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Passengers and the Engine Room

The Engine Room


Visiting the engine room of the SS Great Britain for the first time, I remember being mesmerised by the constantly revolving cogs, chains and pistons. It made me wonder what the passengers thought of this relatively new invention. Clearly there were great advantages of travelling aboard a steamer like the SS Great Britain. Relying on sail alone to Australia could take up to six months, whereas steam propulsion could guarantee a passage of around sixty days.

In the middle of the sea, miles from anywhere, were the passengers worried by the risk of fire in the engine room, or intrigued by this innovation?

Scanning the diaries kept on board for instances of passengers writing about the engine, there seems to be very little fear. Instead the passengers appear to be curious and often document visiting the engine with either the captain or the first mate.

John Gray, who made 25 voyages to Australia as Captain of the SS Great Britain, often took passengers to see the engine. They seemed as captivated as I was. They describe an extremely hot room - often temperatures would soar to 60 degrees. Rosamund D’Ouseley, a passenger on a voyage in 1869 recalls the ‘roasting temperatures’ in the furnace room and adds that because of the conditions, the firemen, who shovelled coal into the boilers ‘seldom lived to more than 50’.

Rachel Henning, a 35-year-old passenger aboard in 1861 describes the room itself as dirty and oily. However, she was impressed by the cleanliness of the engine itself. She commented that the shiny steel was as clean as a drawing room fire grate.

The engine was only accessible via ladders that got narrower and steeper the deeper they went. After navigating half a dozen ladders, the passengers found themselves right at the bottom of the ship. Rachel describes how difficult navigating these ladders were in her dress. The hoop petticoat or crinoline which created the structure of the skirt, became misshapen during her attempt and she wrote that she didn’t think it would ever be the same again.  

How would you feel about travelling on a new mode of transport? For example, does the idea of a space shuttle engine in an aeroplane to speed up long-haul flights seem exciting or scary?


Author: Imogen Dickens, International Project Officer