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Spotlight on SS Great Britain’s trading past

On the 26 and 27 July, the history of the SS Great Britain as an international trading vessel came into focus at the interdisciplinary conference ‘Blind Passengers and Valuable Artefacts’.  Organised by the German Maritime Museum (DSM) and held at the headquarters of the Leibniz Research Association in Berlin, the conference examined the role of ships in transferring life and organisms around the world, to different ecosystems and environments.

During the morning session, James Boyd, History Fellow in the Brunel Institute, gave a presentation of the Great Britain’s commercial activities, based on an analysis of the ships manifests taken at Liverpool. The analysis uncovered the previously unknown extent to which the vessel was involved in the passage of huge volumes of plants, animals and seeds during global voyaging to Australia.  The conference attendees learned that from the time the ship gained its ice houses in 1859, it regularly traded exotic plants and Natural History artefacts for major European exhibitions in Paris and London, as well as plant and seed collections for famous (and less famous) horticulturalists throughout the British Isles.  In combining this information with the Global Stories database, it also became clear that as well as bringing bird species back from Australia, they were also taken to the continent in large numbers.  As a major global trader, the paper demonstrated that the Great Britain was part of the ecological transfer of the Victorian World, both in the pursuit of science and commerce.

The Brunel Institute - which is a collaboration between the SS Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol - is now making a full analysis of the cargo manifests, in order to better understand the general trade of the vessel throughout its lifetime.

On day two of the conference, delegates were given a curatorial tour of the new major exhibition ‘Europe and the Sea’, staged at the German National Museum. Told through 13 port cities over 3,000 years, another of Brunel’s vessels came to the fore, with an exhibition piece on the Great Eastern featured in a detailed overview of 19th century London.  The presence of Brunel’s ships throughout the event was testimony to their historical prominence, and the interest they continue to generate – including contribution to new fields of research. 

You can read more about the work of the Brunel Institute here