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Ship's star rats mean no stars for historic galley's hygiene

Squeaking rats, a hissing animatronic cat, and an overworked cook take starring roles in the ss Great Britain’s new historic galley.

The kitchen space, which has taken £60,000 and six weeks to transform and is packed with hidden state-of-the-art technology, opens in time for the summer holidays.

It is the latest improvement, which celebrates a ‘Let’s Dine!’ theme for 2011. Inspired by the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘Beeton’s Book of Household Management’, which made Mrs Beeton a household name, celebrations include beautifully designed trails for children, actors in character and costume, and food-tasting sessions.

The galley soundscapes feature the voice of actor John Telfer – the Reverend Alan Franks from BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’ – as a shouting cook. An animatronic cat hisses at squeaking and scratching rats. Visitors will feel heat coming from the oven and smell rosemary, cooking fish and smoky bacon. They will see Victorian delicacies prepared for First Class passengers – from ornate jellies and mackerel, to a calf’s head.

John Telfer’s contribution to the new space is especially relevant as his wife Dr. Lindsay St. Claire is a descendant of a passenger who travelled on board the ss Great Britain in 1871 and would have eaten the food prepared in the Victorian galley. The ss Great Britain Trust’s records show that Dr. St. Claire’s ancestor Henry Wise was aged 36, and travelled from Liverpool to Melbourne. He left England on a 64-day voyage on May 14, one of 391 passengers and 153 members of crew.

Whilst the ss Great Britain’s onboard standards were high compared with other Victorian ships, the presence of rats would horrify today’s inspectors who would struggle to award any stars for 1860s food hygiene. Staff and volunteers at Brunel’s ss Great Britain are reassuring venue hire guests, and the squeamish, that the rats are realistic but unlikely to escape. (The ship’s modern kitchen, hidden away behind the First Class Dining Saloon, meets the very highest standards in food hygiene with a full five-star rating.)

The team has turned the clock back to 1866. The ship is passing the Azores on her homeward journey from Melbourne to Liverpool, and the galley crew is preparing a farewell dinner for the First Class Dining Saloon. It is breakfast time and there are porridge pots and dishes to wash, and a cook prepares the last of the mackerels. The galley was used to regularly prepare food for 600 passengers and 130 crew.

Curators have sought expert advice from specialist historians and the skills of artist-in-residence Lottie Sweeney to make the food out of resin, paint and even porridge. They have used detective work and knowledge to recreate the spaces.

The ss Great Britain Trust’s museum, technical services and interpretation specialists have also worked with Yeo Valley Joinery, wildlife film maker Karen Partridge, sound technicians from Films@59, Simon Wilson of Animatronic Animals Ltd who created the cat, and Do Phillips who produced the ship’s cook.

The ss Great Britain Trust’s Director of Museum and Educational Services Rhian Tritton commented: “What has been achieved over the last six weeks, to meet the summer holiday deadline, is truly impressive. The team has worked tirelessly to transform this space using traditional and state-of-the-art museum interpretation, including animatronics, a soundscape, heat and film.

“Visitors entering the ship’s galley will have a real understanding of what it was like for galley crew to prepare food for passengers on a two-month voyage from Australia to England. There is something for all of the senses from the sounds of scratching and squeaking rats, to the heat of the galley range, the smells of freshly baked bread and roasted coffee, and the sight of dirty plates and colourful jellies. We hope visitors will really enjoy this new historic galley, as well as the special events and trails.”

Ms Tritton added: “We are delighted that actor John Telfer who provided the voice for our cook, and is best known for his role in Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’, is able to attend the opening. When we asked him to join the project we had no idea that his wife, Dr Lindsay St. Claire, was a descendant of one of the 15,000 passengers who travelled on board the ss Great Britain. It is a remarkable coincidence.”

Actor John Telfer commented: “I’m thrilled to be involved in any way with this project – I think Brunel’s ss Great Britain is one of the finest visitor attractions in the country and I can’t wait to see all the changes that have happened since my last visit.”

Work on the new historic galley, follows the completion of new dockyard scenes, showing the hustle and bustle of preparing a ship for a long voyage to Australia, and the opening of a new Visitor Centre and the Brunel Institute in 2010.