The Swiss connections of the SS Great Britain

30 July 2021


30 July 2021


This painting shows the SS Great Britain as she was 1857 - 1876. We know of several Swiss people who travelled on her during this time as passengers and crew.

Switzerland is a land-locked country in the centre of the European Continent and, one could argue, not the most obvious place to look for maritime connections. Nevertheless, the SS Great Britain does have several connections with that mountainous country through the people who travelled and worked on her.

Perhaps most surprising of all, there were three Swiss men who signed on as able seamen on board the Great Britain during her time carrying passengers to Australia. Working as an able seaman meant that these men had at least several years of experience going to sea and had learned their trade to such a degree that they were considered to be skilled in working the ropes and sails of a ship. Joseph Francis joined the ship in Melbourne in 1864 and only made that one return voyage to Liverpool. In 1870, Dominick Mattesich joined the ship for one voyage to Melbourne and back to Liverpool. He gave his birthplace as Lucerne, so growing up next to the beautiful Lake Lucerne may have influenced Dominick to earn a living as a seaman. The third Swiss able seaman was Henry Miller, or probably Heinrich Mueller. He was supposed to sail on the Great Britain to Melbourne in 1875, but he never joined the ship and was considered a deserter.

Another Swiss man, Alphonse Mivarthe, joined the ship in Melbourne in 1862 as assistant steward. It is not clear if Alphonse just used this as an opportunity to work his way back to Europe from Australia, or if being a steward was his way of earning money. Many of the luxurious North Atlantic passenger liners started recruiting Swiss stewards and stewardesses in the second half of the 19th century. Swiss hotels were well known for the excellent customer service given to tourists, and so to employ Swiss stewards was one way of buying a piece of that outstanding customer care for the floating hotels that carried Europe’s high society for visits to New York.

A Swiss passenger, Herman Zumstein from St Gallen, travelled from Melbourne to Liverpool on board the Great Britain. He left a detailed diary in which he describes the voyage. He had emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and had set up a successful trading and importing business. In 1863 he travelled back to Switzerland to visit his mother and sister before returning to his business in Melbourne. Mr Zumstein is the only passenger on board the Great Britain who is identified specifically as Swiss. Mostly, passengers are only identified as being English, Irish, Scottish or from ‘other parts’. However, one passenger who is recorded as being from ‘other parts’ has too many intriguing links to Switzerland to be ignored.

In 1845 the Great Britain made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York and on board was a Mr Suchard. His profession was given as confectioner. Now, anybody who loves their chocolate will have heard of the name Suchard. Although more research needs to be done to prove it, this passenger is very likely to be Philippe Suchard from Switzerland, who was making a name for himself as a chocolatier. The company established by him, exists to this day and Suchard Chocolate is one of the best-known chocolate brands in Switzerland. Philippe Suchard is not only famous for making chocolate, he also was a man with an interest in steamships and he introduced the first steamship on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland in 1834. He must have jumped at the chance to travel on the maiden voyage of the famous steamship Great Britain, the technological wonder of her age. If our passenger was indeed Phillipe Suchard, maybe he brought some of his chocolate with him and distributed it to his fellow passengers or bribed the chief engineer with it so that he would tell him all about the wonders of the machinery and screw propeller of the ship. Although we might never be able to find out about the presence of Suchard chocolate on board the Great Britain, the Global Stories database has revealed some very intriguing links between the ship and one of the possibly least maritime countries on the European Continent.

Author: Joanna Mathers 

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