The incredible journey: SS Great Britain
Postponed from last year due to bad weather, Philip Unwin was finally able to give his talk on how the SS Great Britain was brought back in the Falkland Islands and saved from dereliction.
He began by recapping the extraordinary career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship’s designer. Evidently a difficult man to work with, Brunel built bridges and ships as well as railways – the Great Western Railway being the most familiar – but he also built railways in other countries such as India and Italy. A workaholic, his ability to solve engineering problems brought him huge success.
His Great Western ship, a wooden sailing paddle steamer, operated the first scheduled transatlantic passenger service. Despite all her voyages being profitable, Brunel wanted to realise economies of scale, and also to introduce a propeller instead of the paddles, which were unsuited to ocean waves.
The SS Great Britain was the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven, ocean-going steam and sail ship in the world. Her revolutionary design changed shipbuilding for ever. She took passengers to New York, emigrants to Australia, and troops and horses to the Crimea. Eventually she was converted to a sailing ship and carried cargoes of coal. After a disastrous fire on board she was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a container ship in Port Stanley until she was abandoned in 1933. Five years later she was scuttled in a nearby cove.
Thanks to the generosity of the philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward, a German barge company was contracted to undertake the ambitious task of bringing the ship back to Bristol. Despite the misgivings of many Falkland Islanders, the company successfully refloated the ship and secured it on to a huge barge, which was then towed back up the Atlantic. On 19 July 1970, the SS Great Britain arrived back 127 years to the day in the dock from which it was launched.
The large audience were fascinated by Philip Unwin’s fluent presentation and were inspired to visit the restored ship.