The events and memories of those involved in this epic salvage are captured in the animated film ‘The Incredible Journey’, which can be seen here online and in the Dockyard Museum at Brunel’s ss Great Britain.
Damaged in a storm
The ss Great Britain enjoyed a long working life from 1845 to 1933 thanks to Brunel’s engineering skills.
In 1886 she was badly damaged in a storm and her ocean-going career came to an end. Bought by the Falklands Islands Company she spent the next 47 years as a floating warehouse. In 1937, after becoming too unsafe even for this, she was towed to Sparrow Cove, a remote bay near Port William, and scuttled in its shallow waters.
And there she might have remained, a sorry sight left to rust and rot, gradually losing her fittings to trophy hunters and visited only by the occasional picnic party or curious penguin.
But destiny had a different fate in store for this lucky ship.
8,000 mile journey
Naval architect Ewan Corlett refused to let her fade away and in 1969 helped organise an audacious rescue mission to bring her home to the UK.
Perforated with holes, and at risk of breaking in half, urgent work was needed to get her stable enough to be raised and floated onto a giant pontoon Mulus III, for the 8,000 mile journey to Bristol. Working against the clock, and in freezing conditions, divers patched up the ruptured hull using a combination of mattresses, donated by Falkland Islanders, and timber.
Salvage teams took down the masts to help her stability, but ferocious weather intervened, bringing the mizzen mast crashing down onto the central cabin.
Falkland Islanders crowded into Port Stanley to see her officially handed over from the British Crown to the ss Great Britain project. They waved her off, towed by the Varius ll, heading for Montevideo on the first leg of the journey home.
Welcomed 'home' to Bristol
Strong winds didn’t help progress but after two months the ss Great Britain finally arrived in Avonmouth, near Bristol. At the docks, cracks in her hull were repaired with steel plates and she was floated off the pontoon. For the final leg of the journey, she was brought up the River Avon on her own hull, with a diving team on hand to patch up leaks and mind the pumps.
Tugs guided her along the Avon’s treacherous banks and famed Horse Shoe Bend, surrounded by a small armada of vessels, and cheered from the shore by many thousands of well wishers.
The ss Great Britain was finally welcomed ‘home’ on 19 July 1970 - back to the dock in which she was built, exactly 127 years to the day after her launch in 1843.