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SS GREAT BRITAIN PROJECT THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS

Chris Young


This is a short presentation, which does not offer any serious methodology, but offers some pointers as to why things have been done in a particular way, in the context of a 3,000-ton ship of 1843 vintage, confined to dock in the ancient port of Bristol.

Click here to see Crew of the Great Britain on deck in San Francisco c. 1883-5.

The country yokel, asked the best way to some remote spot, is reputed to have said "The best way would be not to start from here". I frequently feel like that when looking at how to conserve the iron hull and the reconstructed features of the Great Britain. It was never going to be easy to preserve an enormous object whose care had been minimal for fifty years, and then zero for the next thirty-odd, before the salvage crew came along. If the hull had been steel, instead of wrought iron, the years spent scuttled in an isolated cove in the Falkland Islands would probably have reduced her to a heap of scrap. As it was, the pitchpine planking added in 1882/3 covered plate which had reached zero strength in many places, particularly where wind and water met. She did well to hold together when she was refloated, with a large Band-Aid over the crack in the starboard side, until she had travelled over 7,000 miles on a pontoon, and the last few miles on her own bottom, until she was back in Bristol, in the dock where she had been built 127 years before.

Click here to see SS Great Britain arriving at the mouth of the Avon in 1970.
Click here to see Water-jetting for cleaning and scale removal.
Click here to see SS Great Britain as reconstructed externally to 1843 configuration, 1985.

And yet she was still very much a whole ship. With a reconstructed deck and upperworks she hits you in the eye as a masterpiece of Victorian boldness, so there was no question of hiding her under a protective cover, and the Great Western Dock, although it has serious disadvantages, makes a unique combination with the ship with her birthplace, so we just had to make the best of it. What we did, as I have already hinted, was to use the necessity of closing in the exposed hull as a logical step towards a visual reconstruction of the exterior, which was then extended to a limited interior reconstruction. What we have, therefore, at present, is a three-zone arrangement:

The first zone consists of the reconstructed weather deck, after passenger accommodation, and will eventually include the crew quarters in the forecastle. The centre section below is the second zone, and is effectively a setting for the rotating replica of the original steam engine - in its day the world's biggest. We have allowed a number of intrusions in this section, with no attempt to be historical. The coal bunkers are turned into viewing galleries, and the interior of the boilers serves as a space for meetings, classes, conferences, and parties. We also intend to make use of the freedom we have permitted ourselves in this area to overcome the perennial problems of movement between decks, for instance for the wheelchair bound. The third, or basic, zone is left bare and open: a plain unadorned artefact, showing clearly the constructional features which made the ship such a ground-breaker (to misplace a metaphor) but also creating an intensely dramatic experience evoking the ship's strength and endurance through a long, varied and traumatic existence.

We have followed this strategy with fair consistency over nearly twenty-seven years, and the process is perhaps 70% complete, at last moving forward again after a major setback caused by the failure of the 1970s deck, which was referred to in the paper we sent to the Boston conference, and was kindly read for us by Eric Berryman. The length of time involved will tell you that progress has been seriously constrained by the need for money, and some of the steps we have taken were undoubtedly forced upon us by financial considerations, although we have been careful to keep conservation principles at the head of our priorities.

Every serious decision is validated by a committee which combines the technical, the historical and the archaeological tendencies, and we also draw on the knowledge of appropriate research institutions and indeed specialist companies. The search for the magic processes which arrest multilayer rust, annihilate wood rot, and give everlasting surface finishes continues. Above this expert committee we are answerable to the Council of the Project, representing our thousands of individual members, and the national museums authority, the Museums and Galleries Commission.

The principles on which we have been working are now, for the first time since the 1970s, under radical review. You will know that all UK fundraisers now go round constantly muttering "Lottery, Lottery", and we are no exception. The clearly-demonstrated willingnes of the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund to support maritime conservation projects is a change of enormous significance, and in our case it providentially coincides with an opportunity to expand from the present very limited site to an area of between four and five acres (around 2 hectares). Part of the deal is an ab-initio look at what we are doing, and our rationale could change radically as a result. This is a wide open subject which I cannot pursue at present, because the process has only just started..

The basic facts of life with which we have to deal: the badly wasted ship, showing signs of at least three very different configurations, firmly settled in a city-centre dock, which happens to be where she was built, and so on; have largely set our agenda. The effects are both good and bad.

On the positive side, the conjunction of the ship and building dock is a golden opportunity to tell an important story about the people and methods involved in creating a major bit of shipbuilding history, but we need the time, space, talent and money to take that opportunity. Being settled in dock has permitted us to do things structurally which would not be appropriate for a ship afloat, particularly as regards public access, and of course we do not have to worry about the cost of docking every few years.
On the negative side is the extra care needed to ensure that the hull form is not distorted, lack of access to salt water, the existence of a sunny side (Port) and a shady side (Starboard), and the threat posed by our inability to take the dock gate out for maintenance of the caisson and the supports, since it would cause serious damage to flood the dock. One could add the extra hazard of living next to a timber yard, which serves as an unfailing supply of wood-rot spores, and in a city centre, with all the chemical pollution that implies. Many of you will be familiar with these and similar problems.

The challenge which these conditions offer is how to combine the received wisdom of ship maintainers with that of the people who look after ancient buildings and land-based structures to optimise the technical solutions, and to work with the creativity of historical interpreters to ensure that the ship comes alive to a generation whose understanding of any maritime matters, let alone the relatively arcane subject of Victorian steamships, is minimal and decreasing. We need to present a smart and attractive appearance, even when major conservation, maintenance and reconstruction work are going on. We have to meet the highest standards of public and industrial safety, and of service to the visitor and enquirer. The consequence is that technical and presentational aspects of our work cannot be separated, nobody's job is entirely one or the other, and, dare I say it, no decision is quite "pure".

As I said earlier, we expect within a year to have undergone a complete review of aims and methods. I look forward to telling you how it comes out. At present I am taking no bets.

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Version 1.02, 7 July 1997