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Woeful Wounds

 

Tragedy touched the many lives of those working and travelling aboard the SS Great Britain. Illnesses and injuries that affected those on board were recorded in the ship’s logbook accompanied by births, deaths and crew absences. During her time at sea both passengers and crew generally considered the Great Britain to be a healthy ship, with strict and regular reports made by the Captain and Surgeon on sanitation and wellbeing. Robert Newbold, an M. D. (Medical Doctor) travelling on board in 1862 held fast to the old proverb of “prevention better than cure”. Unfortunately, injury, particularly amongst the crew, was much more difficult to prevent. What follows are some of the most horrific injuries recorded in the SS Great Britain’s logbooks.

Lacerations

Lacerations were one of the most common forms of injury recorded, usually due to a slip or fall. Whilst working on board, Thomas Sheard received a laceration and wound to the left eyebrow after he fell in the Fo’c’sle (the crew’s quarters, below deck). William Daglish, in 1860, fell from a bench and received a wound two inches long on his left temple. Both men were rendered unfit for duty for a short period of time.

Grievous Bodily Harm

Sometimes it was a crew member's behaviour that directly resulted in injury. In 1867 an Assistant Boatswain named Francis was recorded in the logbook as drunk and disorderly. He was “using very abusive language to the Captain and Second Officer taking his knife out with intent to do bodily injury also biting the boatswain finger severely.” The log does not record how he was admonished for his behaviour but for the unfortunate Boatswain who received the bite wound, his crew mate was most certainly more dangerous than the job.

Loss of Appendages

Major surgical procedures, such as amputations, were expected to be performed by the ship’s surgeon if the situation demanded it. In 1858 poor Peter Thompson, an SS Great Britain crew member who worked aloft, required one such procedure on his left forefinger, after crushing it whilst attempting to lower the fore yard (a spar attached to the mast of a ship where the sails are hung). The finger was amputated and Thompson is recorded as recovering well from both incidents.  

Amputation was not the only way in which the crew on board could lose an appendage. An engineer by the name of William Davies lost his right ring finger in 1860 when it was torn off by the air pump shaft.

Fractures

Perhaps one of the most horrific injuries found recorded in the logbooks of the Great Britain was the multiple fractures suffered by George Green in 1858. The entry states that on the 30 November “While taking in the upper main topsail during a hurricane [Green] was thrown from the yard by the sail. Hanging by the jacket for a moment, he then fell…in the bows of the life boat no.6, receiving…fracture of the pelvis…fracture of the right thigh, compound fracture of the right leg resulting in instantaneous death.

Lacerations, assault, loss of limbs and multiple fractures were some of the many dangers of the job, but under the dutiful care of the ship’s surgeon those who required medical attention would receive the necessary treatment and be returned to duty to ensure the SS Great Britain reached her intended destination.

Author: Natalie Fey, Interpretation Assistant