Built in Bristol and designed lay the pioneering Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), SS Great Britain was launched in 1843. At that time, she was the largest ship in the world, a state-of-the-art luxury vessel, designed to carry 252 passengers across the Atlantic.
Her first voyages were compromised by a series of mishaps and she attracted far fewer passengers than anticipated. This plunged the Great Western Shipping Company into ﬁnancial crisis. During her second season, in 1846, she ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay on the north coast of Ireland, where she remained for almost a year.
The cost of refloating her exhausted the owner's depleted finances and she was sold. In the early 1850s her owners, deciding to capitalize on increasing emigration to Australia, commissioned a complete refit, after which she was able to carry over 700 passengers. When she made her first voyage to Melbourne in 1852, she caused such a sensation among the locals that 4,000 people paid a shilling each to go on board and admire her. For the next 24 years, and over the course of 32 voyages, she carried 16,000 emigrants to Australia, gaining such a reputation for speed that she was known as 'The Greyhound of the Seas'.
By the 1880s, her age was starting to show and she was converted again, this time to carry Welsh coal to San Francisco, via Cape Horn. On her third voyage in 1886, she ran into trouble rounding the Horn and was severely damaged. Forced to put in to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, she was deemed too costly to repair and was given over as a hulk for storing bales of wool. Finally, in 1937, she was towed out to sea, holed and left to settle on the ocean bed.
In the 1960s it was decided to bring her back to Bristol. Raised from the water, she was patched up and her ﬁnal journey began, and on 5 July 1970, thousands lined the banks of the River Avon to welcome the SS Great Britain home. On 19 July - the 127th anniversary of her launch - she was eased into the dry dock at Great Western, the place where she had been built. She has now been lovingly restored and, although she will never sail again, visitors can step aboard this monument to Victorian ingenuity and experience for themselves its gripping history. While on board, they might also make the acquaintance of one of the ghosts that roam what has been dubbed "The most haunted ship in Britain".
John Gray was the ship’s longest-serving captain. He took charge of the vessel in 1854 and remained at the helm for 18 eventful years. However, in the 1870s, he began suffering from kidney disease, which, in turn, led to depression. On a return journey from Australia, in November 1872, he disappeared. A search of the ship revealed an open porthole in his cabin, but of the captain there was no sign. It was assumed that he had committed suicide, although some say that he accidentally fell overboard, while others maintain that he was murdered for the gold that he kept in his cabin.
Nevertheless, the spirit of Captain Gray remains with his ship, and the ghostly sound of his hobnail boots striding across decks or ascending stairs have chilled the blood of several witnesses. It may also have been his spectral legs that one woman saw walk through a door into the Captain's Stateroom and vanish.
Elsewhere, the shades of a Victorian woman and her child have been seen in the family cabin on the promenade deck. Those who like a little light accompaniment to their ghostly experiences should listen out for spectral piano music that has been known to drift across the saloon.
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