Did you know that Brunel's SS Great Britain travelled to five different continents during her working life? In doing so she circumnavigated the globe 32 times, was the birthplace to at least 55 babies and carried passengers and crew of at least 51 different nationalities.

In this article, Mollie Bowen, Collections Officer at Brunel's SS Great Britain, writes about the Global Stories of these passengers and what they tell us about the ship's life. Explore this side of its history and prepare for a future voyage on the iconic ocean liner.  

Exterior of the SS Great Britain at the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol - credit Brunel's SS Great Britain
Image - Brunel's SS Great Britain

The Global Stories project

Launched in 2018, the Global Stories project consists of a vast database of passengers and crew that travelled on the SS Great Britain during her working lifetime. This currently includes over 33,000 people. The launch of this digital platform has allowed people to engage with the history of the ship internationally and has now been accessed by viewers from every continent.

The site has been active for three years and research continues by the staff and volunteers of the Brunel Institute. This has included genealogical research, contacting descendants, transcribing passenger lists and searching through passenger diaries. We're adding to the known travellers on board the SS Great Britain, uncovering the names of the 1,700 previously anonymous female passengers and adding to the biographies of individuals.  

Global Stories allows you to look at individual voyages, learn about the wide range of passengers and crew that made the ship home, and browse significant events that happened onboard. 

Exploring the ship's voyages  

Over the course of the Great Britain's four decades of working life she had many different uses, starting as a luxury Atlantic liner and going on to be an emigrant ship, a troop ship and a cargo clipper. Through the Explore Voyages section, you're able to see every individual trip the ship made and imagine yourself on the journeys. Where would you like to go? And most importantly, how long do you think could handle life at sea?

When you can visit, you'll find different parts of the ship dressed to represent the different uses she had, so look out for clues of these various chapters of her life. 

First Class Dining Saloon at Brunel's SS Great Britain in Bristol - credit Brunel's SS Great Britain
Image - First Class Dining Saloon

Who travelled on the SS Great Britain? 

From affluent members of society who enjoyed first class comforts to the lower classes travelling in steerage, the ship became a temporary home for all kinds of people. The Featured Stories section shares the profiles of some of the most well-known passengers and crew on board.

Would you like to be travelling in luxury, slumming it in steerage or part of the crew? Take some time to pick your favourite and get into character in time for your next visit to the ship. 

Here are just a handful of notable SS Great Britain passengers: 

  • Ballet Mistress Josephine Weiss boarded the SS Great Britain in Liverpool with her dance troupe of young girls to begin their tour of North America. However, they didn't get very far…   
  • John Gray was the longest serving Captain and was highly respected by both the passengers and crew. In 1872, he mysteriously disappeared at sea.   
  • Avonia Jones was an American actress. Born 12 July 1839, she was adopted by a couple who were professional actors and made her stage debut at the age of 17.   
  • Heywood Bright journeyed aboard the SS Great Britain to the Crimea during the Crimean War in 1855. He acted as a purser’s assistant, representing his family’s business, Gibbs, Bright and Company, who owned the ship. 
  • Margaret Lynch was a stewardess and one of the few female crew members on the SS Great Britain. She worked on board between 1866 and 1872 and was regarded as ‘an institution’.  
  • Mathias Jacobsen’s story is one of struggle, heartbreak and ultimately, fulfilment. Constantly on the lookout for new experiences, he tried several different jobs throughout his life. Mathias travelled to Australia on the SS Great Britain in 1870 and then on to New Zealand, eventually returning home to Denmark five years later.   
  • Richard Cunliffe served as second engineer onboard the SS Great Britain from 1871 to 1875.  

Life on board  

After getting into character, you can read about the real-life events that happened on the ship through the Life on Board section.

All manner of events happened day to day during voyages, such as births, deaths, animal escapades and my personal favourite, grumbles – kind of like a Victorian TripAdvisor review! Some of the highlights include a stolen goat, a pet monkey, a drunken stewardess, performances when crossing the equator and a new baby being named after the Captain. 

Pick out some favourites and when you get to visit the ship, see if you can imagine where each of these events took place onboard. 

Steerage at Brunel's SS Great Britain in Bristol - credit Jon Rowley & SS Great Britain Trust
Image - Steerage, credit Jon Rowley & SS Great Britain Trust

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