SS Great Britain Return

Fifty years today on the 19th July 1970, exactly 127 years after it was originally launched, the SS Great Britain finally made it back to the dry dock in Bristol dock in which it was built. It had waited the previous two weeks in the Cumberland Basin for a tide high enough to take it into the dock.

It’s final voyage on 5th July down the Avon, past our Sea Mills Garden Suburb and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge had been witnessed by many from the area.

A first glimpse of the SS Great Britain on her return

Tim Wallis remembers that day well, “it was heartening to get the first glimpse of it come around the horseshoe bend, it felt like an honour to have this on our river after the distance it had travelled all the way from the Falklands. It was a special moment. There was a feeling of this is it, it’s no longer a story – it’s here”. Many gathered on the banks of the Avon that day, watching alongside Tim and his wife Mary. There weren’t many places you could stand safely and it must have been travelling quite slowly as Tim remembers the crowd trotting down the Portway to see the ship pass under the suspension bridge. At that point Tim found himself standing next to Jack Hayward, the man who had paid for the whole operation “it felt like a real team effort”.

The ship had travelled across the Atlantic on a pontoon but floated itself from Avonmouth to the docks. Many Sea Mills residents remember seeing in it as children, either from the school playing fields or being taken down to the river with their parents to see it. Mandy Meek is glad she saw it now but at the time it was a different matter “I was a teenager and resented getting up early to watch this lump of rust floating up the river.” The 37 years the ship had been left in Sparrow Cove in the Falklands had not been kind to her.

The Avon is notoriously difficult to navigate, with tricky tides and the horseshoe bend which has been the site of many accidents involving large vessels. Avonmouth provided channel pilots to guide ships along the river and the pilot on the SS Great Britain that day was Shirehampton resident, Fred Amphlett. His son Ed remembers “The ship had come into Avonmouth the previous evening, they were planning to take it up the channel that day but it was too late. My father was lucky, there was a rota for the pilots and he was on, so he got the opportunity to bring the ship in. I was a shipping agent on the dock and I gave him a lift, as I watched the ship depart I was very tempted to step on board and go with him. I wish I had now! It was quite a nice day and there were lots of people lining the route, cheering as it went past, it was quite a spectacle. My father took the ship as far as the locks in Bristol and then a dock pilot took over. Looking back it was an interesting, fun day and I’m quite proud of the old man for doing the thing. I’m sure he was a bit anxious at the time because there was a lot of media attention, but for him it was just an everyday job”.

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