The history of the SS Great Britain is often about hard facts: dates, dimensions, designs. However, occasionally Brunel’s revolutionary ship presents a genuine historical mystery such as the disappearance of Captain John Gray.
Gray was the Great Britain’s longest serving captain. During his 18 years in command he skippered her on 27 return voyages between Liverpool and Australia as well as commanding her during the Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion when she served as a troop transport. Throughout his tenure the ship gained a reputation for being one of the fastest, safest and most reliable vessels afloat. Gray became the Great Britain’s most famous captain and one of the most celebrated officers in the British merchant fleet, described by contemporaries as “the beau ideal of a merchant captain – brave, skilful, manly and resourceful”.
At nearly 6ft tall, weighing 17 stone, with his booming voice and distinctive Shetland accent Gray must have been a striking figure! He was deeply respected by his crew both for his prowess as a sailor and his fairness. Whilst he was a strict disciplinarian Gray treated his men justly and led by example. In heavy weather he would be on deck hard at work amongst his crew, often rewarding their efforts with extra rations of grog. He even climbed the ship’s masts three times a week to demonstrate that he didn’t expect his men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
He was equally popular with the passengers in his care. Their diaries, letters and testimonials often refer to his kindness and consideration for travellers of all classes. On his first voyage as captain he quelled a potential revolt among some Third-Class passengers rioting about the poor food; Gray listened patiently to their demands, rectified them and dined with them that evening, earning their admiration and gratitude. Yet he was equally at ease amongst the First-class passengers who regularly expressed their affection for him with gifts, causing one crewman to recount "Why, that man got more presents than any merchant captain that ever sailed the salt sea". Gray took particular care of the young women travelling to Australia to be married, becoming known as "the patron saint of unprotected ladies". On several occasions, upon arriving in Melbourne he hastened to church in his dress uniform to perform the fatherly office of giving a bride away. As one passenger neatly summarised in 1869 Gray was “the popular commander of a popular ship, deservedly esteemed for his tact and judgement. He knew how to handle his ship, his crew and his passengers”.
Clearly Gray was a successful man well recognised for his talent, which makes the tragic turn his story takes all the more difficult to fathom. Having completed the outward voyage in a record time of 54 days, the Great Britain left Melbourne for Liverpool in October 1872. On November 25th, whilst in the mid-Atlantic, Gray retired early to his cabin complaining of a pain in his bowels. That evening a steward reported that Gray was ‘as sensible as ever’ and was writing a letter in his cabin. At around midnight his servant saw him proceed up to the deck. The following morning when the servant took in Gray’s tea his cabin was empty. The alarm was raised, and a search of the ship commenced. Gray could not be found, however one of the transom windows at the stern of the ship was discovered open. Ominously, John Prout a Steward on board swore that he had screwed the window closed the previous evening.
Chief Steward John Campbell captured the sorrow and confusion felt by the passengers and crew at the news of their Captain’s disappearance: 'Listless and heartless we all are... This sad end is so unexpected... He has to all appearances got out of bed in the middle watch, gone through the saloon…and unscrewed the port. There is a lamp hangs by it all night and he had taken time to lift the lid and put out the light before he dropped through... Dark to us all why he has done it. No letters can be found though his servant saw him writing…”
The Great Britain’s longest serving, and most successful Captain had disappeared without a trace. Tragically, with no way to relay the news of Gray’s loss to land, when the Great Britain arrived in Liverpool on Christmas morning 1872 the Captain’s wife and one of his daughters were waiting on the quayside to greet him.
Gray’s disappearance made front page news in both Britain and Australia. The Melbourne Daily Telegraph reported that ‘In places of public resort all other topics were forgotten, and it seemed as though everybody had lost a personal friend, the lamented gentleman being known either personally or by reputation to every man in the city.’
An enquiry conducted by the ship’s owners Gibbs & Bright company concluded that Gray’s disappearance was an accident, after all he was happily married with a loving family, successful and apparently content in his career. However, some speculated that he may have taken his life because of the pressures of the job or the state of his health which had worsened in recent years. Other reports suggested murder, but this seems unlikely in view of his immense popularity.
To this day of Gray’s final hours remain a mystery. Could such an experienced seaman really have fallen overboard accidently, or was it a wilful act? Despite his popularity could Gray have been the victim of foul play? After all we know of at least one murderer who travelled aboard the Great Britain, although that’s another story.
Unfortunately, the one piece of evidence which might have shed light on events, the letter Gray wrote the night of his disappearance, vanished with him leaving us with more questions than answers. Perhaps one-day new information will come to light which will finally solve this enduring mystery, but until then the truth of Gray’s fate sadly remains “dark to us all”.
Author: Simon Strain, Active Interpretation Manager