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A Life on the Ocean Wave

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March 2018

The SS Great Britain’s keel was laid on the 19th of July 1839. On the 19th of July 1843 she was launched from Bristol docks. And on the 19th of July 1970, after a turbulent but colourful life on the ocean wave, with holes in her still-shapely hull stuffed with old mattresses so she could be tugged up the twisting Avon, the elderly lady was laid to rest in the same Bristol dry dock where she was made. If only she could talk. What stories she could tell of the people who trod her boards and travelled with her to the world’s end. Luckily, we can access many of these stories from the journals and diaries of passengers on route to Australia, and this was the subject of the presentation given by Cyril Routley to the March gathering of the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.

After several journeys between Liverpool and New York the SS Great Britain ran aground one stormy night in Dundrum Bay off the coast of Ireland. She stuck fast in the Irish mud for a year and her owners went bankrupt. Eventually refloated, she was bought by messrs Bright and Gibb (yes, the same family that built Tyntesfield) and completely refitted at Birkenhead. In 1851, hot on the heels of the California gold rush, came the Victoria gold rush at the southern tip of Australia. Thousands of people, including many Scots and Irish fleeing poor conditions, wanted to try their luck in Australia, and the SS Great Britain was the biggest and fastest ship afloat. Between 1852 and 1875 she made 32 round trips between Liverpool and Melbourne, where many of these fascinating passenger journals are kept.

Allan Gilmour was just 17 when he and his brother and father sailed to Australia to make their fortune, leaving the rest of their family behind in Glasgow. His diary describes life as a steerage passenger (3rd class), paying £20 for the 60 day journey. “Our births are well-ventilated (short for draughty) but very confined and dark. The distance between our bunks is only 2 feet so that only one can dress, and in this space we have to build part of our luggage. A number of wagers have been made, one person having lost £500 and another £120. A number of things are being raffled; a gold watch, a rifle, a pair of pistols etc.” He constantly complains that the breakfast porridge is not as good as Mum makes. Allan did not make his fortune in Australia. His father died soon after they arrived and the 2 boys returned home. His spirit of adventure was not broken, however. He emigrated to America and set up as a tobacco merchant.

For the 500 2nd and 3rd class passengers life below decks was dark and cramped, but up on deck would have been a hurly-burly of passengers singing, gambling, playing music and games, or trying to stroll among the animal pens where cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys were kept for the journey. Butchered carcases, hung from the mast to keep cool, occasionally fell on passengers causing serious injury. The small number of 1st class passengers (charged 70 guineas for the journey) might promenade on their exclusive 70 feet of deck cordoned off with a ‘1st class only’ sign, but the more adventurous may entertain themselves among the hustle and bustle of the lower classes, even though some wag erected his own sign saying ‘no 1st class passengers beyond this point’.

The 1st class passengers were required to dress for the very extensive dinner served at 4 o’clock among the Roman columns, mirrors and chandeliers of the 1st class dining room. One such passenger was Sister Mary Mulquin, a well-educated Irish nun leading a group of sisters to found a catholic school in Australia. “When we first arrived everyone was afraid to approach us, but soon the ice melted and they considered us the brightest lights on the Great Britain”. On her journey she learned German and navigation, held concerts and catholic services. She had a cabin with a washbasin and access to a private bathroom, but complained that her mattress was hard. The ship provided her with a maid, and inadvertently a pet. The ship’s cat took a liking to the nuns and commandeered their cabin for the journey.

After 1875 the elderly lady (the ship, not the nun) was mothballed for some years and then during a stint hauling coal from Bristol to San Francisco she caught fire and was beached in the Falkland Islands. There she languished until brought home in 1970. Nowadays the crowds and festivities that surround her recall the spectacular celebrations of arrivals and sailings from Liverpool or Melbourne.

An enormous amount of research has been done by the SS Great Britain team to bring those journeys back to life, and we thank Cyril for sharing the stories with us.


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.

NB during the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus pandemic the Society is not holding meetings at St Mary’s Hall but Zooming their meetings free of charge! Please contact Jenny Ovens, Secretary at for log on details.

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