SS Great Britain – 50 years back home in Bristol
A recent article in The Guardian (which I have taken the liberty of duplicating below – in case it disappears), prompted me to delve into the Gibbs family involvement with this historic ship. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company, when launched in 1843 the SS Great Britain was the largest ship in the world and the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic. But she endured a troubled start with significant delays, too large to get out of Bristol Dock, and then running aground in Dundrum Bay off Ireland after only two completed round trips to New York. Eventually floated free she languished in Liverpool Docks, having bankrupted her owners.
Gibbs, Bright & Co. (Antony’s nephew George) bought the SS Great Britain for a mere £25,000, starting over 35 years of Gibbs association with the ship, the majority of its working life. They had previously been underwriters and agents for Great Western Steamship Company, and Robert Bright appears to have been chairman. Letters between Robert and his father express his father’s grave concerns over the building of an iron ship. They undertook a thorough refit, strengthened the hull and upgraded the engines before putting her back on the Liverpool to New York run for a single voyage, before transferring the SS Great Britain to the Australia run in 1852.
A similar acquisition story to her iron sister ship, the Royal Charter, bought by Gibbs Bright & Co. following difficulties launching her on the river Dee ruined her owners. She was then refitted, lengthened and strengthened for the Australia run at the peak of the gold rush, before her tragic loss off Anglesey in “the storm of the century” in 1859.
The SS Great Britain completed thirty-two voyages from Liverpool to Australia over the next twenty years, carrying over 33,000 passengers. There appears to be some confusion over which company she was owned by; contemporary adverts indicate the “Liverpool & Australian Navigation Co. (Gibbs, Bright & Co. agents)”, same as the registered owners of the Royal Charter. The Gibbs Bright Club write that she was ‘sold’ to L&ANC after her first Australia run, while other records show both ships as still operated by Gibbs Bright & Co. Wikipedia indicates that the ship was bought by Antony Gibbs & Sons for the Australia service, but this seems unlikely. The Liverpool & Australian Navigation Company (changed to the Liverpool & Australian Steam Navigation Company in 1852) was a subsidiary of Gibbs, Bright & Co.
Reminiscent of our current Coronavirus lock-down, the SS Great Britain had a smallpox outbreak on board at sea in 1854, and had to go into “self-isolation” quarantine at the Sanitary Station 50km outside Melbourne harbour for 3 weeks. A foreshadow of recent cruise ship experiences.
By 1876 the SS Great Britain had become outdated and emigrant numbers were falling, as she returned to Liverpool from her last passage from Australia. She lay idle at Birkenhead for five years before she was acquired for £6,500 by Antony Gibbs & Sons (they absorbed Gibbs Bright in 1881) for bulk trade between Britain and San Francisco as a sailing ship. Stripped of her engines and the hull sheathed in wood, from 1882 the Great Britain carried mainly Welsh coal and wheat. In 1886 she was badly damaged in a storm off Cape Horn and was forced to take shelter. Beyond economic repair, the Great Britain was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a floating storage hulk, thus ending 35 years of Gibbs association.
I came across a later family association in Peter Gibbs’ memories of his time in Antarctic; during their stop-over in the Falklands he and two friends “rafted” out to the wrecked SS Great Britain in 1957 … see exerts below.
Marooned far away, the rusted ruins of the Great Britain were salvaged and floated home in 1970. The BBC Chronicle – The Great Iron Ship recounts this rescue. Bristol is now celebrating the 50th anniversary of the SS Great Britain’s return to Bristol. “The extraordinary rescue and 8,000-mile homecoming journey is a story of optimism and achieving success against the odds. Today, the SS Great Britain is the centrepiece of the award-winning visitor attraction, surrounded by two museums in her historic dockyard.”
SS Great Britain: divers remember salvage on 50th anniversary – Lyle Craigie-Halkett and Stuart Whatley took part in 1970 raising of Brunel steamship (The Guardian)
Two divers who exactly half a century ago helped salvage the SS Great Britain have described the moment the skeleton of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship rose from the seabed – and how the rescue mission nearly ended in disaster when the vessel immediately drifted towards rocks.
In April 1970 Lyle Craigie-Halkett and Stuart Whatley worked day and night in the cold, dark, storm-whipped water of a bay just off the Falkland Islands to patch the ship’s perforated hull using steel, wood and even mattresses donated by locals. But when the vessel stubbornly refused to float, the pair and the rest of the team went off for breakfast only to come dashing back when it suddenly popped up and threatened to head towards rocks or the open sea.
Craigie-Halkett, now 78, said: “We had spent days patching her up but she was reluctant to float. We hadn’t slept for two nights or had a decent meal break and it was blowing a real gale.” As they went off for breakfast, Craigie-Halkett said that he spotted the wreck beginning to rock a little and a few bubbles rising from the seabed. “I didn’t pay as much attention as I would have if I had been fresh and perky but I realised later that the bubbles were caused by the suction breaking between the bottom of the ship and the seabed,” he said.
They had settled down to eat when someone shouted: “The Britain’s moving!” Craigie-Halkett, a Falklands Islander who now lives in Hampshire, continued: “We went hell for leather back. She was starting to move.” They manoeuvred other vessels to nudge the Great Britain back to safety and switched off the pumps, which allowed it to rest back on to the seabed. “She could have drifted away and would almost certainly have been wrecked on the rocky outcrops nearby,” said Craigie-Halkett. “The results would have been disastrous.”
During the subsequent days the ship was secured, and on 24 April 1970, SS Great Britain began an 87-day journey back to its home city of Bristol, with thousands turning out to welcome the ship back into the river Avon. The vessel has been gleamingly restored and is one of the south-west’s most popular tourist attractions. Plans are afoot to celebrate the anniversary of the ship’s return in the summer.
Launched in 1843, SS Great Britain was the first propeller-driven, iron-hulled steamship. After a successful career it was damaged in a storm and used as a storage hulk before being scuttled in 1937. The vessel remained in Sparrow Cove until the salvage plan was hatched to raise it and take it home.
Whatley, also 78 and working as a gamekeeper in Wiltshire, said he did not know anything about the SS Great Britain before taking on the job to help save it. He said the vessel they found was fragile. “The hull was full of mud and dirt and you could easily poke your finger through,” he said. The water the ship was resting in was shallow but dark and cold and the salvage needed determination and ingenuity. As well as patching the holes they had to dig a tunnel in the seabed to reach the keel to carry out repairs there.
Despite the frantic rush to save the vessel when it unexpectedly floated, Whatley had time to take in the sight of Brunel’s ship rising up. “Those sharp bows coming out of the water was the most magnificent sight I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Peter Gibbs recalls visiting the SS Great Britain in his memoirs of 2 years spent in the Antarctic
“Back in Stanley there was talk of a dance for the Britannia crew but Henry, Dick, Jerry, Hugh and I adopted a private plan going across the bay in the Biscoe’s motorboat, thanks to Jerry the Bosun, and landing near the floating wreck of the SS Great Britain. Dick and Jerry had got supplies from the Biscoe’s larder and also a .22 rifle. There was plenty of driftwood and stones for a crude shelter and the supply of food was augmented with two geese that I shot. (To my chagrin I discovered later from Doc Slessor that they were protected Flightless Rail!). We went climbing on some slab outcrops. As we were cooking our meal in the late afternoon light in between a shower or two, a helicopter came down and landed nearby. We wondered a bit guiltily if we were wanted men. Out stepped two officers of the SS Britannia. “May we have your kind permission to shoot hares on your land, Sir?” said one of them. We called their bluff for just a moment longer and then shared a laugh and a mug of tea.
The structure sheltered all five of us alright and we had a rare adventure next day like schoolboys on an outward-bound initiative course. The competition was to reach the wrecked Great Britain, a good couple of hundred yards offshore, on rafts. Henry and I made one that started sinking just as we reached the wreck. He was thrown into the water and swam to shore in a cold state. Hugh reached the wreck on a single large piece of timber. Jerry’s bicycle-type raft never floated at all. We gorged on hare left by the shooters. In the afternoon I walked back to Stanley around the coast, about 15 miles, but slow where the Murrell river estuary required a long deep wade.”
Interesting website links
- History Press: The Launch of SS Great Britain
- The Bristol Venue site for SS Great Britain
- Wikipedia: SS Great Britain
- Gibbs Bright Club: The SS Great Britain
- BBC Archive Chronicle – The Great Iron Ship
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