Museums in 2018 can live or die on how they review online, so a lot of stock is placed on attracting those stars, or bubbles. But for the SS Great Britain, this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Throughout her 175-year history, passengers have commented on every voyage she undertook, building an often-disputed reputation for the vessel and her captains.
In 1852, the SS Great Britain set sail (and screw) for Australia for the first time. One of our best sources for this voyage is the beautifully written diary of teenager, Allan Gilmour, which documents his trip with short anecdotes and judgements, much like a prolific Trip Advisor reviewer.
Gilmour left Glasgow with his brother and father to seek a life which offered more than that of a destitute and struggling Britain. He defies the stereotype of the illiterate poor and gives us his views of what life was like on the SS Great Britain.
I started to wonder what star rating he might have given the Grand Old Lady on her pioneering voyage…
Gilmour’s first impressions of his bunk in the Steerage section of the Great Britain were hardly complimentary;
‘Our berths are pretty well ventilated, but very confined and dark. The State Room (as they please to call it) allotted to us holds four persons. The distance between our berths for the purpose of dressing is 2 ft broad and 6 ft long, so confined that only one can dress at once…
Had we not however been so far fortunate as to get good weather, I have little doubt there would have been a great deal of sickness from the very crammed conditions in which we are placed.’
Let’s say he’d give it a generous 2 stars here; he did buy a cheap ticket after all.
‘For this some nights past several of the passengers in our cabin have been annoyed by rats, which even at times have come into their beds, & tonight we were awoke by a lady screaming, who being awake saw a rat walking on the partition above her bed.’
I think there is a 1 star maximum when rats are involved.
‘For sometime past the Gentlemen have washed on deck and the Ladies below, and today we have got two barrels placed on deck to serve as plunge Baths, but it does not appear that any person has availed themselves of the opportunity.’
Wash facilities… that has to count for something. English campsites could learn a thing or two from the Great Britain.
Let’s say 3*s for now.
A number of sparks flying out the funnel to night [sic], which as they sometimes fall on sails, caused us to be rather afraid of them catching fire.’
Health and safety is no laughing matter. OK, so it’s definitely not the best review so far… but surely the food will bump up the rating…
The raspberry vinegar we find a vast improvement to the water by mixing it with a little carbonate of soda and tartaire acid it is a most delicious drink for a warm day.’
‘Saw a great number of porpoises tonight, one of which the sailors harpooned, which after a pull we got on deck.............I had the pleasure of tasting a piece after it was stewed, & really it is very good, it very much resembles a piece of liver.’
Allan seems positive. But then again, who wouldn’t want Raspberry soda acid water and porpoise for dinner? Creeping up to 4 stars.
‘A number of the passengers & crew beastly drunk, several of which have been put in irons for having threatened the Captain’s & Officers lives.’
There’s always one. Still, I’m sure the voyage wasn’t that dangerous.
‘A duel was to have been fought this morning with two second Cabin Passengers, but as they were in the commencing, the hose was actively played upon them, which rather cooled them in both ways, one of them however seems not to have been sufficiently cooled as he afterwards fought twice, the latter time of which he had the good fortune to be completely thrashed by a man little more than half his size.’
So, a little dangerous maybe… 2 stars?
‘The sailors are now getting the Cables & Canons cleaned & painted to be in readiness for the Cape, in case of any cruisers being tempted from the amount of specie on board (which is upwards of 1 million) to make an attack on us, but of this I think there is no probability, & even though they were, they would be immediately repulsed, as nearly every passenger is furnished with a Revolver & Double or Single barelled Gun.’
Nevermind. 1 star.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that Allan’s voyage wasn’t the most pleasant. Rowdy passengers, poor provisions and cramped conditions didn’t help to leave a good impression. Would you take a trip based on this review? Thousands did. Perhaps the ends justified the means.
Still, Allan seems to have kept fairly upbeat and signs off his journal with a poem. Maybe you should do the same next time you visit a museum.
‘The Lands’ in view, our journey oer,
We hail Australia’s golden shore,
Our Steamer fires a signal gun
My Journals’ closed, my task is done.’
Author: Luke Holmes, Senior Interpretation Officer
Above: Alan Gilmour's plan of Steerage on board the SS Great Britain