The 160th anniversary of the ss Great Britain’s launch will fall on 19th July 2003. On a showery summer morning in 1843 Bristolians set out for a long day of festivities to celebrate the launch, which was to take place in the presence of Prince Albert.
The proprietors of the yards around the Cumberland Basin and at the foot of Brandon Hill took entrepreneurial advantage of the fine view across the harbour to the Great Western dry dock, where the ss Great Britain lay. Avid for a full view of the spectacle, visitors willingly paid admission charges to their premises, where seats and makeshift viewing platforms had been cobbled together. By the time the Prince Consort arrived with his entourage at Temple Meads, on a special train driven by Brunel, every yard of his proposed route through the City must have been thronged with people.
Local newspapers of the day tell us that the streets had been transformed in order to receive the royal guest. Triumphal arches of flowers and laurel, some supporting elaborate floral sculptures of peacocks and birds of paradise, had been erected over the streets. Dozens of flags, damp from the passing showers, were hung from every building, and patriotic sentiment was proudly declared on banners stretched between buildings. The children of the local schools had been scrupulously coached to greet the Prince, and the ladies of Clifton had organised elegant parties to entertain the Bristol elite later in the evening.
The number and in many cases the detail and length of surviving accounts of the launch is remarkable, and they communicate all the excitement and aspiration of this unique day in Bristol’s history. The “Bristol Mirror” described Prince Albert’s patronage of the launch as an honour which should reaffirm the city’s confidence in itself, following a period of recession and economic difficulty. This paper published a special supplement to commemorate the launch: other journalistic accounts of the new ship appeared in the ‘Illustrated London News’, the ‘Mechanics Magazine’, the ‘Birmingham Gazette’, and the ‘Weekly Argus’, an American Newspaper. All of these sources devote column inches to the stupendous statistics associated with the SS Great Britain. Her size and her power were staggering to Victorian readers, and she represented a level of technological innovation that seemed to justify their unequivocal confidence in the potential of science. The foreign ambassadors who attended the launch banquet expressed the same confidence and awe: the launch of the SS Great Britain was “of great interest in the history of civilisation and improvement”, and her construction exhibited “the magic of the mechanical arts… science has but waved her wand over the iron mine”.
As well as these public and official reactions to the launch, we have some more personal accounts and recollections of the occasion. The cynicism about William Prideaux’ account of Prince Albert’s progress through Bristol is almost refreshing after reading the adulation of journalists:
“The Prince… is a very handsome young man though he looked rather pale and tired. I should wonder how it could be otherwise as he had been travelling ever since six o’clock, there was very little cheering I thought, though in the newspapers of course it said, that he was received with the loud and continued acclamations of the multitude.”
Edward Snell, an engineer on the Great Western Railway, asked for several days leave on the pretext of coming to Bristol to see the launch. However, having obtained permission from his employer, he preferred courtship to the iron ship:
“Reached Bristol about 10 o’clock…didn’t care much about seeing the vessel floated out after all so went to Cheltenham Cottage to call on Miss Lewis”.
Mr Snell’s flirtation kept him away from the ship for some time, but eventually he paid his shilling to visit the ship, and duly recorded his impressions:
“…Went all over her & was highly gratified – tremendous great engines – 1000 H.P …the screw…by the bye is no screw after all but rather 4 flat blades – The saloons were very beautiful and hung around with paintings representing the ship herself in various situation – some of these are sketched below. After thoroughly overhauling every part of the vessel we went into the into the banqueting room which was in the same state as when Prince Albert left it, in front of his table was a model of the Gt Britain rolling about on a sea of oiled silk.”
Other early visitors to the ship, although they too expressed their admiration of her size, her elegance, and her advanced technology, took a more sceptical view of her viability. She was a truly grand experiment, but would she sail? Herr Carus, a German visitor, had his doubts:
“There are only two small points to be mentioned: first, it appears doubtful whether the vessel, when completed, can ever be got out of the narrow dock and along the Avon into the sea… and secondly, whether a ship of such dimensions is fit for sea service at all. It is feared, and as it appears not entirely without reason, that if the vessel were to be raised at once under the bows and under the stern by two waves, the weight of the machinery in the centre would possibly break her in two.”
Fears about the ship’s seaworthiness were proved groundless, but Herr Carus first question was more prescient. The SS Great Britain had to be inched out of the harbour, clearing its mouth by a hair’s-breadth, and her size meant that she could never use Bristol as her home port. In 1844, she bid the city goodbye for 126 years, and left to begin on the path which was to carry her more than a million miles around the globe.
Long after her departure from Bristol, and her subsequent return in 1970, a new ‘launch’ is planned for the SS Great Britain. As part of the plan to conserve the ship, a glass plate will be built around her within her dry dock. The air beneath this glass plate will be dehumidified to prevent the hull from corroding further. On top of the glass plate a thin layer of water will surround the ship, so that she appears to be floating on a calm sea. It is hoped that this work be complete by summer 2004, and that the official opening of the glass plate will take place on 19th July – the same date as the launch in 1843.