This week, I’m giving a plug to a conference that I’m involved in co-organising. Just over fifty years ago, the future of Brunel’s iconic steamship SS Great Britain was in serious doubt. The ship had been a hulk in the Falkland Islands for many years, and was slowly deteriorating. There was a proposal to take it to the USA and moor it alongside the Queen Mary, but nothing was being done in the UK, the country where the ship was built. In November 1967, though, Ewan Corlett, a prominent member of the Society for Nautical Research, wrote a letter to The Times, suggesting that something should be done to save the ‘SSGB’. This idea went forward, with the inaugural meeting of the ‘SS Great Britain Project’ taking place at Bristol in May 1968. In its early days, this leaned heavily on the SNR, which held its funds and provided substantial moral support, and during 1969, it was Dr Corlett who organised the salvage tugs which brought the ship back to the UK.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the society’s role in securing SSGB’s future, a conference is being held at Bristol on 6-7 September of this year under the joint auspices of the SNR and the SS Great Britain Trust. Entitled Connecting the Oceans: the Impact of Global Steam in the Nineteenth Century, this promises to be a lively and stimulating occasion, with a very wide range of contributions. The keynote speakers are Dr Helen Doe, Dr Graeme Milne and Captain Peter King, and session papers cover such diverse themes as migration, the experience of steamship travel, health at sea, female maritime entrepreneurship in Greece, the impact of steam on the German and US navies, and Brunel’s Crimean War ‘stealth’ gunboats. The conference venue is immediately adjacent to the ship itself, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity to explore this astonishing survival of the Victorian era. Booking is now open at Eventbrite, where further details can be found. (If you’re reblogging or retweeting this post, then please use the conference hashtag, #connectingoceans)
From a personal point of view, this conference sees me come full circle, in one sense. Today, I’m a vice-president of the SNR and chair of its Research and Programmes Committee, which initiates the society’s role in conferences such as this. But back then, I was a schoolboy whose interest in all things maritime was already all-pervasive, and I managed to track down this photo of me aboard SSGB not long after the hull arrived back in Bristol, alongside my grandfather, who was undoubtedly the biggest influence on my younger self. I also have scrapbooks from the time with newspaper cuttings chronicling the saga of the ship’s long tow and its triumphant return to Bristol. So it’s nice to be in a position to do something to mark the anniversary of a remarkable story that so absorbed me at the time!
Dear Mr Davies, Thank you for this interesting article. I am so pleased SS Great Britain was saved. It is sad that the fate of SS Great Eastern was not a similar story. I feel a personal interest in this story because the firm who purchased the SS Great Eastern for scrap, Henry Bath and Sons, was started by Henry Bath, who was my ancestral uncle by marriage, and his son, who was my first cousin, several times removed. Gael Phillips, Brisbane, Australia.