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Captain Gray Facts

When was Captain Gray born?

John Gray was born on 8 Dec, 1819 at Vaaland, Westing, Unst; the most northern of the Shetland islands. 

Why is he so famous?

John Gray became not only the master of the SS Great Britain but also the most celebrated captain in the British merchant fleet.

He was the SS Great Britain’s longest serving Captain of 18 years between 1854 and 1872 during which time the SS Great Britain was the fastest ship on the Australia run.

About 13,000 people emigrated to Australia when the ship was under his command.

When did he become the Captain?

In 1852, he joined the SS Great Britain as Second Officer on the ship’s first voyage to Australia, taking a pay cut and demotion to join this famous ship.

He was appointed First Officer for the SS Great Britain’s second voyage.

In Apr 1854 following the resignation of Captain Matthews prior to the ship’s third voyage to Melbourne, he was appointed captain.

His affection for the SS Great Britain

It is apparent that he developed a great affection for the SS Great Britain and referred to her as the ‘Greyhound of the Seas’.

In 1866 Susan Mary Crompton, who travelled on her honeymoon reported Captain Gray had said:

‘I love every plank of her. I pat her sometimes and I’ve promised her a rest if she will only get us home in less than 70 days.’

The passengers' favourite Captain

Accounts from diaries and testimonials show how popular Captain Gray was with passengers of all classes and both sexes.

Charles Albert Chomley, travelling in 1861 described Gray’s only fault as a firm handshake!

'The Captain is a great patron of all kinds of fun and is a great favourite, he always has a pleasant word for everybody, the only fault I have to find with him is that he has such a strong hand with which he squeezes peoples fingers like a pair of pincers if that can be called a vice.'

What sort of Captain was he?

Although a strict disciplinarian he was always popular amongst his crew because of his fairness and willingness to lend a hand.

When there was ice about he would spend long hours on watch.

What happened to him?

He mysteriously disappeared from the SS Great Britain on its return from Melbourne to Liverpool in 1872.

Gray had been ill for several years, and on the night of 25 Nov 1872, when the ship was in mid Atlantic,  the Captain complained of pain in his bowels and went to bed early.

A steward checked on him later in the evening, reporting that Gray seemed ‘as sensible as ever’ and was writing a letter.

At about midnight his servant saw him leave his cabin and head towards the deck. The next morning the servant took in his morning tea as usual, but the cabin was empty.

Returning a short while later and finding no sign of the Captain, the servant reported the matter to the Chief Steward, John Campbell, who ordered a search of the ship.

Gray was nowhere to be found. However, the crew discovered that one of the transom windows in the Lower Saloon, at the stern of the ship, was open.

One of the stewards, John Prout, said that he had screwed the window closed the previous evening.

What did people say about him?

An obituary notice described Captain Gray as ‘the beau ideal of a merchant captain – brave, skilful, manly and resourceful’.

Knocked to the floor

On one occasion a group of drunken Cornish miners, who were dissatisfied with the standard of food in the Steerage, gathered in the bar and knocked Gray down when he intervened.

The First Officer went to his aid with a drawn sword and, with the help of other officers, the Captain was released and the ringleaders clapped in irons.

However they were released when their comrades began to gather on deck.

Gray promptly called a meeting with the Cornishmen and used his diplomacy to resolve the situation, talking them round.

One passenger observed ‘such were his powers of persuasion that they felt such a pity and compassion for him as to rescind all their former resolutions.’

His legacy

At least two babies born on the SS Great Britain were named after him – Amy Gray Roberts and John Gray Britain Donaldson.


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