The ship carried passengers, crew and hundreds of other creatures, great and small, furry and feathered. Passenger diaries tell us that during a 60-day voyage, there was no escaping the animal kingdom. Below are some more fascinating facts about the different birds and beasts which travellers saw on their way to Australia.
Passengers watching the sea from the deck regularly spotted fish, like those used to decorate the stern of the ship. There was plenty of other weird and wonderful marine life around. In 1857 the ship’s surgeon Samuel Archer excitedly described seeing a “Portuguese Man o’ War”. These creatures, when floating on the sea surface look like an old warship carrying full sail. They are often mistaken for jellyfish and their venomous sting can be extremely painful. Archer was keenly interested in natural history and records in beautiful detail encounters with all forms of life at sea.
Walking the decks of the Great Britain you would find that chickens were not the only feathery friends stowed on board. When brothers William and David Griffiths sailed to Australia in 1860 they shared their bunks with 60 larks, 40 thrushes and 12 pheasants which they planned to sell on arrival. Just imagine the noise and smell! The brothers took turns watching over their precious cargo nightly so the birds wouldn’t be carried away by the pesky rats that roamed the ship.
Like the chickens, pigs and other livestock were kept aboard as a source of fresh food. One anonymous lady travelling in 1863 records sailors throwing a sheep into the first-class cabins area, where it kept the passengers awake with “its continuous bleating”. Fortunately, the passengers found it more funny than annoying! The poor sheep soon found “a big fat steward trying to carry it upstairs in his arms”, and the gentlemen were “bleating to amuse themselves” the next day. What would you do if a sheep appeared in your bedroom?
Cats and dogs often made surprise appearances aboard the ship. In 1873 Mother Mary Paul Mulquin writes that these animals were forbidden from travelling. Travellers who smuggled their pets on board; had to pay a £5 fee, or give their furry companion up to auction where: “The prize [the animal] would then be awarded to the highest bidder”.
During the Crimean War the ship transported soldiers and their horses to Malta to ready themselves for battle. Conditions on the ship were hot and cramped and the horses brought many pests with them. Heywood Bright, an assistant clerk and son of the Great Britain’s owner, writes in 1855 that “What with [flies] fleas and mosquitos &c &c it is not much sleep one gets. The [flies] are a regular plague here if you pour out a glass of sherry you have some in it before you can drink it”.
Animals were an essential part of the everyday hubbub aboard the ship. You would find them in every crevice, on deck, in cabins, and the cargo hold. Next time you visit see how many more you can discover aboard the SS Great Britain.
Author: Natalie Fey, Interpretation Assistant