all our modern ships.

The weather deck of the SS Great Britain

The ship has been restored with enormous imagination, skill and flair: so that as you wander through the elegant dining saloon or peer into the cabins with their tiny bunks, it's easy to imagine what it would have been like to travel on the ship as a first class passenger. And then you walk along the dimly lit corridor and enter steerage, and see how the other half lived - and how they ate: moving from six-course dinners with fresh meat and elaborate desserts - to ship's biscuit, watery stew and porridge, all prepared in a crowded kitchen in the centre of the ship near the engine room. You hear the sounds, too, and smell the smells and experience the heat - there was no air-conditioning, and no heating.

The ship was intended to sail from Bristol to New York, but she had only done this trip a few times when she ran aground at Dundrum in Ireland, due to an error on the part of the captain. And there she lay for twelve months, when Brunel got her refloated. But of course she was badly damaged, and she was vastly under-insured. She was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co, which refitted her to travel between Liverpool and Melbourne in Australia, carrying migrants and, on occasion, huge nuggets of gold back from the gold fields. She did 32 round-the-world trips, and it's said that around a million Australians and New Zealanders are descended from people who went out on the Great Britain.

As well as the ship itself, there is the new Being Brunel Museum (which features all sorts of clever things - more of that another time), the dockside, the dry dock which is beneath the ship and allows you to see the rusty underneath of the ship, in a very fragile state after years of being immersed in sea water in the Falklands - and there is the Dockyard Museum, which shows the history of the ship - and of its passengers. In the Dockyard Museum, there's a new feature: the boarding card stand. This is one of the many ways in which the stories of individual passengers are brought to life - as well as Brunel and the ship itself.

Some of the boarding cards

It is a spin-off from a project called Global Stories, which seeks to find stories associated with the passengers who travelled on the Great Britain. There is now quite a lot of information about some of these passengers, and boarding cards have been created for them. You can choose one - or more - and use the QR code on the card to find out more about the passengers. I picked out Rachel Henning, who came from my county, Somerset - and I'll tell you more about her next time!


Joan Lennon said...

No trip to Bristol is complete without a visit to the Great Britain - and the Global Stories project sounds absolutely fascinating! Thanks for this, Sue!

Susan Price said...

Absolutely right, Joan -- and Sue, you can write about Brunel and the Great Britain as often as you like for me.
It is, I think, the best museum I've ever visited. I knew that it was the biggest ship in the world at the time it was built and I was gob-smacked by our first sight of it as we stepped through the doors -- it's so tiny!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lots of people say the same, Sue - that it's the best museum they've ever visited. And the ship inspires such affection - I'm EXTREMELY fond of her, as you can probably tell!

Ann Turnbull said...

I agree with everyone else: it's a wonderful experience and I have never felt so close to the experience of living on board ship. And I shall look forward to reading more about it, Sue. A word of advice, though, to those who haven't yet visited: don't try to 'do' the museum, the ship, and the dry dock all in one afternoon, unless you are very fit!

Sue Purkiss said...

Quite right, Ann - and since spring there are two museums, one about Brunel himself. But when you buy a ticket, you can come back as often as you want for a year.

AnnP said...

Yes, I visited last summer and it is indeed a great experience. I'd be very happy to hear more about it.

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! It's ages since I've been probably about 30 years. It's perhaps time I went back!