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The Re-floating of the SS Great Britain

An illustration of the ship in the Illustrated London News


2017 marks the 170th anniversary of the successful re-floating of the SS Great Britain from a beach in Northern Ireland where she had lain for 11 months. Captivated by this part of the ship’s history and the ongoing investigations to uncover her exact grounding place, Visitor Services volunteer Sarah Morris visited the area in 2016.

On 22 September 1846, Captain James Hosken accidently ran the SS Great Britain aground on Tyrella Beach in Dundrum Bay, Northern Ireland. It was the ship’s third time out of Liverpool to cross the Atlantic to New York and a more sensational story couldn’t have been invented.

But, how did the news of the accident and its consequences become known? In these days of the internet we expect an event will come to our attention within minutes of it happening; not so in Victorian Britain. ‘Read all about it!’ meant just that. Competing newspapers vied for headlines and novelty to keep the circulation figures healthy. When the technology to put illustrations into print became available, an innovative formula was born. The Illustrated London News (ILN) was first published in 1842 and it was the world’s first pictorial newspaper. It was a publishing revolution and brought world events to anyone who could obtain a copy.

Not only were the public interested in the first salvage of the SS Great Britain, Brunel was heavily involved too. After he visited Dundrum Bay in December 1846 he wrote to his colleague, Captain Claxton, that he had ‘mixed feelings of satisfaction and pain almost amounting to anger’. While he was pleased to find the ship ‘almost as sound as the day she was launched’ he was ‘grieved to see this fine ship lying unprotected, abandoned and deserted'. The Illustrated London News depicted the ship on the beach with the tide out exposing her hull and the Mountains of Mourne in the background, beautifully illustrating Brunel’s remarks that the ship ‘is lying like a useless saucepan kicking about on a most exposed shore ...with no more effort or skill applied to protect the property than the said saucepan would have received on the beach at Brighton’.

Every step of the salvage was documented in the Illustrated London News, from the building of breakwater to protect the ship throughout the winter to the painstaking work to re-float her; coal, furniture and fittings having been removed to lighten her. Salvage expert, James Brenner, advised by Brunel, set to the task of re-floating her using a combination of levels and wooden sand boxes. By July 1847, the ship was raised high enough for boiler makers to make the whole of the bottom of the ship watertight.

The Illustrated London News records the ship a few days before she was floated off the beach. The scale and number of lifting boxes and the huge team of labourers hauling the ship out is awe-inspiring. This monumental effort to rescue the SS Great Britain resulted in her being free of the beach on 27 August 1847. Standing on the beach in 2016, you could almost see that illustration and feel the noise, clamour, effort and finally the joy of getting the ship back where she belonged: in the water.

Author: Sarah Morris, SS Great Britain Visitor Services Volunteer