Black Country’s three links to Brunel’s pioneering ship
I recently journeyed to Bristol to visit one of the country’s major tourist attractions – SS Great Britain.
It is a museum ship and former steamship which was advanced for her time. She was the longest passenger ship in the world from 1845 to 1854, having been designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Bristol and New York.
Whilst other ships had been built of of iron or equipped with a screw propeller the Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship and she was the first iron ship to cross the Atlantic which she did in 1845, in the time of fourteen days.
You may well ask if there is a connection with the Black Country? Well yes there is, firstly there is a plaque mounted telling us that many skilled workers from our area were employed in the building of the ship.
Secondly during the tour in Brunel’s office we came across a safe which proudly tells us that it was made by Smithers & Sons of West Bromwich.
Unfortunately the owners were forced out of business in 1846 after having spent all their available funds refloating the ship after she ran aground at Dundrum Bay in County Down, Northern Ireland.
In 1852 she was sold for salvage and repaired, later carrying thousands of immigrants to Australia until in 1884 she was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was used as a warehouse, quarantine ship and coal hulk until she was scuttled and sunk in 1937, ninety eight years after being laid down at the start of her construction.
Believe it or not we then had a further link with the Black Country. In 1970 after lying underwater and abandoned for thirty three years half a world away Sir Jack Hayward OBE paid for the vessel to be raised and repaired enough to be towed north through the Atlantic back to the United Kingdom and returned to the Bristol dry dock where she had been built one hundred and twenty seven years earlier.
Sir Jack, of course, was a prominent businessman, developer, philanthropist and owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet the SS Great Britain is an award winning visitor attraction with close on 250000 visitors annually.
Terry Church, Wall Heath
Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol: Tim Ireland/pa Wire
The maker’s plate on the safe