Volunteers’ week

31 May 2018


31 May 2018


To celebrate volunteers week, explore some of the varied work taken on by our volunteers at Brunel's SS Great Britain

Our volunteers play a vital role across the organisation, to celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we’re highlighting some of the fantastic and varied roles that are available here at Brunel’s SS Great Britain.


Purpose: To keep the weather deck looking ship shape for our visitors.

Regularity: once a week.

We spoke to Diana Wells who took on the role last year. Diana can regularly be spotted up on the deck in all weather; polishing, scrubbing, sanding and tidying flags.

What drew you to volunteering at Brunel’s SS Great Britain?

Because she’s fabulous!

What do you enjoy about the role?

The Weather Deck has the appeal of being outside. I like everything about the role – it’s a good team who are really helpful and supportive. There’s lots to learn and I learn new things all the time which is very rewarding. Visitors are always interested in what is going on with the Weather Deck and it’s great to interact with them.

What do you feel your impact is?

Helping to keep her a little bit ship shape!

Find out more about this role and how you can get involved here



Purpose: To work together as a family to engage visitors in activities around the site and tell them a little more about life on board. Activities that family volunteers lead include scrubbing the decks, shovelling coal, dressing up in Victorian costume and playing deck quoits.

Regularity:  Several days during school holidays and at weekends.

We spoke to several families after they had volunteered with us on a Saturday afternoon. This is what they told us about their experience:

What did you enjoy most about volunteering?

One family said, “meeting lots of people and encouraging people to join in”. Another parent replied “we enjoyed working together as a team. I personally enjoyed seeing my children interact in a different context and gain confidence with this”. Another family “enjoyed the Lifting Frame most. We felt helpful to visitors as it’s a little complicated to use.”

How would you describe volunteering to other families?

Parents felt that volunteering as a family was “excellent confidence building for children”. Another said that the experience was “fun – a great chance to do something a bit different together – can be child and adult-focussed”. Every child who took part wanted to volunteer again!

Did you feel you made a difference?

All the families felt they had improved the experience for other visitors. One parent agreed that the whole family had made a difference; “I feel children listen to children”. Another agreed; “yes, I think that encouraging the visitors to join in with activities makes the museum experience more interactive and involved”. A 10-year-old volunteer replied; “if I didn’t help people they wouldn’t know what to do”.



Purpose: To engage with visitors across the site and ensure they have a great day out.

Regularity: Half a day each week.

We spoke to Dilys, who has been volunteering with us for a couple of years. You might see her talking to visitors around the site and answering their questions, pointing them in the right direction or sorting out the Victorian costumes in our Flash Bang Wallop activity.

What drew you to volunteering at Brunel’s SS Great Britain?

I love history – I am a Portsmouth girl so was interested in the dockyard there, the Mary Rose and of course the Brunel family (Isambard was born there). I also like the social side of volunteering – meeting people from all over the world.

What do you enjoy most about the role?

It’s a learning curve. Everyday I learn something new. You learn different things about the job itself and the ship. It’s never boring – when there are not so many visitors I can read about the history. I just can’t sit still – I have to be busy!

What do you feel your impact is?

I hope visitors will experience a joyful day out. Even things like giving out stickers to children or directing people to where they need to go helps. I think pointing things out to people that they didn’t realise, or know was there, can add to their experience.

Find out more about this role and how you can get involved here



Purpose: To add items in the collection to the catalogue and to transcribe diaries.

Regularity: Two afternoons a week.

We spoke to Hilary who works behind the scenes in the Brunel Institute, transcribing the diaries of IK Brunel’s second son Henry and cataloguing postcards from the David McGregor collection.

What drew you to volunteering with us?

Because of Brunel – he was such a heroic figure. Awful to work with I’m sure, but I’m delighted we’ve got a museum dedicated to him.

What do you enjoy about the role?

It’s fascinating to see how life was lived through items in the collection. I’m working on transcribing the diaries of Brunel’s second son, Henry. It’s just little things like the fact that they used to sing after dinner. It seems Henry was quite pleased with his voice! He also mentions his difficulties in paying his landlady’s bills, but he still managed to have fun putting on plays and visiting the theatre. I also work on the inventory of postcards we have from the David McGregor collection. David and his wife kept every single postcard they ever had and there are about 5000 of them, some dating back to 1905.

What difference do you make to visitors?

Some of what I have done has appeared in the new museum; Being Brunel. Visitors can read parts of it which I hope makes their visits more interesting.

Find out more about volunteering in the Brunel Institute here

Staff and volunteers in the Brunel Institute at the ss Great Britain, 30 July 2019.


Purpose: To provide an immersive experience for visitors in the new museum.

Regularity: A half day each week.

We spoke to David Bailey who is one of our ‘Mr Bennett’ Costumed Volunteers. David can be found in the Duke Street Office, talking to visitors about life in Brunel’s busy workplace.


What drew you to volunteering at Brunel’s SS Great Britain?

Well, I was a fan of Brunel and it just suited me. I didn’t realise all that he did and the museum is so helpful for seeing him as a whole person.

What do you enjoy about the role?

Talking to people and the variety of conversations and questions. You have visitors, who are engineers, who go straight to the engineering things but also people who have worked in offices, so it’s good to show them how Brunel’s office worked.

What difference do you see yourself making?

Helping people to understand Brunel in the round and to put the ship and Brunel in context. I think the museum broadens people’s understanding of Brunel the man.

Find out more about this role and how you can get involved here



Purpose: To engage diverse audiences across Bristol.

Regularity: Ad-hoc events.

We spoke to Jenny Thomas, who has recently become a Community Outreach volunteer. Jenny runs events across Bristol in libraries and at festivals.

Why were you initially interested in taking on the Community Outreach Volunteer role?

I was excited to contribute to something new at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, as the schools workshop programme, in which I normally volunteer is so well established. I have a bit of experience in outreach and wanted to explore this further. The idea of taking the SS Great Britain’s stories offsite and finding appropriate ways for them to be meaningful and relevant to the wider community appealed to me.

What do you enjoy about the role and what do you get out of it?

I love meeting members of the public of all ages and backgrounds and offering something that interests them. One moment I could be hearing someone’s memories of the ship’s return, and the next playing a semaphore signalling game or “guess the smell” with young children. It’s great when someone goes away having discovered something new. On the other hand, the activities are very informal so it’s also great when people just get engaged and enjoy themselves!

What impact do you have?  Do you see yourself/ the Community Outreach Volunteers making a difference?

The programme is still in its early days, so at the moment our impact has been quite small. We do know, however, that our events in libraries have attracted many more visitors than would normally be expected. Personally, I love the fact that I am involved in evaluating events and contributing suggestions for improvements and future volunteer training. One of my suggestions was to look at difficult historical topics and how we handle these. As a result, the SS Great Britain Trust’s Public History Fellow is preparing information sheets so that volunteers and staff can respond confidently to any comments or questions from members of the public. I think this will have a very important impact in the future, especially in working with those communities which are hardest to reach.


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