SS Great Britain's 40th Anniversary in Bristol

PUBLISHED: 11:53 05 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:56 20 February 2013

SS Great Britain's 40th Anniversary in Bristol

SS Great Britain's 40th Anniversary in Bristol

The historic ship was raised from the seabed in the Falkland Islands on to a pontoon and towed almost 8,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean – possibly the world's most daring salvage operation to date.

Celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the SS Great Britains epic salvage and return to Bristol have a distinct 1970s feel. The worlds first propeller-driven, iron-hulled steamship, the SS Great Britain was designed by Brunel and launched in Bristol in 1843 as the worlds first great ocean liner.

Following a successful career as an emigrant clipper and cargo ship, in 1886 she was damaged in a severe storm and bought by the Falklands Corporation to use as a storage hulk, before being scuttled in 1937. However, in 1970, the historic ship was raised from the seabed in the Falkland Islands onto a pontoon and towed almost 8,000 miles across the Atlantic possibly the worlds most daring salvage operation to date.

In July 1970, 100,000 people lined the River Avon to welcome the Victorian ship back home to Bristol. Fully conserved and restored, the SS Great Britain now looks the same as she did on the day of her launch in 1843. Launched to provide luxury travel to New York, the iron-hulled steamship revolutionised travel and set new standards in engineering, reliability and speed. Today Brunels SS Great Britain is a multi-award-winning museum and visitor attraction, drawing in more than 170,000 visitors, schoolchildren and venue hire guests every year.

The SS Great Britain Trust staff and volunteers have collected hundreds of memories from those involved in the ships salvage and have run a Twitter campaign, with extracts from oral histories and memory cards. The exhibition features not only the animated documentary, a timeline of the salvage story and major events in 1970, but also orange space hoppers hanging from the ceiling of the Baker Gallery, in the Dockyard Museum, next to the ship.

The SS Great Britain Trusts Director of Museum and Educational Services, Rhian Tritton, commented:

The 40th anniversary celebrations are all about showcasing the extraordinary events of 1970 and how a small band of dedicated people were able to save this historic steam ship for future generations to know and enjoy.

We are truly indebted to their vision and determination in bringing home this national treasure, against all the odds. It was an extraordinary feat, and quite an adventure, for all involved. This summer we are retelling their stories through a 1970s-styled exhibition, a stunning animated documentary, and a fun trail which challenges families to become salvage heroes. As well as recording invaluable memories, The Incredible Journey is a truly fun and celebratory series of events for 2010.


  • November 1967 Ewan Corletts letter in The Times challenges the nation to save the ss Great Britain;

  • 1969 Union Jack Hayward agrees to fund the salvage attempt;

  • January 11, Risdon Beazley and Ulrich Harms take on the salvage contract;

  • March 25 1970, the salvage team arrives in Port Stanley, the Falkland Islands;

  • April 7, the ss Great Britain floats for the first time;

  • April 11, she is berthed on to the salvage pontoon Mulus;

  • April 24, the ship leaves the Falklands;

  • May 2, the ss Great Britain arrives in Montevideo, Uruguay;

  • May 6, the worlds media descends to capture the start of the ss Great Britains incredible journey across the Atlantic Ocean;

  • June 18 a RAF Nimrod flies over the ss Great Britain, pontoon and tug, in the Bay of Biscay;

  • June 19, a photo taken by the plane is published in the Daily Express;

  • June 23, she arrives in Avonmouth with an escort of smaller vessels carrying the media and well-wishers;

  • July 1, she is floated from her pontoon;

  • July 5, the ss Great Britain is towed up the River Avon (one day after the planned date);

  • July 15, UK dockworkers vote to go out on strike, but in Bristol they agree to help bring the ss Great Britain into her birth;

  • July 19, she returns to her Dry Dock (the same day and month she was launched by Prince Albert in 1843);

  • The salvage operation was underwritten by millionaire Sir Jack Hayward.


Number of days from salvage to homecoming: 117

Cost of salvage in pounds (1970):175,000

Number of crew on tug: 20

Number of mattresses used to plug the ship:Unknown!

Age of ship at rescue in years: 127

Date in July (1843 & 1970) she left and returned to her Dry Dock:19

The voyage number: 47

Tonnage of pontoon:2,667

Exact nautical miles travelled (on her last voyage):7,400

Times ship and Clifton Suspension Bridge are seen together:Once


  • Lord Strathcona, who represented the ss Great Britain Project as part of the salvage team: The German [salvage] team were all incredibly young they were lead by a man called Horst Kaulen who was a tremendously can-do, aggressive, small chap And the other amazing thing is that I never saw a hard hat in the entire operation and they all wore sandals, which struck me, in handling all this heavy equipment, wasnt a very wise thing.

  • Horst Kaulen, German salvage expert: Any salvage is more or less a risk, but you know it was a very old ship and it was cracked on one side.

  • Lyle Craigie-Halkett, salvage diver: Stuart and I took a break because wed actually been on our feet for more than 48 hours we were on the Varius having a nice big breakfast Somebody says the Britains moving. Wed put out inadequate ropes on the shore it could have all been over very sadly very quickly.

  • Stuart Whatley, salvage diver: So it was good planning, good logistics, fantastic improvisation. The ship was covered in musselseight or nine inches long, biggest mussels Ive ever seen. The cook came along and collected bags full of them and we had them for tea, and they were marvelous.

  • Ivor Boyce, captain of the tug boat John King: It was just a mass of people no traffic was moving, couldnt move, the roads and everywhere was absolutely packed Even the diesel noise, you know, was overpowered by the people cheering and cars honking It was very, very moving.

  • Kim Hicks, 11 years old in 1970: There were these wonderful crowds on the [suspension] bridge and then slowly round the bend in the river appeared this rusted old hulk, and you looked at this and you thought, whats all the fuss about?... as she came under the bridge my mum opened the box and we started to drop the rose petals on her it was really lovely.

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