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“Great Britain’s” most momentous journey was her last voyage home

Posted in Conservation, Engineering, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014

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This edited article about the S.S. Great Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.

S.S. Great Britain, , picture, image, illustration

S.S. Great Britain arrives back in Bristol in 1970

Divers swarmed around the beached hulk of a once magnificent ship that lay partly submerged on the sand of Sparrow Cove in the Falkland Islands.

Battered by the sub-arctic waters of the icy Atlantic that had made a wide crack on the starboard side and pitted the sides with holes, she was the sad corpse of a pioneer of the oceans, the first screw steamer to cross the Atlantic.

A man of foresight, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had designed her in 1843; the first ocean-going screw steamer. And another man of foresight, Dr. Ewan Corlett, a naval architect, was planning to bring her back to Britain.

To Dr. Corlett, this vessel, the S.S. “Great Britain” was as technically advanced for her time as the supersonic Concorde airliners of today, and for this reason she was worth preserving.

While the salvage experts were preparing the ship for her last historic voyage, Dr. Corlett must surely have reflected on the sequence of events that had brought the vessel to the Falkland Islands.

Her first trip to America had taken 15 days, an outstandingly short passage for those days. In her bunkers were a thousand tons of coal. And while her three hundred passengers enjoyed themselves in the enormous dining saloon or strolled upon her decks, her four-cylinder steam engine set the decks rumbling as it turned the giant-sized, six-bladed screw propeller.

There was 1,200 tons of cargo on board, stowed safely away from the eight roaring furnaces and three boilers that sent the ship surging through the sea at about 12 knots.

But she was an ill-fated ship. On her first voyage, she broke her propeller, which was replaced by a four-bladed one. In 1846, she ran ashore on the Irish coast and stayed there for nearly a year before she was refloated.

Another firm bought her, repaired her, gave her a new type of engine that was more powerful, and fitted a three-bladed propeller. After a while on the Atlantic run, she began carrying cargo between Britain and Australia.

By 1882, she was old-fashioned and unable to compete with her more modern rivals. Strangely, she was converted into a sailing ship. After over forty years service, on her 47th voyage, she was wrecked while rounding Cape Horn when carrying coal to the American Pacific coast.

Although badly damaged, she limped to the Falkland Islands and Port Stanley harbour and was put on sale as a wreck. A company bought her and used her for storing wool, until she was finally beached at Sparrow Cove, retired and useless.

Once she had been a proud ship, with six masts as well as her steam power. She was 323 feet long, 50¬Ω feet in the beam and displaced about 3,600 tons, and she had a stout iron hull.

Red rust was now eating into the hull. When the hulk was surveyed by divers in 1969, they found that the starboard crack was eight inches wide. An appeal went out to the people of Stanley for materials with which the crack could be plugged. They came forward with old foam and kapok mattresses, which were stuffed into the crack which extended from the waterline to the keel, and held in place by plywood.

All the other holes were patched with plywood or filled with a quick-setting plastic material. Big steel plates, nearly an inch thick, were fixed over the crack on the inside of the ship to strengthen the hull.

Then came the job of removing the massive main and fore masts, which rose 64 feet above deck level and ten feet below. Scaffolding and cranes were used for this dangerous operation. They were erected on a mammoth pontoon anchored to the side of the ship.

Then came the trickiest part of the operation, the floating of the “Great Britain.” For this job, water that filled the ship would have to be pumped out of her and the historic hulk made to ride upon the surface of the sea as she had done in her days of glory.

Four pumps were set in motion. They pounded throughout the night, sucking out more than 2,000 tons of unwanted Atlantic.

Next morning, a wondrous sight met the eyes of the Falkland Islanders who had gathered to watch. The “Great Britain” was afloat again. It was 6th April, 1970, 84 years after the ship had been wrecked in 1886.

Even so, the “Great Britain” was in no state to be towed to Britain. The plan was for her to have a pick-a-back ride back to her home country on a pontoon, a 2,667 ton platform that measured 265 feet by 80 feet.

Two tugs towed the pontoon into deep water, where it was sunk. At high tide, the “Great Britain” was towed over the pontoon and made fast to tubular steel pillars welded to the pontoon. With the falling tide, the “Great Britain” settled firmly on to the pontoon.

Built into the pontoon were water-tight compartments, which had been flooded to enable it to be sunk. These were now pumped clear of water.

As the water was forced out of the 15 compartments, the pontoon rose, carrying on its deck the rusty veteran that had once sailed the seas as Britain’s pride.

But she was still a proud vessel. Though shorn of her masts and battered and patched, she was ready to face the 7,000 mile journey back to her homeland.

Thirty-three years to the hour that she had been scuttled in Sparrow Cove as a useless derelict, the “Great Britain” had risen again. She was towed back to Stanley by four tugs where the bells of Christchurch Cathedral rang out in greeting.

Now she is back in the docks at Bristol (from which she was launched in 1843 by the Prince Consort) after the longest tow of its kind by the tug Varius II.

She arrived on 19th July, 1970, after riding upon the pontoon for 7,000 miles during 60 days from the Falklands to Britain.

Now, work is going on to restore her to her original state. At one time during her career, wooden cladding was built on to the iron hull. The wood has been removed, and the iron has been painted with red lead preservative paint. Afterwards, it will be repainted in its original colours.

The interior has been thoroughly cleaned. This was a tremendous job. Other work, which it is expected will be undertaken this year, includes the fitting of the bowsprit and new decking on the forecastle.

A new six-bladed propeller, a copy of the one fitted to the ship when it was launched, and two of the masts, should also be put in position during the present year.

The ship is in dry dock at Bristol, where its fine lines can be admired. The route is well signposted by the A.A. But if you want to see it, you should make your way to Great Western Dock, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol.

When you see it, you will realise why its restoration is being so lovingly undertaken. It is like the prodigal that has come home, an iron personality that has toured the world, served her country well and been returned worn out and crippled, to rest in the land of her birth.

Three great ships were constructed by Brunel during his crowded lifetime. In turn, each marked a further step forward in marine engineering.

Of all his work, however, his finest ship was the “Great Britain,” the first luxury liner. And it is fitting that future generations should be able to see and admire this milestone in the history of shipping.

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