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Posted on Sunday, September 17, 2000 - 03:44 pm:   

Brunel's rusting giant sends a new SOS signal
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent

Monday June 12, 2000

The SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great propeller-driven iron ship, which revolutionised ship design when it was launched in 1843, is decaying so fast that its hull will be completely destroyed within 25 years.

A condition report on the ship, which has spent the past 30 years in dry dock in Bristol, where it was built, has shocked its trustees. It shows that years of expensive work have done nothing to arrest corrosion of the hull. Some of the restoration work - including an expensive new deck which rotted within 10 years and has now been replaced - has made the ship's problems worse.

Matthew Tanner, the ship's curator, said: "This is simply one of the most important and influential ships in the world, but we have a terrifyingly small window in which to save her."

Brunel, the maverick engineering genius, had already built an enormous wooden paddle ship, the Great Western, but realised he needed to build bigger to beat the competition to carry passengers to America. His solution was a propeller-driven iron ship, with sails to save fuel in the right winds. The Great Britain was launched by the technology-loving Prince Albert in 1843. However, its design was considered so radical that only 50 nervous passengers bought tickets for the first journey to New York, despite the ship's luxurious facilities.

The report says extensive conservation work must begin within five years. Rust is swelling the ship's iron plates, which are laid in the same way as the planks of a clinker-built wooden boat, and bursting them off their ribs. Dozens of rust holes are stuffed with chicken wire to stop pigeons flying into the hull and the 19th century dry dock itself is leaking, so the ship is surrounded by damp.

Long before it collapsed, the ship would become so dangerous that the public would be barred from visiting.

Ships were never designed to last longer than a few decades and the long-term conservation problems, particularly once they are taken out of the water, are notorious. The famous tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, kept in dry dock at Greenwich, in south-east London, has similar problems.

The Great Britain's trustees, along with conservation architect, Julian Harrap, have devised a striking solution: a glass artificial waterline, which would cut the humidity, stop the rot, give the illusion of the ship floating on water, and still allow visitors to walk around the hull on the floor of the dock. The glass alone would cost £1m, and the trustees have applied for a lottery grant towards the £7m project.

The Great Britain had a long but star-crossed working life. In 1846 it ran aground in Northern Ireland. None of the 180 passengers, including a troupe of 48 German dancing girls, was injured, and a group of clergymen conducted a service to calm their nerves.

The ship lay on the beach "like a useless saucepan", as Brunel raged, for a year until he devised a rescue so expensive that it bankrupted the vessel's operators.

The ship was sold in 1850 for £18,000, a fraction of its original cost. Converted to sail it took thousands of emigrants to Australia. In 1861 it carried the first England cricket team to tour Australia - they played 12 matches, won six, lost two and drew four. In 1886 it ran aground again on the Falkland Islands and spent another 50 years as a floating wool store. Then in 1937 the ship was abandoned at Sparrow Cove. Historians never forgot the Great Britain, and eventually Jack Hayward, the Bahamas-based millionaire, backed a spectacular rescue, which led to the ship being towed back to Britain in 1970.

More than 4m people have visited the ship since then, but visitor numbers have been falling and are now down to 100,000 a year. The trustees are convinced their new plan would reverse the slump.

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