Bristol is celebrating the “homecoming” anniversary of the world’s first great ocean liner – Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Bristol’s top visitor attraction is re-opening the gates to the public this weekend in a special moment as the SS Great Britain marks 50 years back home in Bristol following her remarkable rescue.
The SS Great Britain Trust has made thorough preparations to make the ship and adjoining museums and docks safe to welcome back visitors from Saturday 18 July. Sunday will be 50 years to the day she was returned to the original Bristol dock she first left 127 years earlier.
As the current holder of the title ‘Most-Welcoming Museum in Europe’ (European Museum of the Year Awards 2019), Brunel’s SS Great Britain has sorely missed many of the 200,000 people that normally visit her each year. But the solitude the ship has found in lockdown is only a fraction of that experienced when abandoned for 33 years in the Falkland Islands.
The 1970 rescue was daring and full of danger as a joint salvage team from the UK and Germany worked to prevent her breaking in two before she even left the Falkland Islands.
On 19 July 1970, after months of work patching and towing her 8,000 miles back home, the rusting hull of the SS Great Britain was manoeuvred back into the Great Western Dry Dock from where she was launched on 19 July 1843. Days earlier she passed beneath Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, for the first time.
Matthew Tanner, CEO of the SS Great Britain Trust, said:
“This is the first time in the SS Great Britain’s 50 years back home in Bristol that the doors have had to be closed, and so we are delighted to be able to re-open them to everyone in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary.
“The rescue and homecoming story from 1970 is one of audacity, ambition and ultimately achieving success-against-the-odds. We are very thankful to all those great people involved in making it happen, from the trustees to the sponsors to the divers to the photojournalists who documented the entire project, capturing a strong spirit of human endeavour.”
The anniversary will be marked on Sunday with a lone piper playing on the deck of the ship in a simple and emotional moment to mark her homecoming and her place at this time in the heart of Bristol in which she celebrates 50 years back home. Now we look forward to the next 50 years!
In a unique collaboration the SS Great Britain Trust has also brought together established and emerging talent from Bristol’s abundant arts scene, with the captivating visual imagery of Limbic Cinema and the fresh voice of Saili Katebe, one of Bristol’s ‘Boat Poets’ collective, to convey the relevance of the SS Great Britain today in the poem ‘She Made it Back’.
Saili Katebe said:
“I was taken by the stories and history. She is clearly very special, there was a lot of hard work and dedication that went into bringing her back and preserving her. Now more than ever, it’s invaluable to hear and explore stories from across the globe, and as the first ship of her time to do travel as far and as often as she did, there are so many stories still to be discovered, so much truth and life to be uncovered and learned from. It was an honour to be part of this anniversary project, to celebrate the ingenuity of the ship and that passion for what we can learn from its stories.”
The rescue of the SS Great Britain was a pioneering effort led by Dr Ewan Corlett that involved expert salvage crews achieving a number of ‘firsts’: the largest ship ever re-floated onto a pontoon; and the 8,000-mile journey was the longest salvage tow ever attempted. In 1969, Sir Jack Hayward, an English philanthropist, gave £150,000 to fund the ship's rescue and to bring her back to Bristol.
Fifty years on, Ewan Corlett’s son, Nigel, said:
“The SS Great Britain was and is still a magnificent ship, my father would be so proud of what the ship has become today. His awareness of the importance of the ship led to his campaign to salvage the vessel and return her to Bristol. Indeed, she was the ‘world’s first great ocean liner’ and one of the most innovative ships ever built.
“It is very poignant that she could be returned to her birthplace and the transformation since the salvage is just remarkable. He would be delighted to see the on-going conservation of the SS Great Britain and the hugely inspirational museums that have been created around her. She has become part of the nation’s heritage and is also an inspirational experience for the young, an outcome that would have given my father much satisfaction.”
When she arrived back to Bristol, thousands of spectators lined the banks of the river Avon as the hull journeyed up the Avon and into Bristol.
SS Great Britain Trust volunteer Dave Sidwell was on one of the tugboats that escorted the SS Great Britain on her journey from Avonmouth to her dry dock. Reflecting on the salvage he said:
“I knew what they planned to do, but I never thought it would finish as grand as she is now, I don’t think a lot of people did, but I’m certainly glad it has, it’s quite remarkable.”
Following 43 years at sea and 84 years in the Falkland Islands, the ground-breaking rescue was just the start of a major conservation project that continues 50 years on from her salvage.
The SS Great Britain today is the centrepiece of an award-winning heritage visitor experience that inspires future generations of engineers and the ship’s long history of channelling innovation and achieving success against the odds is more relevant today than ever before.
Notes to editors:
About Brunel’s SS Great Britain
Brunel’s SS Great Britain is one of the UK’s top museums, recently winning the European Museum of the Year Award for Europe’s Most Welcoming Museum, the Portimao Prize. The SS Great Britain is now in her original dry dock where she was built in 1843. Visitors can have a full day out, in and under the ship and explore the life and works of one of the world’s greatest engineers in Being Brunel.
Brunel’s SS Great Britain is Bristol’s number one visitor attraction (TripAdvisor 2019-20). It is home to the world’s first great ocean liner, the SS Great Britain, the Being Brunel museum experience, and the Brunel Institute, which houses one of the world’s finest maritime and Brunel collections. The charity that manages and maintains Brunel’s SS Great Britain and collections is the SS Great Britain Trust.
Why the SS Great Britain is one of the world’s most important historic ships
The SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was the world’s first great ocean liner; the first ship combining a metal hull and screw propulsion – innovations that defined the modern era of global travel. When she was launched in 1843, she was the largest and most-efficient passenger ship in the world. Today she has been called the Great Great Great Grandmother of virtually every ship afloat.