As it made its slow way up the Avon in July 1970, people lined the riverbanks to see the 127-year-old incredible hulk return home. After an 8,000-mile, 87-day journey, SS Great Britain was back in its place of birth.
Approaching the port of Bristol, the extraordinary ship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel passed under the Clifton suspension bridge, another of the great engineer’s masterpieces. “Flags were flying, people were roaring and clapping,” recalled one witness. “Something took hold of the people of Bristol,” said another.
Fifty years ago on Sunday, the tide was high enough to lift SS Great Britain into the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard.
Marion Morrison, who had been commissioned by the Observer to photograph and write about the marathon operation to salvage the beached ship, was elated to see it come home. “I climbed up above the bridge to get a good vantage point as it passed beneath it. It was quite emotional,” she said.
This weekend, the ship, museum and dockyard reopened after 17 weeks of lockdown, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the ship’s return.
The closure has already cost the SS Great Britain Trust around £1m in visitor revenue, a figure that is expected to double by September. Meanwhile, conservation costs have remained high.
Brunel’s innovative design for the first propeller-driven, iron-hulled steamship revolutionised shipping. At the time, SS Great Britain was the largest ship in the world, at 1,930 tons and almost 100 metres long.
But it had a chequered history. It started as a transatlantic passenger ship, and then spent 24 years carrying emigrants to Australia – more than 16,000 in total, many intent on making a fortune in the 19th-century gold rush – and troops to and from the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.
In the early 1880s, it was converted into a three-masted sailing ship, transporting Welsh coal to America’s west coast. On its third trip, after being damaged in a storm off Cape Horn, the ship sheltered in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands where it was used to store wool for 47 years before eventually being towed to Sparrow Cove. There it was scuttled and left to rot.
|as she looked, rotting on the hard in the Falkland Islands|
But SS Great Britain was not forgotten. The idea of returning it to its birthplace began to capture imagination. In 1968, naval architect Ewan Corlett, who likened the 19th-century Great Britain to the 20th-century Concorde in technological advancement, proposed a salvage operation in a letter to the Times. Jack Hayward, a property millionaire and later owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, stumped up £150,000.
On the Falkland Islands, some said “the project was madness, others said the hulk should not leave … while one influential islander noted the money to be spent on the salvage would go halfway to paying for a much needed airstrip,” wrote Morrison.
The eventual 21-day salvage operation was not straightforward. A team of divers worked around the clock in icy water and stormy weather. A massive crack on the starboard side was stuffed with mattresses donated by islanders and patched up with plywood, and three huge masts weighing more than 30 tons each had to be removed before it could be refloated.
Meanwhile, a huge submersible pontoon towed by a trawler made its way from west Africa to the Falklands. Water was pumped out of the ship and, after several aborted attempts, it was towed over the submerged pontoon, which was then itself raised to take the rusting hulk out of the water. SS Great Britain was ready to begin its long journey back to Bristol, towed on the pontoon by a converted stern trawler.
Morrison and her husband Tony, a film-maker, documented the salvage operation for the BBC. She was the only woman present, and was pregnant. When the ship was raised on the pontoon and towed out of Sparrow Cove, Morrison took the stunning photograph that graced the cover of the Observer’s colour supplement.
Her story about the salvage was written on her portable typewriter during a three-day stopover in Montevideo, Uruguay, before she flew back to the UK. In the days before electronic communication, she took her typed story into the Observer’s offices when she reached London.
Looking back, she said: “We were so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was an incredible privilege to record the salvage of the Great Britain, a once-in-a–lifetime historic experience and an amazing achievement. Yes, it was challenging and exhausting at times but we really shared the joy of the crew when finally the old ship was brought home in 1970.”
Celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the ship’s return to Bristol are on hold until next year amid constraints imposed by Covid-19. The trust is not expecting large numbers of visitors to return for some time, and it will rely principally on interest and support from local people over the summer.
|as she looks now|
The story of the Great Britain’s rescue and homecoming was one of “audacity, ambition and ultimately achieving success against the odds,” said Paul Chibeba, the trust’s deputy creative director. “Conserving her for the nation is important, ensuring that Brunel’s innovative engineering continues to inspire future generations of entrepreneurs and engineers.”
A clear demonstration of how one person's vision and tenacity, along with some good fortune (consider how an Atlantic storm might have affected the outcome of this story!), funding, and a sense of history can make a difference. Bravo to Marion Morrison for documenting this significant event in maritime history!
Until next time,