Today, Brunel’s pioneering iron steamer, the first to cross the Atlantic in 1845, sits in the Bristol dry dock, where she was built.
She was launched in the same year that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set off on their ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage, but luckily, the SS Great Britain was not to suffer such a dreadful fate.
Now a museum, the vessel is a fascinating reminder of Britain’s Victorian industrial heyday.
However, due the breakneck speed of technological development, she was soon rendered redundant, and her active lifetime lasting a little over thirty years.
Originally a transatlantic transport between Liverpool and New York, she then offered passage for settlers from England to Australia, spurred by the gold rush of the early 1850s.
With the coming of the Crimean War (October 1853/February 1856) she found herself pressed into service as a troop transport, a role that she reprised during the India mutiny.
Her final self-powered voyage to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands in 1886 was, surprisingly for such a ship, under sail rather than steam, and there she would remain as a rusting hulk until she was brought home to Bristol in 1970.
Over the decades of her active life, the Great Britain probably have witnessed much drama aboard, including the most mysterious incident, the sudden disappearance of her captain John Gray.
This took place on her return voyage from Melbourne on the night of 25th to 26th November 1872, thirty days into another return voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool, and his body was never found.
It was assumed that he had either fallen or leapt overboard.
But was it suicide, an accident, or even a foul play?
We shall likely never know.
What is known is that he suffered from anxiety brought about by his desire to maintain the ship’s status in the face of stiff competition from newer and faster vessels that did the same route, and its symptoms being various liver and stomach complaints.
In fact, on the night that he disappeared, he is reported to have retired to his cabin having complained of a pain in his bowels, and was last sighted around midnight walking towards the deck.
The following day, a window at the ship’s stern was found left open, having been locked the night before.
Perhaps a clue as to the cause of his disappearance may have been contained in a letter that he was seen writing on that last evening, but no trace of it was ever found. Probably he carry it with him to the deep, or maybe someone did take it.
Since there was no way to send a message ashore, his wife Mary Ann, née Jamieson, only found out that she was a widow when she and one of their daughters met the ship upon its arrival in Liverpool in January 1873. His death was reported on the front pages of newspapers in the United Kingdom and in Australia.
But perhaps it would be unfair to remember Captain Gray for the fact of his disappearance, rather than for his character, which generally seems to have been much admired.
A certain Mary Crompton, a passenger on the ship, wrote in her diary: “What a very nice man the captain is, he seems always to be looking out for something to make his passengers more comfortable; he generally chooses those ladies who are travelling alone to walk with,” while another passenger, Mr Cholmley, remarked: “I suppose he is the most popular captain afloat, I think the passengers would do anything for him.”
Either way, although physically departed, captain’s spirit is rumoured to remain aboard his vessel.
It has been said that his heavy boots may be heard dragging about the deck and down the stairs, and doors have been seen to open and close with no seeming physical cause.
And, apparently, he is not alone there, as there have been reports of other ghosts.
For example, one is believed to be of a Mrs Cohen who died a few weeks after her wedding, another of a mariner who fell from the rigging, and then there is even a nameless Victorian lady accompanied by a child.
Images from web – Google Research