For International Volunteer Day we’ve asked some of our volunteers who help in the Brunel Institute to choose their favourite extracts from the diaries and newspapers that were written by passengers on board the SS Great Britain.
Alice Harper, International Project Volunteer
“One of my favourite diaries was Annie Henning's - she obviously liked a laugh and enjoyed poking fun at her fellow passengers, though not in a cruel or spiteful way. She wrote about Mrs Tenpenny, a fellow passenger, and managed to create a vivid image of her in a few lines. Mrs Tenpenny herself sounds like quite a character”
‘Another person who is made great fun of on board is a Mrs Tenpenny (her name is enough to amuse people so much in want of amusement). She is a stout, short lady of about 45, going out to meet her husband, who is generally supposed to have run away from her. She wears a new dress every day and indulges greatly in white waistcoats, but is after all very good-tempered and with plenty of fun in her.’
Annie Henning, 1853
Annie Edwards, Collections Volunteer
“This is a brilliant extract from Susan Mary Crompton’s diary, it really made me laugh as I transcribed it. The image is so vivid and it really sums up Susan’s fantastic storytelling ability. This is one of many funny opinions Susan had of the strangers on board with her, but this especially tickled me.”
‘There is such an odd looking young man on board, he is tall, lanky with brilliant red hair + whiskers and he always wears a sky blue felt-hat, at meal times as well as on deck; when he walks he looks as though he had borrowed somebody else’s legs for the day and was going out to try them.’
Susan Mary Crompton, Monday 28 May 1866
Emma Irwin, International Project Volunteer
“This comical excerpt from Anna Maria Bright’s diary reminds me that perhaps we aren't so different from the SS Great Britain's passengers after all. Although these words were written almost 150 years ago, we can relate to her love of a sweet treat that is still enjoyed today. It also captures the way that normal life carried on, even under the extreme circumstances of an uncomfortable and often dangerous passenger ship.”
‘The children found my gingerbread tin and finished them all up – they don’t know that fortunately I have a tin in reserve.’
Anna Maria Bright, 31 August 1875.
Nancy Frankel, Library Volunteer
Nancy has recently been transcribing eight letters written by Edward Towle who travelled on the SS Great Britain in 1852. He writes about life on the goldfields.
“I love this extract because it paints a very stark and clear picture of what it was like to go all the way from Britain to a distant land and take your chances as a gold-miner in the mid-nineteenth century”
‘There are such a nice set of people at the diggings you are obliged to keep it quite secret
y if you are getting anything and you are always obliged to sleep with a brace of loaded pistols under your pillow and if you go any distance you must always go armed There were three murders committed in one day near us and one of the murdered men was a shipmate of ours so you see secrecy is in a pretty state here’
Edward Towle, near Sydney, Australia in early 1853
Maggie Aherne, Library Volunteer
I particularly enjoy browsing through the replica onboard newspapers, such the Great Britain Times. These newspapers are informative, with updates on the progress of the journey, but also entertaining. There’s a gossip column, parody advertisements, jokes, and really bad poetry.
But there’s also something frustrating in this particular paper: one of the jokes (‘conundrums’) doesn’t have its answer printed! There’s no answer printed for No 7: Why is a diseased potato like a flying fish?’ Any suggestions appreciated!
(originally published on a journey from Melbourne to Liverpool in October–December 1865).