Iconic Ships 8: The SS Great Britain

September 2021

Dr Sam Willis meets the team at the ss Great Britain in Bristol to discover why she deserves the title ‘Iconic’. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843 she was to be a luxurious passenger ship the likes of which the world had never seen. The largest vessel afloat; the longest in the world; made of iron rather than timber; fitted with a steam engine of 1000 hp, the most powerful ever used at sea; driven with a propeller rather than paddle wheels, the proven and established technology; she was also fitted with six masts: it’s not surprising that, at her launch she was described as ‘the greatest experiment since creation’. Left to rot in the Falkland islands after a remarkable and varied career, the ss Great Britain was brought back to Bristol, to the very dock in which she was built, where she has been conserved for the public to enjoy and learn about her extraordinary history. Sam speaks with Joanna Thomas, the ss Great Britain’s Maritime Curator, and Nicola Grahamslaw, the ship’s conservation engineer to find out more.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. This episode continues our series on iconic ships, in which we ask a historian to explain why their chosen ship might be iconic, or we asked the curator of a historic ship to explain why their surviving ship deserves the title iconic. And this week we’re on episode eight of this mini series, I can’t believe we’ve done eight already. It’s shaping up beautifully. If you haven’t listened to any of these, I’d urge you all to go back through our archive of episodes and listen to them. We’ve had an episode on the Mary Rose that Tudor warship which sank in battle in 1545. The Mayflower which transported pilgrims from Plymouth to the new world in 1620. What a story that is. HMS hood, the mighty Hood, Certainly one of the most famous warships in history of the battle cruiser lost with very nearly all hands in 1941, the Cutty Sark the fabulous tea clipper that still survives on the riverside in Greenwich. The light cruiser from the Second World War, HMS Belfast, another London based historic ship and icon of the Thames riverscape. The USS Constitution one of the world’s most iconic historical vessels, a surviving veteran of the War of 1812. I could never get over that sentence. Sometimes history is telescopic and sometimes surprisingly, astonishingly close made real by the survival of huge and complex man made machinery perhaps none more so than a sailing man of war, like USS Constitution. We’ve also included HMS Bellerophon, the Billy Ruffian built in 1786 and such a fabulous key for following the events of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Well today we have one of my favorites the SS Great Britain. My favorite not least because as a young maritime historian, the fabulous team at this magnificent historic vessel in Bristol, gave me a home and still, to my frank astonishment, a job shortly after I left University. So do please enjoy this episode. I loved going back and interviewing the team so generous with their time as always, as you listen do bear in mind that we will be holding a vote later in the year to determine exactly which of our featured ships deserves the title of most iconic. So to the SS Great Britain. Before we hear all about her from her team, here are some basic facts to help orientate you in the bewildering oceans of history. She was launched in the summer of 1843, in an extraordinary era when wooden hulls were giving way to iron, and sail was giving way to steam. She was designed by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most gifted engineers in history who turned the full beam of his genius into maritime affairs in this period, culminating in the SS Great Britain. I always imagine her as the creation of a cartoon-mad genius like megamind. So jaw dropping were Brunel’s innovations, I would have adored being at his early design meetings You’re going to do what, would have been the refrain time and time again, along with plenty of muttering. She was to be a luxurious passenger ship the likes of which the world had never seen before. The largest vessel afloat, the longest vessel in the world. She was to be made of iron, fitted with a steam engine of 1000 horsepower the most powerful ever used at sea. She was to be driven with a propeller rather than a paddle wheel the proven and established technology. She was also fitted with six masts, it’s not surprising that at her launch, she was described as the greatest experiment since creation. Wow, that is some quote. There is no one better tell us about her than two members of the team of the SS Great Britain, who invited me to the fabulous dockyard in Bristol where she was built, and remarkably, where she still lies. I spoke with Joanna Thomas maritime curator and Nicola Grahamslaw, the ship’s conservation engineer, who between them have a fairly serious job to do, keeping Brunel’s magnificent creation of a ship, shipshape for future generations. And they have to do all of that with the ghost of Brunel himself peering over their shoulder, checking their work, checking their calculations. I’m not sure I’d like that very much. I was very impressed with their steely demeanor In the face of history itself, so here are Joanna and Nicola.

     

    Sam Willis 

    A bit of shade. Right, here we are, we’re standing underneath the stern of the SS Great Britain. And it’s magnificent. And I’ve always been amazed by the gilding. And I quite like the cornucopia, the fruit coming out of the horns on the side. They’re amazing. So tell me about this ship.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Well, the Great Britain is now in the dock where she was launched in 1843. It’s amazing to have her back in the place where the ship was constructed, launched from, she was launched in 1843, as the very first iron hulled screw propelled steamship, specifically built as an ocean going ship. So she broke any boundaries of engineering ship design that you can think of by the 1840s. She is an absolutely beautiful ship, what you would probably call beautiful lines, beautiful, sleek lines with a clipper bow, largest ship in the world when she was launched. And she was specifically designed to carry first class passengers to New York. So luxuriously decorated cabins. So a state of the art, an engineering marvel, and masterpiece when she was launched,

     

    Sam Willis 

    yeah, I mean, it’s worth thinking about just the huge number of technical innovations that have gone into this where we’re standing here we’re looking at the stern of the ship, and in some respects, it looks like a wooden stern. So we’ve got these very characteristic stern gallery windows, which you might associate with, say, an 18th century ship, but it’s made of iron. On the one hand, you got that, and then below us here, we’re looking through this glass, roof. I mean, we’ll go on to talk about this. But one of the things about the SS Great Britain is in terms of being iconic is of course that what you guys have done with the preservation and conservation, so you can see through the sea to the great propeller. So it’s fascinating, isn’t it this this mixture of periods and styles?

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes, I think, obviously the famous engineer isn’t by Kingdom Brunel, who was involved in her construction and her design. He very much was aware, not just off engineering and pushing the boundaries of engineering and building the biggest ship in the world. But also, I think he was very much aware of design and pleasing the eye and pleasing the public. So this was not just a ship built to break boundaries and to incorporate new construction technologies and new materials and shipping. She was also very much a ship that was if you like a floating palace, you had to appeal to high society, they were the people who are going to travel on the ship. So this is also a showpiece

     

    Sam Willis 

    was a showpiece for British engineering, isn’t it but it’s not certainly this the early stage of its career not it’s not a ship for the people. It’s not a ship for everyone is it’s a real top end thing.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Very much so is first class only cabins, only high society would have been able to travel on board the ship. She is called the Great Britain she is anything that makes Britain great. That’s what Brunel basically wanted to signify with that name. And with the design of the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Interesting kind of what that suggests about Bruno’s perception of society. And we’ve just moved around to the starboard side. Now we’ve got a beautiful view from the stern quarter. There are masts, but how many are there are so many. There are six.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes, so the Great Britain was obviously a steamship. But for her time, she was designed as a sail assist steamship. So her rigging consists of six masts, she was the world’s very first six master schooner. And her rigging was actually specifically designed to work alongside the engine. So the rig is not just there to help out in case the engine breaks down. It’s very much designed to work alongside the engine to propel the ship forward as fast as possible.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And what was the sail plan?

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    So you have six masts, all fore and aft rig, you have square sails on the main mast, which is mast number two, but yeah, effectively a schooner rig.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s like Brunel was trying to break the rules with everything Wasn’t he wasn’t just the engine. It was just a propeller. It wasn’t just a construction,

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    anything. I mean, you know, the Great Britain was initially designed as a paddle steamer. So it was halfway through construction when Brunel saw this new technology of the screw propeller that Francis Pettit Smith was showing off in Bristol on a different vessel. And he saw this new technology and thought Wow, this looks incredible. So he ran long tests to actually test the screw propeller. And then he had to convince his funders and the company directors that  he had to change his new ship halfway through construction, from paddles to screw propeller. So Brunel was not one for just designing something and then going with it. He was constantly working on it, constantly tinkering on it, and constantly on the lookout for new technologies.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean it will he do it obviously, not necessarily mastered but he’d had a go what screw paddle ships as before hadn’t he ?

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Well yes. Initially the Great Western Steamship Company launched the Great Western the first ship and she was a traditional wooden paddle steamer. I mean, she was the largest ship again in the world when she was launched, but very much a traditional wooden paddle steamer. And that was the first ship that Brunel was involved in with in the construction. So I think he kind of tried to have a go at steamships initially, and then got his confidence during the construction of that first ship, and then had a proper go and was fully involved with the Great Britain

     

    Sam Willis 

    Great Britain. And then you had the Great Eastern as well, that

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Which is  afterwards, she was launched in London, in 1859, Brunel’s third large ship, and obviously there was a huge problems with the launch of the Great Eastern, it took them several months to launch her. She was again huge, I mean, the largest ship in the world. For many, many years, I think she was only surpassed just at the turn of the 20th century, a huge mammoth of a ship that you built both paddles and screw propeller actually. But again, of iron construction, so he continuously tried to push the boundaries and build something new.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So we got the Great Britain into that sits in between the Great Western and the Great Eastern. Yes, and she’s absolutely magnificent. So starts off as this top end, first class only passenger ship what happens next.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    So the ship was then tinkered about a little bit changed slightly, the rigging was changed to just improve a little bit, to work alongside her engines. She was reduced from six to five masts. And then she was really primed and set and primed to fulfil that promise of fast transatlantic communication and transport to New York. And then disaster struck. After only four voyages to New York, she ran aground in Dundrum Bay on the coast of Northern Ireland in 1846. And that was the end of her North Atlantic,  career,  so short, yes, so she only made those four voyages, and she never travelled with a full complement of passengers. She was so new that Lloyds refused to register her because they were just so unsure about the technology. They didn’t know how to assess that. But she was finally ready to fully embrace that potential that she had. And it was cut short by a tragic navigational error.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So she stuck on the sand at Dundrum Bay, was she damaged by that she said for quite a long time.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    She was there for pretty much a year. She was stuck, stuck fast on the sands, not damaged. She was still sound in her hull and everything. But she was just stuck fast, and they couldn’t pull her off the sands. She weathered the winter gales on the coast of Northern Ireland. And we believe that she only survived that year on the in Dundrum Bay because of her sound construction because of her iron hull. If she had been made of wood, she would have been smashed to pieces in that year. So she’s a real survivor.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Absolutely. So they eventually get the ship off the sand at Dundrum Bay, which is a kind of an engineering achievement in itself as they stated to Brunel,  we’ve got a serious problem

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Very much so, I think there’s a lovely letter written by Brunel where he just can’t believe that the company doesn’t get to move on and actually saves this ship. And he writes this lovely thing about going to visit the ship in Dundrum Bay, and she’s just lying on the beach like a useless saucepan. So something should be done to protect her. He construct a temporary breakwater to cover the stern of the ship so that it takes the brunt of the waves and the wind coming in. But yes, that’s sadly the end of her North Atlantic career.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So how is she then repurposed.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    She gets salvaged. But it basically breaks the company so that to pay the for the salvage of the Great Britain from Dundrum Bay, they have to sell off the first ship, the Great Western, the company goes bankrupt, and they have to sell the Great Britain as well. She is then sold to Gibbs Bright and Company who are actually partially already invested in her during the Great Western Steamship Company days, and they repurpose her for the Australia run. So a completely different new career in that she’s now not transporting high society, people to New York, to visit family, do business trips, go shopping, possibly, I don’t know if that was the thing at the time. But she then carries hundreds and hundreds of emigrants to Australia. So it’s a different time of her life, not what Brunel intended her for, but very much still making a huge impact. It proves to be the longest part of her working life and hugely successful even though she’s no longer the the luxurious passenger liner on the North Atlantic. She then fulfils that new promise of carrying 1000s and 1000s of people to Australia

     

    Sam Willis 

    Primarily under sail because it’s so far. I think you know, the ships moved on from the, you know, the these early engineering breakthroughs. Let’s go back and talk about those a little bit. Let’s talk about her propeller because it’s a wonderful looking thing. It’s not what you might imagine a propeller to look like

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    No, her propeller has got six blades. And actually, it has been tested by modern engineers, and they say it is as efficient as a modern propeller. So Brunel did his work. And it’s a beautiful thing to look at. It was made of iron at the time as well. So it actually only lasted for one or two voyages before the blade started shearing off on the voyages. But that was not down to the design of the propeller that was just the material  couldn’t keep up with Bruno’s designs. Had it been made of steel, it probably would have lasted a lot longer.

     

    Sam Willis 

    What do we know about the engine? Why was that important?

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    So the engine was about 1000 nominal horsepower. It was the largest marine engine ever built by that point. It was actually Brunel’s  father, Mark Brunel who designed the engine. But as such, it wasn’t a groundbreaking engine. At the time, it was just, it was it nicely fitted into the ship, it actually the pistons actually got faced downward. So it’s like in a V shaped facing downward.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s fascinating how Mark Brunel constantly rears his head in the story of the wonderful Isambard. So let’s go back to the being a sailing ship on the Australia route, an emigrant ship. And I’ve always liked the idea of ships being an agent for change, so bear with me, but this is interesting. So you’ve got all these people who write who get on a ship, and then they go somewhere, miles away, and it takes some ages to get there. And by the time they’ve arrived, they’re actually different people. they’ve experienced the world in a different way. And there’s some fact one of the things I love about this museum is the carved  graffiti that survives,

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    yes. So there are carved deck planks and  sheathing planks that were actually found in the forecastle, which were the crew accommodation. And they’re carved with their graffiti, their names, and we are able to link the graffiti to the names on the crew agreements. So it’s absolutely fascinating that we have not just the names of the people who worked on the ship on a piece of paper, we actually have their signature carved into the very fabric of the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Get me off. It’s a bit like being in prison people writing on walls. I mean, funnily enough, the there is some remarkably similar graffiti in the SS Great Britain to that in  York Jail. Yes, yeah. But yeah, this does really make you think of just how influential this ship would have been on the lives of so many people. Yes,

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    I mean, she was, if you think about it on the Australia run, she was a steam assisted sailing ship. So we still had an engine and her screw propeller, but she was carrying up to 700 passengers now by this point. There was an extra spar deck added on top just to maximise capacity to carry as many people as possible on each voyage, and the voyage to Melbourne from Liverpool would have taken him around 60 days. So you are at sea for 60 days with people you’ve never met before in very cramped conditions, and in effect, this is a floating city. This is almost a microcosm  of mid-19th century Society of people travelling together. You have first class passionate passengers travelling, we’ve got famous people like Anthony Trollope, the writer travelling out to Australia to visit his son, who was a sheep farmer there. And then you have people from all walks of life, Scotland, Ireland, from Europe, everybody travelling together in very cramped conditions, two months at sea, you’re not the same person when you get to the other end,

     

    Sam Willis 

    a really important part really the most important part of the part of her life as a ship. Then what happens after Australia.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    So by 1876, the ship becomes uninsurable as a passenger liner or as a passenger vessel. She’s had a very long life. She’s gone to Australia for over 20 years, she circumnavigated the globe 32 times. She had an incredible run at that, but she’s old by that point. Not really in the condition to carry people anymore.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So you just said something I’ve kind of glossed over that circumnavigated the globe 32 times Yes. I didn’t know that. That’s unbelievable.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    She literally did that. She went left Liverpool went round Africa, the Cape of Good Hope to Melbourne Australia, left there across the Pacific ground at Cape Horn and went up through the South Atlantic. So yes, that was one voyage to Australia was a circumnavigation of the globe.

     

    Sam Willis 

    She’s enjoying a well-known rest in person, but

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    yeah, so she once she is no longer insurable as a passenger vessel. She then gets sold off again after a few years and is actually converted to a sailing ship. So engines stripped out, all pomp and luxuriousness gone, and she carries coal from South Wales to San Francisco. So she starts as this luxurious steamship which relies on sailing ships carrying coal to all corners of the globe. And ends up as a sailing ship carrying coal for other steamships. So not the most glamorous of endings, but she had a good go at it. And she was damaged and damaged after only two voyages. She was damaged in a storm trying to round Cape Horn had to put into the Falkland Islands where she then was sold off as an insurance loss.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So we get to this amazing bit of the story where the SS Great Britain with all of the magnificent history behind it is is just kind of abandoned as a Hulk Yes, in the Falkland Islands. Yes,

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    I mean, she is used as a floating warehouse. She’s sold off as an insurance loss but continues her working life if you like, not at sea, but afloat in Port Stanley harbour, and they use her as a floating warehouse to store water and coal. And until she then finally was just so far gone that she was in danger of sinking and blocking Stanley harbour. So in 1937, she was then finally towed out to Sparrow Cove just around the corner from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. And she was scuttled there on a sand bank. And that was that, you would think

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, 94 years I hear from Nicola 94 years. Yes. And then someone decided to bring her back.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes. So we have the infamous letter, the naval architect Ewen Corlett, wrote his letter to the Times newspaper in 1967. saying if we are saving all these historic ships, the most iconic should be saved as well. And that is Brunel’s SS Great Britain. She’s just rotting away in the Falkland Islands at the moment, can we not do something about it? And that letter to the times triggered what then followed over the next few years. And a team went down, Ewen Corlet himself went down to the Falkland Islands

     

    Sam Willis 

    in the 70s

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    in the late 60s. So in 18 sorry, 1968 or nine and 1967 he went down to the Falkland Islands and surveyed the ship and found that she was actually starting to hog. So she was laying on this sandbank,  slightly on her starboard side. And the sand was starting to wash away from underneath her at the bow and at the stern. And there was a huge crack developing on her starboard side. So she was starting to to break in two.

     

    Sam Willis 

    For those of you who don’t know, hogging is to  arch the back, like a cat almost.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes, exactly. So she’s starting to sag. Either end, yes, the two ends are sagging. And so she’s starting to break apart. But he says, with a lot of confidence ,that if we do this now we can salvage the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And they do. I mean, the photographs are unbelievable.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes, it was it was. I don’t know, it might have been a completely foolhardy undertaking. I’m not sure if it would happen today. But in 1970, they, they thought they could do it. And so a team went down to the Falkland Islands a team of British divers with the support of the Royal Navy. They had a German salvage company from Hamburg, who had a pontoon large enough, so a floating platform large enough, because they knew that the Great Britain wouldn’t have been able to cross the Atlantic to Bristol, on her own bottom, so she wouldn’t have been able to float all that way. But they planned to basically get a submergible pontoon, re float the ship in the Falklands, put the pontoon underneath the ship and then raise the pontoon out of the water to carry the ship home to Bristol. Yeah.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And back she comes. The photographs of people flag waving, it’s amazing.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes. So she comes back into Bristol,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Let’s get let’s get back to what we were talking about right at the beginning. It’s not just anywhere she’s coming back to the place that she was built.

     

    Joanna Thomas 

    Yes. So I think that is what makes the Great Britain in this place here in Bristol, so incredibly special that we have such a hugely strong sense of place in that this is the dockyard that was specifically constructed to build this ship. So this dock yard wouldn’t be here without the ship and the ship wouldn’t be here without the dock yard and she’s here in the dock yard where she was constructed. I think that’s that’s absolutely incredible that we were able to have her here in this place.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Like a hand in a glove. Yes. Absolutely beautifully. And I mean, there are so many different chapters to our history, which is what I find fascinating about it, but I think we should move on now and explore. You know what happened next how we get from the SS. Great Britain being back here to this this magnificent Museum, so we’re going to chat with someone else. Thank you very much.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Nichola, thank you so much for talking to us about, you know, you did tell me a little story about mattresses, what’s going on with the mattresses? Let’s start with those.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    So this is about how the ship actually came to be re floated. And as Joanna said Dr. Corlett when he surveyed the ship concluded that it would be possible to re float her, but really only just. It was a battle against time at this stage, and he estimated that probably there were only a few years left before she was not able to be salvaged. So, and one of the issues was that during her time as a floating warehouse, a large hole had been cut in her side, to allow her to be loaded and unloaded. And combined with the hogging, which we’ve also talked about, that meant that a large crack had opened up in the starboard side of the ship. So to get the ship afloat in the first place was no mean feat. They had to send divers underneath the water to plug up first of all the scuttling holes. But secondly, they had to find a way to, to kind of bodge a repair on this crack with the materials they had on hand. And so the way that they did that is they put a message out on the local radio in the Falkland Islands, appealing to any locals who might have spare unwanted old mattresses ,that the divers could then use to repair this crack. And it worked. They were they were then able to pump the water out of the ship and to get her back afloat so that they could then manoeuvre the pontoon underneath the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I do love the idea of people being posed with engineering problems, which Brunel himself would have solved. You know, as it kind of continues, and I think that’s one of the lovely stories of the SS Great Britain is that every turn you guys have been faced with significant engineering challenges have come up trumps. So the next time you get her in the dock, and then someone says, I know what we’ll do is put a glass ceiling on the dock, put some water on top, so it looks like she’s a float, however, you can walk underneath what a brilliant idea.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    What a brilliant idea indeed, in reality, it took over 30 years before that became a reality. So the ship came back, and in fact when she came through Bristol, there’s this really iconic moment on her way into the city, where she passed for the only time ever underneath Brunel’s other Bristol icon, the Clifton suspension bridge. Which of course, wasn’t completed until after his death. So that’s the only time when the SS Great Britain would have been underneath the suspension bridge. So to me, and there are a few really great photos of that moment. To me, that’s a really iconic moment. And the residents of Bristol came out in our droves to see the ship as you’ve already talked about. And in fact scattered rose petals from the bridge down, as she passed under. And then there was a two week or so wait once she got back into the city, and because to get her into the dry-dock required the very highest of spring tides. And it just so happened that the date that that spring tide was going to happen was the 19th of July, which is exactly the same date that the ship was launched.

     

    Sam Willis 

    No I don’t believe it.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    Absolutely, so the ship actually came into Bristol a fortnight before that, and had to sit and wait and kind of up there at the top of the

     

    Sam Willis 

    Historical poetry.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    Absolutely. So on the ships birthday was the day when the tide was at its highest spring level. And she could finally be manoeuvred into the Great Western dry dock. But at the time, that that wasn’t necessarily the long term plan for the ship. In fact, there wasn’t really a long term plan for the ship. There was some idea that perhaps she might be better in London, where she would get enough visitors to keep her financially viable. But in Bristol during her first few months, she was attracting over 2000 visitors a day. And you know that’s as many as we get on the busiest weekend of the year now. So she was really, really popular. But even with that happening, it was the project was run mostly by volunteers and had a bit of a hand to mouth existence over the next couple of decades. where they were. I mean, often people who work in conservation say it’s like paying on a treadmill. And so they’re trying to keep the whole of the ship from degrading, while also keeping us safe for visitors. And the group of people who were doing that. were mostly volunteers, the majority volunteers, and they were very well qualified, but certainly not as curators or as conservatives. So their experience was in looking after modern ships or still working ships. So from the perspective of the whole, they looked after the ship much as they would have looked after a still working ship. So she was pressure washed and all of the corrosion products were removed from her and then she was dried she was flame dried and then various of all of the various paints available at the time, lead paint etc. were applied and to try and keep the elements  out but because the iron was such an early example, if these wrought iron plates, and they had lots of impurities, lots of inclusions, and so the corrosion was literally happening from the inside out. So whatever coating they were applying would just come straight off, it was a challenge. And then so then by the mid-1990s, it was estimated that without some kind of large scale intervention, the ship would be structurally unsafe for visitors within 25 years. So that was when that was when the SS Great Britain, the SS Great Britain project knew that something had to really dramatically change

     

    Sam Willis 

    something significant, to allow people to come on because, you know, the, the visitors and the tourists are the lifeblood of ships like this. You don’t have people paying to come and see them. And there’s, there’s no hope at all

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    Even like money aside, what’s the point in putting all of this effort into bringing something this beautiful back into her home to create this, you know, really significant, this historic combination of ship and dry-dock. If nobody can appreciate that, and nobody can learn from it.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Was there it was a huge money, money raising efforts to get to the next stage.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    The SS Great Britain project where it had reached this point in its life, just as the National ,what’s now known as the National Lottery Heritage Fund was in its infancy, and they put together an enthusiastic but not particularly well informed application to the lottery. And you know, as I said, before, they were many of them were experts in their field, but their field was not object conservation. That field was not, nothing curatorial. So the lottery, saw this application and decided instead of awarding them a grant to restore the ship, instead, they were going to award them a smaller grant to employ a full time curator. And at that point, was the kind of opening of the next chapter of the SS Great Britain’s life. So reluctantly, the engineers handed over the ship, so to speak to this curator whose job it was to figure out a sustainable long term future for the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And when was it all completed? Here we are in this museum now, I mean, I do know that it’s an ever ongoing process, but it was, was it 2000, that the absolutely opened,

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    It never stopped. And it has never stopped. But the the kind of main body of the lottery funded works happened between 1997 and 2005. Over that period, and that involved research at Cardiff University. So the, the kind of main, the main thing behind the degradation, there are several things all coming into play here. First of all, you’ve got the fact that the ship in the dry dock is under a different set of forces to a ship afloat. So a ship afloat is designed to take this uniform kind of even compressive load all around the hull. But once you get her into the dry dock, you’ve got parts that were not designed to be in tension, which are suddenly in tension for the very long term. So that’s not great news. But then also, as we’ve said, the really aggressive chloride accelerated corrosion of the old and quite impure wrought iron. And that was the that was the thing that really needed to stop. So there was no prospect of the ship surviving, while this aggressive corrosion was happening on the lower part of the hull, and the research at Cardiff University, showed us that basically, if you want to stop corrosion, you have to remove either the salts, the water, or the oxygen. And the only one of those three things that it was practical to remove was the water. And the research at Cardiff University showed us that 20% relative humidity, which is about the dryness of the Arizona desert, is what would be required to keep the ship from corroding any further. So to keep her structurally safe,

     

    Sam Willis 

    that’s your challenge. You want to create the Arizona desert in Bristol,

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    you have to create, essentially an aircraft Boneyard in the dry dock in Bristol, because it’s this is exactly the same principle as the US military storing their metal in the Arizona desert. And that’s the reason they do it to stop corrosion.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And how was that done?

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    Well, as you can see from the size of the ship, to do that on to put a building around the whole ship would have been not only practically very difficult, but also it would have been a terrible shame and a terrible waste because she is such a an important part of the Bristol skyline. And I’m sure a lot of Bristolians would agree that the city is just not the same without them without these masks pointing up into the skyline. And so what the engineers did was they devised a way to focus the dehumidification on only the parts of the ships hull that needed it the most so that all of the parts of the iron which would have been soaked in that salt water for that time when she was at see the time when she was working. So we’ve got the outside of the hull underneath the waterline. But we’ve also got the inside of the hull. And that actually comes a little way above the waterline. And but primarily, it’s below the waterline, those are the parts where the most chloride has built up in the metal. So that’s the part where the corrosion is at its most aggressive. And by doing that, that was the only way by forming this glass seal. So for, for anyone who hasn’t seen the ship in the flesh, as it were, there’s what we have is we’ve got a glass plate, which is at the level of the waterline, and then we’ve got a thin layer of water on top of the glass plate. And that acts as insulation. And so that’s not just there for display, the glass plate is there to seal off the level of the dry-dock. And the water is there to add a layer of insulation. And then the thermodynamics there are therefore just about feasible to get the part of the ship underneath the waterline down to that relative humidity of 20%, which is as dry as the Arizona desert. And it’s only by closing the dry dock off at the waterline level that that was even possible because it’s a big space to dehumidify, even when we’re not worrying about the top sides of the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And so what was the kind of the day to day challenges now of keeping everything just so

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    where do I start? So today, the dehumidifiers are still the same ones that were installed in the mid 2000s. But today, everything is computer controlled, everything’s got little sensors on it. And everything’s connected to what we would call the Internet of Things. That’s the kind of techie term for it. And actually, that’s been really useful over the last year or so because it means that I can actually sit in my house at my kitchen table, and I can see what’s going on with a dehumidifier. So the work that we’ve done over the last two or three years to get all that set up has been really instrumental in getting us through the last one to two years,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Remote curating

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    Absolutely. So we’ve got all of those conditions reading we’ve got we’ve got all of those temperatures and humidity going into each element of the system. And through that we can then analyse what’s going on. And we can make sure that it’s running as effectively as possible. And we’ve also done some work over the last few years to just to make it a bit more reliable. So that then reduces the amount of time that our technical services team spend tinkering with the various bits and pieces, which then frees us up to look at what we’re going to do next.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I think you know, inside the ship as well, the interpretation of it, which is so clever, and looking at the different the different periods of the ship’s life. So you didn’t choose to just do one, one moment in its life. But but so many. And that’s, I think, why I would urge everyone to come and come and see the ship, look at these extraordinary innovations in curating but also in interpretation,

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    the interior of the ship is is quite a clever hybrid. So from where we’re standing now, the exterior of the ship, she is she is dressed to look as close as possible, as close as we could get her as possible to the painting that we have of her launch. So this is what she would have looked like, assuming that painting is accurate on the day of her launch, but inside the ship, she is dressed more as she would have been on the Australia run which as you’ve just said, is a different part of her life. Although on board, she’s a bit less cramped than she would have been in the Australia run. So a bit of a hybrid between the two. And again, also with a replica of the original engine, and but every detail on board is authentic. So everything, every detail is taken from a passenger diary or a passenger letter that is in our collection. So we haven’t made any of it up everything. Everything comes from a real passenger experience that you see on board.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, and you know, with the Brunel Institute here as well. You’ve got these amazing resources for people to come and find out more about about Brunel about about shipbuilding, about Bristol, about whole maritime history. So it’s a really wonderful place. I worked here for a little bit of time and helped out with the interpretation, I suppose in the early 2000s. It’s still something I’m very proud of. Thank you very much for showing me around today. I absolutely loved it.

     

    Nicola Grahamslaw 

    No problem. Thank you for coming.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, thank you very much for listening. Please make sure you go back and listen to all of our iconic ships episodes, and do of course explore the rest of the episodes of the Mariners Mirror podcast, there is some really wonderful stuff there. My favourite episode so far being the one on the music of the Arctic whalers that is being rediscovered, saved and performed by Morris Henderson, a musician in Shetland. You can find all of those episodes and so much more on the Society for Nautical Research website @snr.org.uk do Please also check out mariners mirror podcasts YouTube page where there’s some wonderful, innovative material bringing the maritime past to your eyes in ways you will have never seen before. I guarantee it, most recently in our use of artificial intelligence to bring ships figureheads to life. Best of all, please join the society it doesn’t cost very much, and the money you donate will help support this podcast will help publish the Mariners Mirror Quarterly Journal will help preserve our maritime heritage. But best of all, don’t tell anyone. If you’re a member, you get to apply to come to our annual dinner on nothing less than the gun deck of Nelson’s HMS victory. Now there’s an iconic ship for you

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