A Day in Bristol

We spent a lot of time today visiting the museum site of the SS Great Britain in Bristol. This is a womderful exhibit of a ship which, on its own, during the second half of the 1800’s took about 4% of the population of Australia (at that time) out to the colonies. The ship made many sailings to Australia and ended its life as a coal hulk in the Falklands. It was brought back to England and restored in 1970.

She was designed by the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. While other ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship. She was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in 1845, in the time of 14 days. The ship is 98 metres in length and has a 3,400-ton displacement. She was powered by two inclined 2 cylinder engines powered by steam. When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat. 


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The Great Britain now sits in the same dockyards in which she was built in Bristol. A glass roof covered in water over the dry dock gives the impression of being under the sea when you  are in the dry dock looking at the hull. Inside the ship are many re-creations of life on board ranging from the opulence of first class to the cramped life of emigrants in steerage. 


At the entry desk, they keep a record of all passengers wo sailed on the ship and I could easily look up my great grandfather. It showed that he, and members of his famil,y sailed on October 20, 1861 from Liverpool. On that voyage, the ship took 64 days to reach Melbourne and travelled with 141 crew and 535 passengers. Also on that voyage were the first English cricket team to visit Australia, a cow, 36 sheep, 140 pigs, 96 goats and 1,114 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. Three passengers died en route. The captain was John Gray, a Scot, who had held the post since before the Crimean War.

Apart from the family connections with this ship, the thing that made our day was the large number of character actors who played people of the time. They really made the ship ‘come to life’. They were superbly made up to suit their characters and they played their parts excellently. One was the rat catcher and another a grave digger. Some people played ordinary people trying to make a living on the dock selling pies and potatoes while others played emigrants coming out to Australia. Two rather dubious ladies offered me their services for 3 shillings, but didn’t take credit cards. Of course, Mr Brunel himself roamed the wharf. I got the impression that these character actors are not normally present at the ship – it was just that today was the last day of the half term holidays.




After a long time at the ship, we drove around to see the Bristol Cathedral and had lunch in its cafe. The cafe is a lot more modest than the cathedral itself and not nearly as ‘upmarket’ as the ones at Salisbury and Winchester.


My friend Richard told me that he once lived in Bristol and we should walk over the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon River Gorge (also designed by Brunel). It was drizzling with a fine misty rain so we didn’t walk. Instead we paid the £1 toll and drove across. 

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The idea of building a bridge across the Avon Gorge originated in 1753.The  original plans were for a stone bridge and later iterations were for a wrought iron structure. In 1831, an attempt to build Brunel’s design was halted by riots, and the revised version of his designs was built after his death and completed in 1864. The bridge deck is suspended by 162 vertical wrought-iron rods in 81 matching pairs.

The final part of our visit to Bristol was to Tyntesfield – a Victorian Gothic Revival house and estate.  The location was formerly that of a 16th-century hunting lodge, which was used as a farmhouse until the early 19th century. In the 1830s a Georgian mansion was built on the site, which was bought by English businessman William Gibbs, whose huge fortune came from importing bird poo (guano) from South America.  In the 1860s Gibbs had the house significantly expanded and remodelled; a chapel was added in the 1870s. The Gibbs family owned the house until the death of Richard Gibbs in 2001. It is set in a large area of good looking parkland, but the house itself appeared dark and overwhelmingly depressive to me. However, this family was the wealthiest non-noble family in England so they had every capacity to choose a design they liked. 

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2 thoughts on “A Day in Bristol

  1. So thrilled you got to the “Great Britain” and what a bonus to have the characters around the ship. How special to see the actual ship your forebears came to Australia on. Did you know that before you had checked the family history? The repatriation form the Falklands must have been a huge job. Looking forward to catching up soon. Safe travels

  2. Just fancy finding the data on your family. That would send tingles down my spine. Not hard to imagine how England ruled the waves.

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