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Drama on the high seas - ship's new Dining Saloon display

Family clinking glasses in the Dining Saloon

Actors have been lending their voices to a dramatic new display in the ship’s First Class Dining Saloon – to be officially launched on July 26.

It will allow visitors to Brunel’s ss Great Britain, in Bristol, to step back in time and eavesdrop on conversations from almost 160 years ago.

Combining sounds with props, the scenes show what life was like for passengers and crew on a 65-day voyage to Australia.

And visitors to Brunel’s ss Great Britain over the weekend (July 28 and 29) will see  re-enactors ‘The Seven Dials Rapscallions’ bring the Dining Saloon to life, exhibiting fine and vile Victorian manners. Visitors can also try on Victorian costumes in the photography experience ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!’ and meet Mr Brunel.

The launch of the new display coincides with the 160th anniversary of the ss Great Britain’s first eventful voyage to Australia and start of a golden age for the ss Great Britain – when the ship was the fastest, safest and most luxurious way to travel.

The ambitious sound-scape covers idle gossip and plotting gamblers, grumbling stewards, and musicians tuning their instruments. Set in 1853, all the scenes are inspired by true stories taken from passengers’ accounts, and show how First Class passengers used the saloon for dining and entertainment. It also highlights the role of the stewards, who worked hard to satisfy passengers’ every whim.

The actors involved in the project are John Telfer, who plays Reverend Alan Franks in Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’; Kim Hicks, whose shows include ‘An Audience with Sarah Guppy’ – inspired by an ss Great Britain passenger; Laurence North; and Bernie Hodges.

Tables are laden with Victorian delicacies, including ornate puddings and a half-eaten pig’s head, as well as dirty dishes and port glasses. And musical instruments rest on chairs at the far end of the First Class Dining Saloon.

The dramatised scenes show the frictions between social classes and how passengers spent their time on long voyages, from polite conversation to getting drunk and breaking ship regulations.

The diary of Victorian passenger Annie Henning [please see FACTFILE below] provided a wealth of detail for the museum staff and actors working on the project. Other passengers and crew members brought back to life are:

  • The First Mate John Gray, who is later promoted to become the ship’s Captain, Annie’s brother Biddulph, Mrs Robinson, an exuberant 40-year-old, Mr Higginbotham, who drinks too much, and a German doctor Dr Sicler;
  • Stewards Thomas Gibb and George Lewis, who complain about and criticise the passengers, and fellow stewards Richard Hughes and William Ellams;
  • Passengers Edward Towle, Joe Hodgett and Nelson Fedden, who indulge in Champagne and gambling;
  • And Mr Williams, who tunes up his violin, alongside Mr Stevens, an American passenger and talented singer.

The ss Great Britain Trust’s Director of Conservation and Education Rhian Tritton commented: “The combination of new props, from the half-eaten pig’s head to ornate desserts, and the sounds of life on board ship really help take visitors back in time and experience what it must have been like for passengers and crew.

“This is the Victorian equivalent of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ on the high seas.”

It is part of an ongoing programme to constantly improve the visitor experience at Brunel’s ss Great Britain, which has won more than 30 major awards. It follows the opening of the dressing up display ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop!’ in spring, and the new historic galley on board ship in 2011, which featured John Telfer’s acting skills.

The project team also included Bristol-based audio visual and production companies Westgate Systems and Films at 59; producer Karen Partridge; scriptwriter Roger Benner; and a violinist and a cellist from the band ‘Ant Noel and the Peabody Drakes’.


  • The new First Class Dining Saloon display is inspired by the ss Great Britain’s 10th voyage in 1853
  • The voyage, between Liverpool and Melbourne, lasted 65 days – approximately twice the speed of a sailing ship. Captain Matthews commanded the ship, with its 141 crew members and 319 passengers;
  • The ship was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the world’s first luxury liner, combining the modern technologies of steam power, propeller and iron hull. She originally sailed between Liverpool and New York;
  • The ss Great Britain was rebuilt with two funnels, four masts and a three-bladed propeller. On August 21, 1852, she embarked on her first voyage to Australia, carrying passengers from all social and economic backgrounds;
  • The ship took a total of 15,000 passengers to Australia, in search of a better life. A total of 500,000 Australians and New Zealanders living today are descendants of the ss Great Britain’s passengers;
  • Passenger Annie Henning was in her 20s at the time of the 1853 voyage. Her diary paints a vivid picture of life for a First Class passenger and describes in great detail the many characters who travelled on board. Annie and her brother Biddulph grew up in Somerset and Exeter, in Devon, and were travelling to Australia to stay with family friends.
  • Other passengers included novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote Lady Anna on board; Superintendent John Sadleir, who helped capture the Ned Kelly Gang; and the first ‘All England’ cricket team to tour Australia.