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History students make ship history

Doctoral students are making history, as part of a new joint initiative between the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol.

The three-year studentships, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will include up to three months’ study in Australia and the Falkland Islands.

This latest announcement follows the University of Bristol’s collaboration on the Trust’s Brunel Institute which houses the National Brunel Archive.

PhD students Claire Connor and James Muirhead are splitting their time between Brunel’s ss Great Britain and Brunel Institute and the University of Bristol.

The AHRC awards give students the opportunity to work outside an academic environment. Their findings will add to the Trust’s wealth of knowledge and help further improve the award-winning visitor experience at Brunel’s ss Great Britain.

The two PhD students – supervised by the Trust’s Director of Museum and Educational Services and the University’s Department of Historical Studies’ Dr Tim Cole, alongside Professor Peter Coates and Dr Simon Potter – will research the history of Brunel's iconic steamship, the ss Great Britain, from 1843.

Claire Connor is covering the ss Great Britain between 1843 and 1886, when the ship carried:

  • Passengers to the USA and emigrants to Australia;
  • Troops to the Crimean War and Indian (Sepoy) Wars;
  • Cargo between Great Britain and the USA.

She is researching the experiences of passengers and crew, relationships between different groups, and how travel had an impact on class, gender, race, nation and empire.

James Muirhead is examining the ship’s history from 1886 including:

  • Use as a floating storage hulk, before abandonment, in the Falkland Islands;
  • The 1970 salvage and return to Bristol;
  • Conservation and restoration work leading to the museum attraction’s ‘re-launch’ in 2005;
  • Award-winning success and developments after 2005.

As well as using the 40th homecoming anniversary’s oral history project, James Muirhead is also examining what and why stories have been told at the museum attraction, and ss Great Britain Trust’s place in the context of today’s heritage industry.

The ss Great Britain Trust’s Director of Museum and Educational Services Rhian Tritton commented: “These doctoral awards, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, are highly prestigious and given to projects which involve active collaboration and benefit to the wider community. They represent a new phase in the relationship between the ss Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol, and follow collaboration on the Brunel Institute and the National Brunel Archive.”

Ms Tritton added: “We are delighted to welcome the two PhD students as part of the Trust’s museum and educational team and look forward to incorporating their findings into telling the true stories of the ship, her passengers and crew, and those who have helped care for the historic vessel since her return to Bristol.

“It is the first time that the ss Great Britain Trust has been so actively involved in PhD studentships and we look forward to further developing our knowledge and our relationship with the University of Bristol.”

Early findings by the students include images of timber huts built by gold prospectors, who may have emigrated to Australia on board the ss Great Britain. The students will spend between two and three months in Australia and the Falkland Islands in their second year of study. As part of their PhD they will also be giving visitors lunchtime talks and lectures.