To make the cabins feel really lived in we used evidence from the diaries of passengers written on board, and tried to allocate one diary to each bunk. This ensured that everything we’ve done is grounded in our archive.
A passenger we wanted to make more present in first class was the England team cricketer E.M. Grace (brother of W.G. Grace), whose diary we have in the Brunel Institute. Grace travelled on board to take on the Australian team in the second test match. We bought a cricket bat, which our Technical Services team have distressed to look truly authentic, as well as some cricket pads in the same style as those worn at the time and a pair of white canvas trousers. To round off the not-so-fashionable ensemble, we commissioned a pair of woollen cricket caps which Grace mentions in his diary.
Across the saloon, we have our beardy mannequin which represents Samuel Archer, the ship’s surgeon. We bought some wooden trays, and laid some cloths over the top, with different sea-shells drying on them (he was an amateur conchologist – aren’t we all at heart?). We also know that Samuel read The Life of Napoleon during the voyage, so we found a copy and placed it in his cabin. Finally, our Tech team made a bowl of bloody water from resin and food colouring to show how the surgeon’s bandages were washed.
Another cabin which we have focused on belongs to the Cohen couple. This is a sad story about a young Jewish man who returned from Melbourne to propose to his young English love, Simone. She agreed and they embarked on the SS Great Britain, to start their new life together in Australia. She died of a form of bronchitis, just three days from port. The passengers were devastated. To hint at Mrs Cohen’s tragic illness our Tech team had the un-glamorous job of creating some phlegm stained cloths, with a small streak of blood or two.
Finally, in the Captain’s cabin we have produced some hand-written notes which are all taken from our diaries. There is a mix of complaints to Captain Mathews, letters of praise from the first-class passengers, and some torn posters which claim that Mathews has lost his way and that the ship is sailing off course. Mathews divided opinion among his charges and his decision to turn back to St Helena and re-coal on the first voyage to Australia was extremely controversial, delaying the voyage by about two weeks.
Add to all this a range of collar boxes, wallets, pocket watches, cigar and snuff tins, Shakespeare travel books, some more clothing items which were generously donated by Sudbury Hall, and we have the foundation of our truly authentic uplift to First Class.
Author: Luke Holmes, Interpretation Officer