I’ve been working on the letters of Heywood Bright, who was an assistant purser on board the SS Great Britainon her first couple of voyages as a troopship to the Crimea. With all the various ports of call en route, I’ve been able to experience quite a lot of vicarious foreign travel whilst stuck at home… Some of it’s not been so much fun – Kertch, in the Crimea, was a ‘scene of desolation and riot’ with the French army plundering ‘everything they can lay their hands on’. However, the SS Great Britain also called in at Marseilles for French troops, and Heywood says that the country around there is ‘very jolly indeed’. Unfortunately, Captain Gray experienced some issues whilst in Marseilles due to the language barrier. Heywood reports: ‘The other day I went into a Café here and found poor Gray surrounded by about twenty waiters all trying to make out what he wanted while poor Gray was making all kind of signs and faces to get a drop of milk with his coffee’.
With the Brunel Institute shut, I jumped at the chance to work from home on developing the back stories of the passengers who travelled on the SS Great Britain. I have begun with Voyage 8, the first trip she made after running aground in Dundrum Bay and the sale to Gibbs, Bright and Co. Before embarking on her planned route to Australia, the new owners felt it wise to put her to the test on a short run to New York and back. So, who were the passengers who travelled out to New York in May 1852?
So far, I have found:
A member of the Bright family, author, merchant and son of Samuel, who later joined his father as one of the partners in Gibbs, Bright and Co.
A cousin of the notorious Elstree murderer (John Thurtell), whose family had to change their name to disassociate themselves from him. Some adopted the name, Manfred, as in this case. Many other family members also emigrated to different parts of the world.
A Baptist preacher and his wife who travelled to the US to spread the gospel and provide education for young ladies, but whose strong abolitionist views caused them wide persecution and near bankruptcy.
Several Quakers, among whom one who was educated at Friends School, Ackworth, which is the school my own mother attended nearly a century later.
At present I’m working through IK Brunel’s Great eastern Letterbook 2 (of 6) and the year 1855. It casts fascinating light on the progress of the building work of the SS Great Eastern, on Brunel’s place in society and the illustrious (and not so illustrious) people with whom he was in correspondence, on his (deteriorating) relationship with his co-builder John Scott Russell, and not least on Brunel’s own character.
Not all the archive is digitised yet, but the letterbooks are. So I can spend as much time as I wish at my laptop, furthering the story that unfolds through the correspondence. Luckily, the clerk who copied out all these letters and reports – both going out from Brunel and coming in to him – has a wonderfully easy hand, and the letters are mostly a joy to read and quick work to transcribe, with just the occasional word difficult to discern as it disappears down the spine of the book. Those words will need to be checked as and when I can get back into the Brunel Institute to see the book myself. It’s just a pity that we transcribers must not correct spellings or punctuation, but must keep to exactly what’s written – as my ‘day job’ is as an editor, that’s often painful!