After the wet weather in Southampton, the sun was thankfully shining in Bristol, and walking along the picturesque River Avon was a very pleasant experience. As with Southampton, my visit was primarily motivated by my interest in maritime history, and I was about to see an icon of oceanic travel: the S.S. Great Britain.
In 1838, the S.S. Great Western entered service and began a new age on the seas; sailing between Bristol and New York, it was the first ever steamship specifically built to cross the Atlantic. The Great Western was the brainchild of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who soon turned his attention to designing another, even more innovative ship. Whereas the Great Western had a wooden hull, this ship would be made of iron, and would also adopt screw propulsion, which was just starting to prove itself as superior to paddle wheels. The end result was the S.S. Great Britain, the biggest ship in the world at the time. Launched in 1843, it set off on its maiden voyage to New York in 1845. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “It was Genesis. A ship 50 years ahead of its time.”
The Great Britain was to have a varied and turbulent career. She only made a few voyages across the Atlantic before she ran aground on the Irish coast in 1846, and the cost of the salvage forced her owners to sell her. She then spent 23 years carrying emigrants to Australia, taking around 60 days to travel from Liverpool to Melbourne. In 1886, after she had been sold again and converted into a cargo ship, the Great Britain was damaged in a storm and sought shelter in the Falkland Islands. The current owners decided that it wasn’t worth the cost of repairing the ship, so she stayed where she was. Used as a floating warehouse for many years, she was eventually scuttled in a cove and left to rot. There, the story might have ended – but instead, in 1970, a salvage team refloated the Great Britain (a process that included plugging a crack in the hull with donated mattresses), placed her on a pontoon, and carried her back to Bristol. Placed in the dry dock where she was originally built, she was fully restored, and remains there today for visitors to enjoy.
Social distancing restrictions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Great Britain: there was only a one-way system when exploring the ship itself, and there was still enough room to both maintain distance from others and see everything there was to see. The ship’s interiors have been restored to how she was when on the Britain-Australia run: there was a big contrast between the accommodation for steerage passengers, with tightly packed bunks and only staple foods to eat, and first-class, with a lavish dining saloon and an indoor promenade to walk around in. One could appreciate how it must have felt to have been stuck in such limited space for two months at sea, particularly with what everyone in the country has been through this year.
There was a separate area dedicated to Brunel himself, with lots of artefacts and information about his other projects – including Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, which I went to take a look at later in the day. The last thing that I did was to descend into the dry dock itself, beneath the ship; this area is kept warm and dry to slow corrosion. While the Great Britain looked proud and untouchable on the surface, from beneath she looked more fragile, the bottom of her hull pockmarked and scarred. It was a clear reminder of just how old the ship is, and how fortunate she is to still survive.