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A Rat's Tale, 1852

Two pages from Allan Gilmour’s diary. Half way down page 43, he writes about rats on the SS Great Britain. BRSGB-1997.020
Two pages from Allan Gilmour’s diary. Half way down page 43, he writes about rats on the SS Great Britain. BRSGB-1997.020

The Extract

  • It didn’t matter if you travelled in steerage or first class, rats were a problem faced by everybody on board the SS Great Britain. 
  • Passenger Allan Gilmour wrote, at the end of his diary entry for Friday 8 October 1852, about the problem of rats on board the ship: “For this some nights past several of the passengers in our cabin have been annoyed by rats which even at times have come into our beds, & tonight we were awoke by a lady screaming, who being awake saw a rat walking on the partition above her head.”
  • He also wrote that the rats were “pretty numerous & are to be heard during the night running about the Mess room & making a great noise.”
  • Allan wrote the diary whilst travelling to Australia on the SS Great Britain. It gives the reader an insight into what life was like for passengers on board the ship.

The Story

Fur class passengers 
 
Rattus rattus, or the black rat was a common sight on board the SS Great Britain. These creatures were able to smuggle their way on board and then move around freely eating food, socks, books and almost anything they could get their teeth into. One passenger even woke in the night to discover a rat nibbling her toe nails! Rats are excellent climbers, able to swim underwater and survive falling from heights, making them difficult to get rid of once they are onboard. 
 
Rats are often mentioned in passenger diaries, from 1st class to steerage, showing that they were a ship-wide problem. Not even the captain was immune! Mary Paul Mulquin wrote in her diary that “The Captain tells a droll story of a rat running up his beard (a very bushy article indeed)”. Rats would be heard moving around the ship and were sometimes spotted up in the rigging. The crew would then try to catch the rats to prevent them from eating the sails or ropes. People went to great lengths to protect themselves and their property from rats, a passenger wrote in their diary “The moment the lights were out, the inhabitants…commenced a capital imitation of a feline [cat] concert”. Sadly, they didn’t write if making the cat noises worked in scaring off the rats!

Continue the Story

All creatures great and small
 
Rats were not the only animals on board the SS Great Britain. On a voyage to Australia in 1864 the ship carried 1 cow, 3 bullocks, 150 sheep, 30 pigs, 500 chickens, 400 ducks, 100 geese and 50 turkeys! The cow was used to supply fresh milk for the 1st class passengers, while the rest of the animals were killed over the course of the voyage to provide fresh meat for the 1st and 2nd class passengers. 
 
But not all animals on board were there as food. Some passengers took birds, such as larks and canaries, in cages with them as they were going to use them to start businesses. On voyage 24 out to Australia the cages had to be guarded around the clock in case the rats got in and ate the birds. While a monkey, brought on board by sailors as a pet, caused nearly as much chaos as the rats on voyage 14 between Mumbai and Cork, entries in diaries talk of it stealing things and biting people! In 1855 on voyage 12 the SS Great Britain took some horses along with soldiers out to Crimea to fight in the Crimean War. The horses had to travel in special harnesses to reduce the chance of them getting sea sick. 
 
From the weather deck it was possible to look out to sea and spot a wide range of marine wildlife. Whales, porpoises and flying fish are often mentioned in passenger diaries, but they weren’t always just admired from a distance. Allan Gilmour wrote in his diary, that a crew member caught a porpoise and it was “skinned & cut up into steaks”. For many passengers on board it would have been the first time they had ever seen some of these animals, so they relied on others to tell them what they were. “Saw a number of fish floating past tonight…I asked one of the sailors what they were and was told they were Portuguese man of wars.”

Extra Resources

Find out “A bit about Brunel’s SS Great Britain” with this factsheet (download and print)

Explore the journeys of the SS Great Britain and find out more about the animals on board through Global Stories

Get creative and design a trap to catch the rats on board the SS Great Britain (Download and print)

Read an extract from Allan Gilmour’s diary written between the 4-10 October 1852.

Watch this short film and find out about the diaries that some passengers wrote on board the SS Great Britain (stream via YouTube).