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Illnesses & Injuries on Board


WARNING: Contains images which some may find upsetting

During her working life, the SS Great Britain completed 47 voyages, carrying over 30,000 passengers and crew to destinations across the world. The ship was like a floating town on many of these journeys, filled with hundreds of people of all ages, classes and backgrounds.

With so many people living in a confined space, it’s unsurprising that injuries and illnesses were commonplace. The Captain and crew worked hard to run the ship safely and maintain good hygiene. As a result, the Great Britain had an excellent reputation for being a healthy ship. Nevertheless, 140 deaths were recorded in her log books and in the diaries of the passengers and crew. The causes of death range from falling overboard to teething, and include many serious diseases and infections.

Read on to see some of the injuries and illnesses which people suffered on board the Great Britain recreated by make up artists.


This highly contagious disease is caused by the measles virus, which spreads easily through coughs and sneezes. Measles was a common disease in the 1800s and there were several passengers who travelled on the Great Britain who mentioned cases of measles in their shipboard diaries.


Symptoms usually appear about 10 days after infection, beginning with a fever and white spots inside the mouth. A red rash will develop a few days later, usually starting on the face before spreading to the rest of the body.   Incidents on Board

There were two confirmed deaths from measles during 1861. on board. Sadly, both victims were children aged just 14 months

19th Century treatment

The fever may be treated like other fevers: perspiration should be prompted by sponging with either warm or cold water as the patient may desire. However, care should be taken to prevent the patient from catching a cold. Let them diet and keep their bowels regular with calomel or rhubarb. If pains should appear in the body they may be relieved by mustard poultices.   The Seaman’s Medical Guide: A Treatise on Various Diseases, 1851.

Evidence from the past

"In the evening about 10 p.m. their was a young girl taken from the 3rd cabin to our Hospital, and we are all afraid it will turn out to be fever or small Pox, it turned out to be the measles."

-Diary of John McLennan, 28th December 1867


Smallpox is an extremely infectious disease caused by the variola virus.
Incidents on Board
There were two confirmed deathsin 1854, and another outbreak in1864. Despite smallpox being a common illness in the 19th century, it appears cases on the Great Britain were rare. Ships’ owners took careful precautions to avoid outbreaks of smallpox on board. Doctors inspected passengers for smallpox symptoms before allowing them on boarding.The risk of death is about 30%, and children are especially vulnerable.
Early symptoms include fever and vomiting, followed by the appearance of sores in the mouth and a skin rash. Over several days, the rash turns into fluid-filled bumps which then scab over and fall off, leaving scars. Smallpox can also lead to blindness.. Often survivors are left with extensive scarring of their skin, and some go blind.
19th Century treatment
Most careful attention is called to the danger there may be of the infection of small-pox among the passengers. Care is taken, as far as practicable, that no passengers embark without showing their certificates of having been vaccinated; but it will be one of your first and most important duties to satisfy yourself, by the personal inspection of everyone on board, that the operation has been effectual, and in any doubtful case to perform it afresh. A supply of fresh vaccine matter will be given you for this purpose before sailing.
The Seaman’s Medical Guide: A Treatise on Various Diseases, 1851.
Evidence from the past
We, the undersigned, passengers of the fore saloon, have very great pleasure in testifying to the great care and unremitting attention that you have shown to us during the voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne, and we would at the same time congratulate you upon your success, through God's providence, in arresting the progress of the smallpox, which appeared amongst us so soon after leaving port.  We again thank you, and hope you may long be spared to minister to the wants and necessities of the sick under your care.  Wishing you health and prosperity, we beg to remain, 
Yours very gratefully,
(Signed by 16 passengers)"
- Letter to Dr Alexander printed in the Argus newspaper, 26th of July 1864

Pulmonary Tuberculosis (or Consumption)

This contagious bacterial infection spread through coughs and sneezes. It destroys the lungs, and may spread to other organs. In the 19th century, up to 25% of deaths in Europe were caused by TB.
Incidents on Board
There were six confirmed deaths from pulmonary tuberculosis and 10 from other forms of tuberculosis. This makes tuberculosis (TB) the most reported cause of death on the Great Britain. 
It may take months or even years for symptoms to appear. Sufferers experience a lack of appetite and weight loss, leading many to “waste away”. Other symptoms include fever, night sweats and extreme tiredness.A continual cough develops, causing chest pain and breathing difficulties Sufferers cough up white mucus and eventually blood as their lungs are steadily destroyed by the illness.
19th Century treatment
There is no effective treatment. For bleeding of the lungs dissolve tartar emetic in four table spoons of warm water and give one teaspoon every two hours. The patient should be kept perfectly quiet; diet and drinks should be low. If there is a fever the patient should be bled using an incision to the arm. 
Evidence from the past
"We have had three more deaths since my previous entries...  A man also in the steerage, who came on board in an advanced state of consumption and who seems to have been sent to sea purposely to get rid of medical and funeral expenses, died a few days afterwards."
-Diary of James Maughan, June 1869


Cyanosis is a condition where the skin on the face or body turns blue or grey due to a lack of oxygen in the blood or poor circulation. It is usually a symptom of another condition, such as a problem with the lungs or heart. The name cyanosis comes from cyanós, the Greek word for blue  It means “the blue disease”.
Incidents on Board
There was one confirmed death on board. Hilda Austin, a six-year-old girl, died from cyanosis in 1866. However, there are many recorded deaths from conditions which affect the lungs, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, so it is likely that the condition appeared relatively frequently. 
Cyanosis is divided into two main types. The first, central cyanosis, turns the skin around the lips, tongue and torso a blue or grey due to a lack of oxygen in the blood. The second, peripheral cyanosis, affects only the extremities, such as hands, feet and limbs. These will turn blue or grey and will usually feel cold due to poor circulation of blood in the body.
19th Century treatment
There doesn’t seem to have been a specific treatment for cyanosis, but common suggestions included a ‘change of air’, purging though vomiting or taking laxatives and bleeding by cup or leech. 
Evidence from the past
“Hilda Austin died from cyanosis…female aged 6 years” 
-Anonymous Diary, 3 July 1866

Nasal Injury

Cuts or wounds to the nose were common on board the Great Britain. The position of the nose makes the nasal bones, cartilage, and soft tissue particularly vulnerable to external injuries. Common injuries include nosebleeds, fractures and injuries caused by foreign objects.
Incidents on Board
Accidents involving cuts and broken bones were common on board and many were fatal. John Gray, captain of the Great Britain from 1854 to 1872, is logged as having a rather nasty injury to his nose after a fall. 
These include pain and bleeding in and around the nose, bruising around the eyes, swelling of the face (particularly around the nasal area), trouble breathing through the nose and loss of sense of smell.
19th Century treatment
If the nose be broken the bones may be raised by passing a piece of wire, or a knitting needle up the nose and pressing them out. If it be much swollen and painful apply spirits and water, or cold water. 
For any cuts the parts should be thoroughly washed, and any foreign body extracted. Then bring the edges of the skin together as close as possible and apply plaster taking care to leave room for the escape of puss or infected matter.
Evidence from the past
“He [Captain Gray] has hurt his nose a good deal, taken a little skin off and shook him”. 
-Anonymous Diary, 9th November 1863.

Crushed Fingers

Crushed or smashed fingers can occur through trapping them in a piece of furniture or heavy machinery or hitting the fingers with a heavy object.
Incidents on board
Many crew members suffered injuries to their hands and limbs whilst carrying out their daily duties. Some injuries even resulted in amputations of fingers or whole hands.
An injury to the fingers can lead to severe pain, especially aching and throbbing, redness and swelling, bruising and colour change of the skin or finger nail. The fingernail may also fall off within a week of the injury happening.
19th Century treatment
A fracture of the fingers may be treated in the same way as other fractures. The bones should be restored to their natural position and kept so by the use of splints made of wood, which should be shaped to compare with the natural position of the bones. In case inflammation should occur, bleeding, or leeching should be resorted to.
Evidence from the past
“Richard Pritchard jammed fingers whilst working aloft”. 
-Anonymous Diary, 11th July 1859. 

The SS Great Britain Trust would like to thank the students of South Gloucestershire & Stroud (SGS) College for their fantastic work in creating the illnesses and injuries you see depicted. Photography by Adam Gasson.