An exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the salvage of the SS Great Britain and featuring film footage and original items as well as a wide range of photographs is now open at the Britannia House Museum in the Falkland Islands capital, Stanley.
Launched in 1843, the SS Great Britain was designed by celebrated Bristol engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Liverpool and New York. She was the largest vessel afloat when launched, and the first ocean-going ship to be made of iron and equipped with a screw propeller. From 1852 until 1876, the SS Great Britain carried immigrants to Australia. In 1882 she was sold again and refitted as a cargo ship, carrying Welsh coal to San Francisco and returning with wheat.
The SS Great Britain was condemned in the Falklands in 1886 and purchased by the Falkland Islands Company for use as a storage hulk. After 50 years of service in Stanley Harbour, the hulk was deemed unfit for further use, towed out to Sparrow Cove, beached and holed, there to see out the rest of her days – or so it was believed.
However, in the mid-1960s interest in the old ship was renewed and a plan to return her to Britain for restoration began to gather momentum. The massive operation to return the ship to her home port began in January 1970 with the arrival in the Falkland Islands of a salvage expert who judged there to be an 80% chance of success.
The salvage operation that followed in April of the same year achieved what few thought was possible – the hulk was patched up, pumped out and refloated, then towed on to the submersible pontoon that would carry her 8,000 miles home to Bristol. A number of Islanders were involved in the famous operation –either providing carpentry skills, working on the small boats and launches that helped to tow the hulk into position, or as part of the dive team.
Now restored to her original glory, the “Great Britain” is Bristol‟s main visitor attraction with over 150,000 visitors annually, but the ship retains an unbreakable link to the Falklands.
The ship’s mizzen mast remains on Victory Green, a tangible reminder of that link.
The salvage is central to the Museums current exhibition, and is illustrated with a series of photographs and a 10 minute video clip. The design, working life and restoration of Brunels most celebrated ship is also briefly explained.
Member of the Falklands’ Legislative Assembly Emma Edwards remembers visiting the SS Great Britain as a child while she was being restored in Bristol, and said the exhibition had brought back many happy memories.
Miss Edwards commended the Museum staff on their hard work.
Museum Manager Leona Roberts said that the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust is extremely grateful to the Falkland Islands Company and Sulivan Shipping Services for their sponsorship of the exhibition and to all the individuals who loaned photographs or shared their memories of the ship.
Falklands’ Britannia House Museum receives approximately 10,000 visitors per annum, and is regarded by many tourists as the highlight of a visit to Stanley. FIMNT staff work closely with the Falkland Islands Government Archives to preserve the territory’s heritage, most recently through an Oral History project.
Two small branch museums at San Carlos and North Arm focus on farm life and the 1982 Falklands Conflict. In the museum grounds is to be found the Reclus Hut, relocated from the Antarctic Peninsula and filled with its original 1950s contents. FIMNT is also responsible for the Cape Pembroke lighthouse and Cartmell Cottage, an 1849 house recreated in period style.