After travelling 8,000 miles across the Atlantic, the SS Great Britain arrived safely at Avonmouth on 24 June 1970.
In this blog post, we hear from some of the people involved in the final stretch of the incredible rescue journey, from Avonmouth to Bristol.
Photographer: Colin Momber
Colin was the official photographer for Port of Bristol, capturing a series of shots of the SS Great Britain as she arrived in Avonmouth. “I grew up in Shirehampton and have worked around Avonmouth since 1954. I photographed the SS Great Britain when she arrived at the Royal Edward Dock on the morning of 23 June 1970. And I was aboard the ship when she entered the dry dock on 19 July 1970.”
At Avonmouth, the SS Great Britain floated off her pontoon. On 5 July the journey up the River Avon began.
Brunel's SS Great Britain volunteer Dave Sidwell was a deckhand on the Talgarth tug. “It was just another day at work for us at that time. We had a big spring tide behind us, so we were just steering the ship rather than pulling it and let the tide do the work. We took a quiet trip up the river, around Horseshoe bend, which is always a worry, but she was behaving quite well.”
“Then we got to Black Rock and we could see people all lining up on the bridge, and on the Portway and on the tow path and they were shouting and cheering and there were more and more people and we suddenly realised this is something special.”
As they approached the Clifton Suspension Bridge the noise erupted. People waved flags, held up signs welcoming the SS Great Britain back home and beeped their horns.
Stood on the bridge was 11-year-old Kim Hicks. “My mum decided she was going to bring us up to see the SS Great Britain come home. We were bang in the centre of the bridge. Suddenly, round the corner she came. At 11, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, she wasn’t very beautiful it was a rusty old thing, but people on the riverside were shouting and my mum got very excited, so we got excited because she was excited."
“As the ship came under, mum opened this box of rose petals and said “go on, go on” and we threw them over and people on either side were asking if they could have some, throwing them over with great passion."
“It was a remarkable thought that even though both the ship and the bridge were Brunel’s 'babies' if you like, when the ship went out the bridge wasn’t there, so this was the first time that his ship had passed under the bridge, so it was quite a romantic thought of the coming together of the two.”
Photographer: Walter Butler
Chester Rickards was one of the pilots on board the SS Great Britain. He said the noise was so loud they could hardly hear their radios and reverted to hand signals and pea whistles. “We very, very slowly entered the lock in the Cumberland basin, didn’t even touch the sides,” he said.
Dave added: “Once we got into the Cumberland basin, I don’t know how many people were there, thousands and thousands and thousands. It was getting emotional. I was feeling quite proud, this is something special.”
Once in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the SS Great Britain docked in the city centre for two weeks until high tide on 19 July.
Photographer: John G Luke
On Sunday 19 July 1970, she was boarded by the Duke of Edinburgh, along with Dr Ewan Corlett whose letter to The Times newspaper in 1967 had started the project, and Jack Hayward, who donated £150,000 to her salvage, for the last leg of an incredible journey.
After months of work, she was manoeuvred back to the dry dock she had left 127 years, to the day, earlier.
Photographer: Marion Morrison
Finally, around 9pm on 19 July, the SS Great Britain was back in her home in Bristol.
Your Avonmouth memories
Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Local Learning and local volunteers would love to talk with people who have a connection with the ship’s return to Avonmouth in 1970 or with Avonmouth docks. The stories will be used to develop a permanent installation in Avonmouth, and we are planning to follow up with some story-collection in Avonmouth, once this is safe for participants and audiences.
Get in touch to share your memories, stories and pictures by email to Leila at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone on 07920 863432.