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Family donates rare collection

books on a bookshelf

A rare collection of papers from the ship’s first historic voyage to Australia almost 160 years ago has been donated to the ss Great Britain Trust’s Brunel Institute.
The two letters and two newspapers come from descendants of passenger William Rance, who travelled on the ss Great Britain from Liverpool to Melbourne in 1852.
William Rance wrote one of the two letters on the 81-day voyage, when the ship was forced to turn back to St Helena for refueling – a story retold on board Brunel’s ss Great Britain in Bristol and through the attraction’s audio companion.
By returning to St Helena, the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, the Captain added more than 2,000 miles and 20 days to the voyage. Used as a stopover for ships, the volcanic island was most famously a place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte (Emperor Napoleon I).
Most journeys to and from Australia took the ss Great Britain 60 days – with the fastest recorded voyage just 54 days (almost twice as fast as some sailing ships).
The collection documents passengers’ frustrations, and anger at the delay which meant the journey cost them more (food was provided but alcoholic drinks were extra), and they risked losing out on opportunities offered by Australia’s gold rush. Complaints from the ‘Fore Saloon’ passengers (Second Class) were organised through a committee and placed within the pages of ‘The St Helena Advocate’ – copies of which were sent to relatives and friends in England.
Whilst the Trust has known of this episode in the ship’s history and holds documents in its Brunel Institute, the Rance collection provides new and valuable information.
Mr Rance was one of 143 crew and 630 passengers, who left Liverpool on August 21 and who voiced concerns about insufficient quantity of coal and the quality of food provided to second class passengers. Amongst the passengers was John Sadleir who later found fame as a police superintendent in the capture of the Ned Kelly Gang, celebrated in Australian folklore, through films and books.
The ss Great Britain was the world’s first great ocean liner, and there are many reports from First Class (‘Aft Saloon’) passengers of the quality of its luxurious accommodation and fresh food, with live animals kept on the Weather Deck. Third class ‘steerage’ passengers had more frugal food including pease pudding, broths, gruel, and ship’s biscuits, which often included weevils (a type of beetle).
The second class passengers were especially critical about the ship’s owners, the respected Gibbs Bright & Co, whose profits enabled the Gibbs family to build Tyntesfield House near Bristol (now cared for by the National Trust).

The ‘Rance Collection’ is made up of:

  • A letter, written to his parents on September 24, 1852, on board the ss Great Britain at St Helena and recording his visit to Napoleon’s tomb;
  • A second letter written to his parents in Melbourne on January 16, 1854, grumbling about their lack of business acumen;
  • A copy of the passengers’ onboard newspaper, ‘The Great Britain Times’;
  • Local newspaper ‘The St Helena Advocate’, which included articles and announcements from the ss Great Britain.

In his first letter William Rance commented on the boredom of the voyage, poor ventilation, the almost unbearable heat, and the official complaint against the ship’s owners raised by fellow passengers, as well as his trip on land to St Helena. The letter to his parents also lists the food he had from salt pork and beef, preserved potatoes, ship’s biscuit, porridge and molasses, and ‘plum duff’ (pudding). 

Another passenger Mr Edwardes reports in ‘The Great Britain Times’ the food is “a mess fit only for pigs”. Another complained of toilets which are “most liable to create and foster disease, as well as being most offensive”.
The Great Britain Times, as well as documenting complaints, provides information on the entertainments organised by passengers – from draughts and backgammon, to readings from Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare, including Romeo and Juliet, dancing, lectures and the production of a newspaper. Captain Matthews is also reported as having recommended that passengers create on onboard police force.
The ss Great Britain Trust’s Director of Museum and Educational Services, Rhian Tritton, commented: “The Trust is delighted to receive this collection of materials from descendants of the passenger William Rance. We are extremely grateful for all gifts relating to the ss Great Britain’s voyages and to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
“This collection provides an invaluable insight into life on board, how passengers voiced their concerns about the distribution and quality of food, and how the captain, crew and passengers responded to the need to return more than 1,000 miles to St Helena almost 160 years ago.”
Ms Tritton added: “It really does put our gripes about modern-day travel to Australia into perspective – from 24-hour flights, delays and relatively tasteless meals – at least we don’t have to worry about an 81-day voyage, ‘mess fit only for pigs’ and live weevils in our food.
“It is fascinating to consider whether passengers like William Rance, who kept newspapers as mementos of their voyage or emigration, had any idea that one day museum and curatorial staff would study them and use them as a basis for interpretation in a multi award-winning ship attraction.”
Materials held by the Trust show that conditions improved and harmony was restored by the end of the voyage. The ss Great Britain’s return voyage to England took 65 days, and the second voyage to Australia was 66 days long.
The Rance documents are available for members of the public to view within the Brunel Institute next to the ss Great Britain in Bristol.