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Death and Disease on the SS Great Britain

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January 2007

Anyone entering Bristol today along the Portway cannot fail to notice and be impressed by the majestic presence of the city's grand old lady, the SS Great Britain, resting in the dock where she was created in 1843 in the Cumberland Basin. So important is her presence in modern Bristol that it is likely that most people would be able to tell you something about her history, even if it is only that her designer was the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But, I wonder, how many people have stopped to give a thought to the people who sailed her and who sailed on her? This was the recent subject of a fascinating talk to The Thornbury Society for Archaeology and Local History given by Dr John Crossley.

Dr Crossley's interest would have undoubtedly been influenced by the fact that he is himself a former medic and his research will have been helped by the fact that significant medical logs were kept by the ship's doctors of the time. When she was at sea, passengers also enjoyed a ship's newspaper which historians today can turn to as a record of events on-board at the time.

As many of you will know, the SS Great Britain was launched on the 19th July 1843 in the presence of Prince Albert. The date is auspicious as it is exactly the same date that she was returned to Bristol on a floating pontoon in 1970, this time in the presence of Prince Philip.

Brunel's iron ships were the biggest of their time. So strong were their bulkheads that if the Titanic had been one, it is highly likely that she would have survived the iceberg strike which brought her infamy. Despite this, the era of the iron ship lasted only about forty years and for all her physical strengths, the SS Great Britain suffered difficulties throughout her useful life. A significant one was the constant problems she experienced with coaling, and another her propensity to roll violently. Many of the entries in the ship's doctor's logs, therefore, refer the daily incidences of sea-sickness which made the journey very uncomfortable for those affected.

The SS Great Britain's inaugural voyage was to New York. It was on this journey to which one of the first entries in the log refers. It is recorded that when she docked, some of the crew jumped ship and one broke his arm so badly that he was not expected to be able to earn his living again. So concerned were the ship's passengers on hearing this, that they clubbed together to provide a pension for the poor man, which probably says a great deal about the kind and wealth of the 19 people who were the Great Britain's first customers.

The Great Britain only made four such transatlantic crossings before changing her route to one between the UK and Melbourne, Australia. In order to make her economically viable, the number of passengers she could carry had to be significantly increased to six hundred. This inevitably increased the workload for the ship's doctor and it was during these voyages that the Captain of fifteen years, Captain Gray, committed suicide by jumping from one of the rear windows of the ship. He was never seen again. It is recorded that the poor man left a widow and six or seven children.

Alongside the passengers, the Great Britain's other commercial interest was as a mail ship and carrier of bullion. The former provided her with tight deadlines and the latter with the need for her to be repainted with false gun ports to deter anyone of ill-intent from attempting to raid her. The need to adhere to tight commercial deadlines meant that the outbreak of an epidemic amongst the passengers could be a commercial catastrophe. It appears that the Great Britain was not exempt from episodes of Smallpox which if declared on arrival at port, would result in the whole ship being quarantined for a period of forty days, thus threatening this commercial viability. So important was this to the ship's owners that there is one entry in the doctor's log which records how a passenger thought to be suffering from the disease was set adrift in a small boat just off Melbourne in order for the ship to be able to declare herself free of 'the pox' and allowed to enter port.

It is also recorded that the boredom of the long passage, often resulted in some passengers imbibing too much alcohol. On one occasion, whilst under the influence, an emigrating Cornish miner assaulted the ill-fated Captain Gray, for which he was slapped in the brig to sober up.

The ship's newspaper also records that there were a number of complaints about the food on these long passages. Whilst the doctor's log does not go so far as to say they were suffering from 'scurvy', a significant amount of the doctor's time was clearly being spend in dealing with those passengers whose stomachs found the menus disagreeable.

The problems of infection and analgesia were clearly not confined to maritime surgeons, but the Great Britain did have her share of emergency surgery. The log records passengers who needed appendectomies and some cases of childbirth. With high mortality rates, it is almost inevitable that the SS Great Britain would not escape her share of funerals and the log records that a number of these took place at sea. One particularly poignant burial at sea was that of an over-curious young lad of eleven who lost his footing whilst below decks observing the workings of the engines, and paid a high price.

On a lighter note, the SS Great Britain carried the first England cricket team to contest the Ashes. During some light-hearted practice in the saloon, the log records that the bat slipped from the hands of the batsman and flew across the deck to strike another passenger in the face creating the need for attention from the ship's doctor.

Indeed, the doctor himself was apparently not exempt from tragedy and records show that the steward to Dr Alexander was washed overboard and lost on one of the Great Britain's voyages.

In her later passenger bearing years, 1855-56, when she was being used as a troop transport ship to the Crimea, the serving doctor recorded many incidents of Cholera on board. The Great Britain's hunger for coal inevitably necessitated re-fuelling on the longer journeys. This always put her crew and passengers at risk of on-shore epidemics with Cholera being one of the greatest fears of the time.

The SS Great Britain's passenger bearing days came to an end in 1882 when she was bought by Anthony Gibbs who commissioned her as a grain transporter sailing between Penarth and San Francisco. It was on one of these journeys that she ran aground off Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands where she remained until her glorious return to Bristol in 1970.

The rest, as they say, is history.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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