Why would the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) be interested in the SS Great Britain, sitting in Bristol?
For many people, the ships that most readily come to mind in connection with the Falkland Islands are warships involved in the Falklands War in 1982. Some may also know about those that fought in the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands in 1914. In an earlier age, however, the Falklands were either a haven or a final resting place for civilian vessels conveying goods around the southern tip of South America. And that was the fate of SS Great Britain.
Except, of course, that her final resting place turned out not to be the Falkland Islands at all, but the place where she was launched in 1843 – Bristol. The last four years of her active life were spent carrying cargo between San Francisco and the United Kingdom: very different from her early years carrying passengers between Bristol and New York as Brunel had intended. In 1886, like so many others before and after her, she suffered in the storms. The crew were apparently unenthusiastic: the repairs were expensive and they feared they may have no way of getting home. In fact, all but one – Charlie Enestrom, who got married, had seven children and lived in the Islands until his death in 1940 – found their way home.
As the ship was not to be repaired, the Falkland Islands Company bought her for £3000 to use as a storage vessel. After several years in that role she was towed outside the harbour and rested there while various plans to salvage her were discussed and came to nothing. Eventually, of course, one improbably ambitious plan did work out and in 1970 Great Britain could be seen again by Bristolians and others as she was towed to dry dock.
For Falkland Islanders, a constant reminder of this episode in the Islands’ history is the remains of her mizzen mast, to be seen on Victory Green in Stanley.
The story of this product of Brunel’s genius has so many facets. For the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust it symbolises a period when the Falklands were crucial to the fortunes of the United Kingdom as a haven for sailing ships transporting goods to and from this country and elsewhere. The astonishing enterprise that brought her back to Bristol, where people can learn so much about that era and the role the Falkland Islands played in the global economy of that era, underlines the enduring nature of that relationship.
The FMHT was set up in 2014. Our main aim is “to advance the education of the public, including in the maritime history and heritage, both military and civilian, of the Falkland Islands and their neighboring seas.” You can find out more about us here.
Author: Donald A Lamont, Chairman, Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust