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The SS Great Britain

The ss Great Britain leaving Penarth on 6th February 1886
Painting by Owen Eardley

The ss Great Britain abandoned in the Falkland Islands

Half the original mizzen mast in Port Stanley

The ss Great Britain back in her dry dock at Bristol

The ss Great Britain is an extraordinary ship. Built in an era at the beginning of steam driven vessels, her sheer size and her revolutionary design set her apart from all other ships. And the fact that she still survives today is also quite extraordinary; her's is arguably the greatest story of any ship ever to sail the seven seas.

She was designed and built by Isombard Kingdom Brunel in Bristol in 1843 in a specially constructed dry dock. Not only was she a giant of her time, the largest ship ever built, but she was also the first ever steam-powered screw driven ship. But her career was so nearly short-lived. When she was just three years old she ran aground on the coast of Northern Ireland and was stuck fast on the beach for nearly a year! The fact that she survived that ordeal is a great testament to her strength.

After a refit, the ss Great Britain went on to make thirty-two voyages between Melbourne and Liverpool between 1852 and 1875. Hundreds and thousands of Australians today are descended from the 16,000 emigrants who arrived aboard her. In between times she was used as a government troopship in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. And it’s as well to recall that there was no refrigeration in those days; in order to feed up to 900 passengers and crew live animals were taken on board. Setting out on one passage in 1859, the ship carried 133 live sheep, 38 pigs, 2 bullocks, 1 cow, 420 fowl, 300 ducks and 30 turkeys. 1859 was a tragic year in British maritime history because in October that year a ferocious storm battered the west coast of Britain. As many as 800 ships were lost in the most disastrous single night ever recorded. The biggest loss of life came as the Royal Charter ran onto rocks on the Island of Anglesey- more than four hundred people drowned, most of them returning from a successful gold-mining adventure in Australia. Only a handful of seamen survived; one of these was Joe Rogers, a hero who swam ashore with a rope and helped to save a number of other lives. Rogers went on to join the Great Britain serving variously as a lamplighter and quartermaster. He also made quite a bit of money on the side by doing the washing of the wealthier passengers.

By 1872 this magnificent vessel was nearly thirty years old and coming towards the end of her time as a passenger ship. Her Master was a Shetland seafarer, Captain John Gray, an eccentric skipper who once stopped the ship to claim an uninhabited island in the name of Queen Victoria and held a supper that evening to commemorate the event. But during a passage from Melbourne back to Liverpool when the ship was in mid-Atlantic, Captain Gray was lost overboard in mysterious circumstances believed by some to be suicide. Shortly after her return, the days of the Great Britain’s as a passenger ship came to and end. Her engines were removed and the passenger accommodation converted to holds. She became a cargo ship, carrying coal to South America. Her last commercial voyage began when she left Penarth in South Wales on the 6th February 1886. Weeks later, attempting to round the Horn she was battered in a fierce storm and put back to the Falkland Islands for repair. A telegram from Lloyds was received on the morning of the 11th June 1886- “the ss Great Britain en route from Cardiff to Panama put in to the Falkland Islands with loss of fore and main topmasts, the loss of some sails, rigging very much damaged by seawater. She touched the ground in entering port. Captain awaiting orders from England.” The ss Great Britain never again left the Falklands as a sea going ship but she did not die. For the next forty-seven years, from 1886 until 1933, she was owned by the Falkland Island Company and used as a floating hulk to store wool and coal. Then in 1933 she was towed to Sparrow Cove, scuttled in shallow water and abandoned. She was then ninety years old and had twenty-five accidents of one sort or another recorded in her log books.

For most ships that would have been enough, but even in ignominious oblivion she would prove useful. During the battle of the River Plate in South America in 1939, when the German pocket battleship Graf Spey was chased into Montevideo by a small flotilla of lightweight British warships, the British cruiser HMS Exeter was very badly damaged and a large number of her crew were killed or injured. She limped to the Falkland Islands where she was patched up using iron plates torn from the abandoned Great Britain. Eventually, Exeter was able to make her way slowly back to Britain where she was properly repaired and sent back to sea to fight again.

For the Great Britain, the story was not over even then. Thirty-seven years after she was abandoned, in 1970, she was the subject of an epic salvage operation; the old ship was herself patched up, refloated and put onto a huge pontoon to be towed back to Britain. In the Bristol Channel she once again passed Penarth, 84 years after setting out on her last voyage. She completed her return to the dry dock in Bristol where she was built, on the 19th July 1970, one hundred and twenty-seven years to the day after she was launched. She remains there still, much restored after yet another refit and is well worthy of a visit. The masts she now carries are replicas but half of her original mizzen mast lies tucked away in a shed. The other half, is displayed on the Victory Green at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.