Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The return of the SS Great Britain

It's the 40th anniversary of the return of the SS Great Britain to her home port, and in commemoration there's to be a series of events in Bristol.

The SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably the greatest engineer of the Victorian era, when the British Empire was at it's height.  And it was what I was going to say the Concorde of its day, though that too is now a museum piece. It was the world's first propeller driven iron hulled steamship, and the first of the great ocean liners to connect the old world to the new.

It's launch was a huge event back in 1843 attended by royalty, and its return was one too, when a hundred thousand people lined the route as it came back under another of Brunel's great achievements, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The rescue of the Great Britain was an epic story in itself. After suffering storm damage in 1886 she was abandoned in the Falkland Islands where she rusted away in a forgotten bay.

After a national campaign a rescue mission was mounted that had to struggle with weather, the decaying structure, and it's very size: for example it had the largest ever wooden masts.

But they managed to re-float her and then manoeuvre her onto a sunk barge which was then pumped out to take her over eight thousand miles back to her home country.

Since her return she has been wonderfully restored: just compare the before and after pictures here:

In BBC is marking the anniversary by a range of programs and web site posts, as described here.

My favourite is the original Chronicle TV program of the rescue first broadcast back in 1970 which is available on the BBC archive here (not sure if can be streamed outside the UK). It may be a bit faded but the story is as gripping as it was back then, though probably all I saw were the highlights on Blue Peter.

There's also going to be another program next week which will give an update and I'm looking forward to iPlaying that. Alas no plans to go over to Bristol to visit the ship and exhibition in person though it no doubt will be well visited over the coming weeks.

It's strange how lumps of rusting metal covered in barnacles can bring an emotional response, but the SS Great Britain does for me. It's a combination of respect for the engineer that built it and the times he lived in, and how the ship reflected an important part of British history.

But mostly its for the story of the ship herself, the rise and fall and rise again; from launch so many years ago, to forgotten hulk, to finally her safe return to her home port.


Tillerman said...

Bravo. It brings a lump to my throat to remember the good old days when Blighty not only had the Empire but also engineers like Brunel. I was working near Bristol in 1970 and went to visit the SS Great Britain when she first came back to Bristol.

Pip pip. Toodeloo.

Pat said...

It's a wonderful story. Was this also the ship that resisted being launched in the first place or was that the Great Western? Seemingly some of Brunel's ships were a bit ahead of their time.

AnnieR said...

Thanks for reminding me of the genius of Brunel. He sprang to life for me when I studied 19th century British history at uni.

After reading your post I lost myself exploring the SS Great Britain website for about 20 minutes or so.

I'm so glad she was rescued.

JP said...

Tillerman: I went for a visit just after she returned too (or rather, was taken for a visit, being a bit then smaller then than today). Must have been when you were in Bristol!

Pat: I think you're thinking of the Great Eastern which struggled to get water-borne.

However the Great Britain launch was not event free. She was meant to be christened with a bottle of champagne broken by Mrs Clarissa Miles against her side, but she missed as the boat was already on its way out!

Luckily the Prince of Wales, who was present and of course had a spare bottle of bubbly, saved the day by throwing it at the ship!

Hi Annie, and totally agree, Brunel was a really inspiring character, who did think big. Want to go and visit her too.