One perhaps expects, from Haynes, page after page of detailed mechanical drawings so that one can pretty well build the subject for oneself if so inclined. In the present case, however, at over three hundred feet long one might need a larger shed.
However this book is not like that at all. It is a meticulously detailed, and beautifully and profusely illustrated study of one of the technically most important ships ever built in Britain, covering its history, construction, equipment, engineering, people, navigation and career, written by one of our foremost experts, Brian Lavery of the National Maritime Museum. Complete master of his subject, Lavery manages to explain things clearly for the landlubber while at the same time giving such comprehensive and intimate detail as to enthral anyone who has used the sea.
The SS Great Britain, launched in 1843, was part of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s visionary concept of extending the Great Western Railway to New York. He had already in part succeeded with the wooden-hulled paddle steamer Great Western; now he would build bigger - the largest ship in the world - and in iron, with screw propulsion. Lavery explains all the difficulties and ignorant objections, and takes us through, via several changes of engine and rig, and some unfortunate choices of Master, to the SS Great Britain’s eventual successful period on the Australia run on which her passengers included the first ever England cricket XI to tour in Australia. The building of the ship is also part of the story of one of our greatest engineers, ever seeking new challenges and to go where nobody had been before (although often at rather enormous financial cost). Not always for him the tag (Neville Shute’s?) that “An engineer is someone who can do for 10 pence what any fool can do for a quid”. Brunel’s achievement was to do what nobody else could do at all.
The last part of the book documents the rescue of the ship from an ignominious role as a scuttled hulk in the Falkland Islands, her recovery and reconstruction. She is one of the most important preserved ships in the world, up there with the Mary Rose, HMS Victory, HMS Unicorn, USS Constitution, the Cutty Sark, HMS Warrior, RMS Queen Mary, USS Texas and USS Missouri. It is some years since I visited the ship in Bristol where she was brought home to her original building dock where she sits in a glass ‘sea’ to protect her hull. She is of course part of the great seafaring history of this once major port, from which as it happens an orphaned forebear of mine was put to the sea a quarter of a millennium ago.
Surely this volume contains all anyone could possibly want to know about this ship and Lavery is to be congratulated in bringing the whole of her story together like this. His editorial is backed up by an excellent bibliography. Read the book and then go and see her. And, while you are there, if she is in, have a look at the replica of the Cabots’ Mathew to give you a sense of scale. And take the kids. They need to know what our island was capable of when we had the vision to be the best.
If ships turn you on, four Mr Mushroomheads.