SS "GREAT BRITAIN" IN SYDNEY HARBOUR 1852
In November 1852 the auxiliary steamer “Great Britain” arrived in Sydney Harbour on her first voyage to Australia. At the time she was the world’s largest ship built of iron and screw driven. Crowds lined the harbour vantage points, especially at Fort Macquarie and Dawes Point. On board a band played the National Anthem and her signal guns fired a salute. She came to anchor in Neutral Bay where her owners Gibbs Bright & Co. opened her for public inspection at 5 shillings per head to go on board.
In our painting “Great Britain” is shown approaching her mooring place. The anchor hangs from the cathead with 2 crewmen waiting to let it go. The red and white flag on the foremast signifies that a pilot is on board. The next flag, blue with a white eagle, is that of The Eagle Line, a subsidiary of Gibbs Bright & Co. operating services between England and Australia. The next flag is the red white and blue of Gibbs Bright & Co. The 5 flags from the after masthead are the Marryat Code flags identifying her as “Great Britain” (1st Distinction 4,6,9,1). Astern of “Great Britain” is Fort Macquarie, site of the present Opera House, Sydney Cove, and on the extreme right is Dawes Point. On the extreme left of the painting is Cremorne Point. Under the bowsprit of “Great Britain” is Garden Island and Potts Point. Hidden behind “Great Britain” is Pinchgut Island, at this stage levelled off to a rock platform and soon to be the site of Fort Denison.
Apart from those who lined the foreshores, those who were lucky or wealthy enough took to the water. The paddle ferry “Emu” is ahead of “Great Britain” and well astern the paddle ferry “Ferry Queen” heads across. In the foreground are a number of Sydney watermen’s boats (the water taxis of the day) and their paying passengers who are out to get a close up view of this wonder of shipbuilding.
Although “Great Britain” made 32 voyages to Australia this is the only time she came in this configuration, her second since her launching in 1844. On her return to England further improvements were made to her engines and boilers with major changes to her rigging. When she returned in 1853 she had only 1 funnel and was rigged as a conventional 3-masted full-rigged ship and it was in this form that she continued to service the Australian run until 1876 on the completion of her 32nd voyage. Her life was not yet over. After a period of inactivity she was sold, her boilers and machinery removed and she worked as a pure sailing ship carrying cargo between Liverpool and San Francisco via The Horn until she was dismasted near the Falkland Islands in 1886. Re-rigging proved too expensive so she became a hulk holding the island’s wool clip until 1933. There was some talk of trying to save her but in 1937 she was beached in Sparrow Cove, her home for the next 33 years. There was further talk of saving her, this time coming to fruition and in 1970 on board a slave dock she was towed home to Bristol and put into the dock where she was first built. A visit to Bristol will allow one to now see her as she was first built with 1 funnel and 6 masts. Her public rooms and some cabins have been refurbished and a non-working replica engine and boiler set up have been manufactured and installed – visit www.ssgreatbritain.org.
Truly she has been a remarkable ship with a remarkable history and one to which many thousands of Australians can trace their heritage – a credit to her builder and designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Engineer.