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Sail Gives Way to Steam

Image: SS Great Britain 1

In 2005 the BBC Radio 4 Today programme held a listeners’ poll.  It was to decide the nation’s favourite painting.  Or, at least, the favourite of the famously clued-up Radio 4 audience.  The winner was J M W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.  It showed one of the last of the ships that fought in the Battle  of Trafalgar being towed along the Thames to the breaker’s yard.  The proud vessel is being hauled by a steam-driven, paddle-wheel tug.

Turner painted the scene in 1838.  His work was shown at the Royal Academy in 1839, an immediate  critical and popular success.  The public readily appreciated the nostalgia of the famous man of war that had helped bring victory in 1805.  It would soon recognise the symbolism of the sailing vessel being taken for scrap by a dirty, smoky steam tug.  The old maritime world was giving way to the new.

Brunel’s ship, the SS Great Britain, was launched five years after Turner painted the Temeraire.  It had masts and sails, but also a huge steam engine.  The ship attracted popular attention through press reports and the accounts of passengers who travelled on board. It was a time when steam was being used more and more in factories, mines, railways and ships.  The Great Britain presented a view of a world to come, although one which would take some time to arrive.  The SS Great Britain’s engine was primitive compared with others being developed.  It was replaced by a smaller, more efficient engine in 1852, and in 1876 even this one was considered unsuitable.  It was removed and the Great Britain became just a sailing ship. 

During its working life on the oceans it carried general passengers to New York, emigrants to Australia, soldiers to the Crimea, and then as a cargo vessel moved coal, wheat and guano across the globe.  It sailed round the world 32 times.  But in 1886 the ship was damaged in storms of Cape Horn.  The captain took it to the Falkland Islands, where it was sold to the Falkland Islands Company for use as a storage hulk. 

In 1937 it was scuttled in shallow water and sat there on the seabed for the next 33 years.  Finally, an epic salvage project refloated the ship, loaded it onto a huge pontoon, and it was towed back to Bristol where it was returned to the dock it was built in.  The year was 1970.  As it was moved through the Avon Gorge it passed under the Clifton suspension bridge designed by Brunel, and was greeted by crowds of people, many of whom had arrived using the former Great Western Railway system, also originally Brunel’s work.

Image: SS Great Britain 2

I first visited the ship in its dock during the 1970s when working at the Ironbridge Museum. There was a huge amount for the restorers to do as it was a rusty hull, missing most of  its masts and rigging.  It proved to be a long haul, with big problems along the way.  Not only had the finance to be raised but decisions taken about how it should be reconstructed.  There was a major setback when decking that had been re-laid proved a failure, meaning new decking had to be obtained. 

The mix of sail power and steam power is shown by the seven masts (as in the original configuration) being joined by a tall funnel.  The bridge on the SS Great Britain is a simple structure aft of the funnel.  Skylights are common in the Weather, or Upper, Deck, allowing daylight to shine down into the Promenade Deck immediately below.  Besides the anchors, capstans and other equipment on the Weather Deck can now be seen a wooden shed with a life-size model  of a pig, and another with a cow.  The original vessel carried many such animals on deck, to be slaughtered one by one as the voyage progressed. 
For the first years of its service, the ship’s Weather Deck was divided into areas for first, second and steerage class passengers to walk, white painted lines marking the limits.

Image: SS Great Britain 3

Shipboard life in the first years of the SS Great Britain’s service has been indicated in the reconstructions.  Later, it became a cargo vessel.  The first class dining saloon has only one passenger, still gazing at a fruit stand.  Perhaps she arrived well ahead of the others, hungry after a day or two feeling that food was not to be faced as the ship rolled about.  But wait: there  is a pile of dirty plates and a the remains of a roast pig’s head on one table.  Is she the last to leave?  Perhaps the table set out with a full set of clean tableware suggests several passengers felt seasick and declined the meal.  Of course, a museum display may have to suggest two or three different stages in an activity.  It is like having two or three photo snapshots taken at different times.  Not shown here is the steerage mess deck, cramped and much more basic in design.

The ship’s surgeon is at work dealing with an injury.  Without modern medicines and techniques (and no anaesthetics beyond large amounts of alcohol), he had few resources.  Illnesses were often dealt with using the black, slug-like, leeches in the jar.  They were placed on the skin and left to gorge themselves on quantities of blood.  

Image: SS Great Britain 4

The ship often carried six hundred passengers and crew on a voyage.  They all had to be fed with meals appropriate to the ticket they had bought.  First class passengers sometimes commented that the meals were as good as in a smart restaurant.  Steerage class might have to rely on porridge sweetened with treacle, salt meat boiled in pease soup, and hard ship’s biscuits.  Alcohol was available and often indulged in. 

Everything had to be loaded before the voyage began; nothing could be bought along the route.  Poultry, pigs, sheep and a few cattle were crammed on the deck.  Their steady reduction in numbers by the two butchers working aboard at least freed up some space.  The dockside displays around the preserved Great Britain show barrels of wine, barrels and tins of meat, crates of vegetables and fruit and sacks of potatoes.  An ice house on board supplied ice for keeping meat fresh for a time, but it was inevitable that some stores would go rotten, especially if bad weather delayed the journey.  Ten cooks, two bakers and a storekeeper had their work cut out producing meals day by day.

Image: SS Great Britain 5

The steam engines in  the SS Great Britain were designed by Thomas Guppy, working on a principle suggested by Brunel’s father, Mark Brunel.  Boiler steam was fed to four giant pistons driving the propeller shaft via a huge chain drive.  Constant stoking of the boilers by shovelling coal was necessary.  The heat in the engine compartment was staggering.  Enough equipment has been  replicated sufficiently to indicate the arrangement of the engines and boilers.  The coal bunkers have been omitted in favour of platforms where modern visitors can stand.  They can gaze down into the stoking area where the coal was thrown into the furnaces – a ‘stoker’ is at work.  But modern visitors were not the first to see the machinery.  Passengers on the original voyages were taken on tours of this area by the Chief Engineer.  Victorians were fascinated by their new world.  They took every opportunity to look over factories, transport systems and public services.

Image: SS Great Britain 6

The ship now stands in its dry dock which is roofed over by the steel and glass structure mentioned earlier.  A dehumidification system keeps recirculated air dry to preserve the hull.  The metal tubes carrying the dry air run on either side of the keel and just below the glass ceiling.  The whole space contrasts with the ship’s interior.  Here, the feeling is one of modern science caring for what is, after all, an outstanding monument to the maritime revolution and its effect on the world.

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