Celebrity has become something of a dirty word in recent years. With social media allowing us to follow every aspect of the lives of the rich and famous it is often said that society has become celebrity-obsessed. But is this really anything new?
While researching the launch of SS Great Britain on July 19th 1843, I found an article from the Bristol Mirror published that same month. The original newspaper, part of the Brunel Institute’s collection, gives a detailed account of the day and the impact of one celebrity in particular.
The 1840’s had not been kind to Bristol. Having been a busy trading port since ancient times the city was in serious commercial decline by 1843 and many now hoped that the construction of the revolutionary Great Britain would mark the beginning of a revival of Bristol’s fortunes. As a result, the ships owners invited one of the most famous celebrities of the day to launch the ship: His Royal Highness Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. His presence would transform the launch from a spectacle marking man’s mechanical genius into a much-needed celebration of Bristol itself.
The Mirror describes work beginning days in advance to transform Bristol; triumphal arches of flowers and ivy were erected throughout the city whilst the streets were decked with all manner of flags, banners and ribbons. Even the buildings were spruced up, “by a plentiful supply of water, and a limited allowance of paint”.
On the day itself tens of thousands of excited onlookers poured into the city eager to see the Prince and to witness the launch. The Mirror recounts that, “wherever the ingenuity of man could place himself so as to command a view of the procession, someone was to be seen; not a house-top nor projecting ledge was without its occupants.” The city’s schools and shops were closed, all business was suspended, peals of bells rang out whilst cannon fired; indeed, “every demonstration was made that loyalty and rejoicing could inspire”.
When the Royal Train, travelling on the newly completed Great Western Railway, arrived at a packed Temple Meads station the Prince alighted to rapturous applause. He then began his procession through the city, the route of which was lined with countless cheering spectators. Canny Bristolians who lived in particularly favourable locations sold seats with a good view.
When the Prince’s carriage approached Bristol harbour he was greeted by a flotilla of ships and boats of all descriptions, each hung with flags of every nation. As he finally entered the Great Western Dockyard, the spectators amassed on both land and water gave a tremendous cheer.
Following a tour of Brunel’s revolutionary new ship and a banquet held in the company’s engine works the time came at last to name the magnificent vessel. Cannon thundered away in every direction, the band struck up “Rule Britannia” and with the signal being given the majestic Great Britain was slowly drawn forth from the dock.
Unfortunately, something went awry and the ceremonial bottle of champagne, swung at the ship’s hull, manged to miss its target. Luckily, the Prince intervened - seizing a second bottle he hurled it at the vessel scoring a decisive hit. With that the words “THE GREAT BRITAIN” were pronounced and the ship that would change the world was named to thunderous applause.
The launch did much for the city. As the Mirror stated at the time, “For a few hours that day a spirit of harmony triumphed over dissension; the faces of all were decked with smiles; they seemed determined to have one day that they would set apart and remember in the years to come as a bright spot in their existence.”
For me, the Mirror’s vivid account of that day in 1843 not only captures the birth of a new age of maritime technology, it also serves as a reminder that the Victorians were also fascinated by the “great and the good” and that occasionally the power of celebrity can achieve something spectacularly positive.
If you have the opportunity to visit Brunel’s magnificent ship, or to walk through the city’s streets, I encourage you to stop and imagine what it must have been like to be present that day when the entirety of Bristol came together in celebration of their city, their sovereign and the SS Great Britain.
Author: Simon Strain, Active Interpretation Manager