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160th anniversary of ship's first voyage to Australia celebrated

Descendants of the SS Great Britain’s 15,000 passengers are being urged to visit the Victorian steamship – for the 160th anniversary of her first voyage to Australia.

It is estimated that 500,000 people living in Australia and New Zealand today can count these 19th century settlers amongst their ancestors.

They include descendants of Superintendent John Sadleir who travelled to Australia on the first voyage and found fame when he helped capture the Ned Kelly Gang. Other passengers include the first ‘All England’ cricket team to tour Australia and novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote ‘Lady Anna’ on board ship.

Today Brunel’s ss Great Britain is a multi award-winning visitor attraction in Bristol and attracts 170,000 visitors each year. The SS Great Britain Trust, the charity which operates the independent museum attraction, holds diaries, personal letters, ship’s newspapers and captain’s logs in the Brunel Institute alongside the ship.

Originally designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to take the wealthy to New York in the USA, the ss Great Britain became an emigrant clipper after the discovery of gold. Between 1852 and 1876 the SS Great Britain was the fastest, safest and most comfortable way to travel between England and Australia.

Voyages on the SS Great Britain were almost twice the speed of sailing ships and took around 60 days – with the exception of the first passage to Australia (Voyage 9) which lasted 81 days due to the miscalculation of coal supplies.

The SS Great Britain left Liverpool for Melbourne and Sydney on August 21, 1852, and arrived in Australia on November 12 carrying 143 crew and 630 passengers.

Anniversary celebrations at Brunel’s SS Great Britain during August include:

  • The new sound-scape in the First Class Dining Saloon where visitors can eavesdrop on conversations from the past;
  • ‘Victorian Holidays from Hell’ storytelling on board ship, with Sarah Mooney – inspired by the 1852 voyage (August 15, 22, 29 and 30);
  • ‘Archive in Five’, opportunities to see historic documents and objects from the SS Great Britain Trust’s archives (Tuesday to Thursday 12.30pm to 1.30pm; and the first two Saturdays of the month 1pm to 3pm);
  • A children’s trail based on passenger Olcher Feddon’s accounts of his voyage, called ‘The Magnificent and Famous SS Great Britain – Really Rough Guide’.

Visitors to Brunel’s SS Great Britain can gain a sense of what it must have been like travelling on the steamship – from the cramped cabins in Steerage to the luxurious First Class Dining Saloon and Promenade Deck; the smells including vomit, steamship engine oil and carbolic soap; the hundreds of animals kept alive on the Weather Deck to feed first class passengers, the salted meats for second class passengers and ship’s biscuit, gruel and soup for the poorest on board. Visitors can step into the Melbourne photographer’s studio to dress up in Victorian-style costumes for ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!’, and can go below the glass ‘sea’ which surrounds the ship.

Passengers from all social and economic backgrounds saw Australia as a land of opportunity – including some bankrupts who were escaping the clutches of the law.

The first voyage to Australia was especially eventful as the ship was forced to turn back to St Helena – adding another 1,000 nautical miles and 20 days to the voyage. Letters and accounts from newspapers, including documents donated by descendants of passenger William Rance, tell of complaints about the food. Another passenger Mr Edwardes reports in ‘The Great Britain Times’ the food is ‘a mess fit only for pigs’. Another complained of toilets which are ‘most liable to create and foster disease, as well as being most offensive’. The second class passengers were especially critical about the ship’s owners, the respected Gibbs Bright & Co, whose profits enabled the Gibbs family to build Tyntesfield House near Bristol (owned by the National Trust).

The SS Great Britain Trust’s Director of Marketing, Communications and Development Sally Cordwell commented: “It is thanks to the generosity of descendants living today that we have passenger diaries, ship’s newspapers and other historic objects. The SS Great Britain played a very important part in Australia’s and New Zealand’s development into a land of opportunity.”

She added: “It is amazing to think that today 500,000 people are descended from this Victorian ship’s passengers. We are looking forward to welcoming all visitors to Brunel’s SS Great Britain in this anniversary year, but an especially warm welcome goes out to Australians and to New Zealanders.”

Whilst some emigrants to Australia succeeded, setting up businesses or earning more than they could in England, according to contemporary accounts only one in 30 found gold in the diggings. Some prospectors made fortunes, and historic accounts record them showing off by eating sandwiches made with a £5 note (the equivalent of a labourer’s annual salary). In 1852 half of Melbourne was covered by tents, lawlessness was rife, and the city was described as ‘hell upon earth’.