The Salvage of the SS Great Britain
Saving the maritime masterpiece of Isambard Kingdom Brunel - 1970

A rusting hulk. At the beginning of 1970 the Victorian Steamship Great Britain lay beached in the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas. The old ship, already largely decayed, was taken there in 1937 after many years spent as a floating coal and wool store in nearby Stanley harbour. By May 1970 after an epic salvage operation by German and British teams the hull, strapped to a giant pontoon was en route to Avonmouth the modern port for Bristol. The tow of 6,800 miles / 10,900kms was made largely by the tug Varius ll from Hamburg which had also served as a base for the salvage operation. The flotilla stopped briefly in Monetevideo, Uruguay and then again in Barry Dock, South Wales where tugs from Bristol took over.

The picture on the right was taken in the South Atlantic by a member of the German team and processed on the tug during the tow. It shows many of the experts involved with the salvage operation as well as Ray Sutcliffe, a producer for Chronicle - the BBC classic Archaeology and History television programme, and Tony Morrison. They are on the right. Tony who was based in South America with his wife Marion was an independent specialist film-maker also working for the BBC. Marion who was reporting for the Observer, a London newspaper is not in the group as women were barred from the long tow.


The key decision makers in 1970

Dr. Ewan Corlett A brilliant naval architect who realised the historic importance of the SS Great Britain and knew it was rusting in the Falkland Islands, He decided to write to the Times of London and in 1967 set in motion the idea of a salvage. Ewan Corlett died in 2005 - see Ewan Corlett Champion of the Great BritainJack Hayward OBE - now Sir Jack but then best known as 'Union Jack' for his patriotism. His business is based in the Bahamas. He realised the salvage was a serious project with a high chance of success and so covered the greater part of the costs.Leslie 'Spike' O'Neil Chief salvage officer for Risdon Beazley - the British salvage company which at the time was partnered with Ulrich Harms. Spike was sent to the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas and asked to report about the possibility of refloating the ship. He said 'yes' there was an 80pc chance it would float again .
Horst Kaulen The young and highly talented salvage inspector for the salvage company Ulrich Harms of Hamburg. He was the expert on the use of submersible pontoons such as the Mulus III the key to the operation. His expertise as a salvage officer was seen day after day as it led to the rapid success of the enterpriseHans Herzog Captain of the salvage tug Varius ll owned by Ulrich Harms of Hamburg. He took the final responsibility for the flotilla and ensured the equipment including the giant Mulus lll pontoon was in the right place at the right time. He also ensured the hulk was safe for the 6,800 mile / 10,800 km voyage to EnglandSir Cosmo Haskard the Governor of the Falkland Islands at the time. He and the Islands' Executive and Legislative Councils decided the ship and the pontoon were fit to leave Stanley harbour. Then, on behalf of the Crown he passed the ownership of the hulk to the Society for Nautical Research -Great Britain Project

Behind these key figures

Dozens of other people were involved in making the salvage not just possible but highly successful - they are not forgotten and will be recorded in future pages.

1970 Observer - the magazine for 21 /06 carries Marion Morrison's cover picture and a lead story inside.1970 BBC Radio Times 13-06 gave a major spread to Ray Sutcliffe's film of the salvage.2005 Bristol Ray Sutcliffe who produced the dramatic BBC film - the Great Iron Ship in 1970 is with Dr Ewan Corlett. [right].2009 the part of the hull originally below the waterline is now protected from further corrosion by massive de-humidifying.

Back in Bristol

Now forty years on since the salvage the SS Great Britain is almost fully restored thanks to many donations and grants. The ' Britain ' sits in the Great Western Dock once called the 'Wapping Dry Dock', the place where she was built.The lower half of the hull is set below a glass cover and is specially de-humidified to prevent further decay of the wrought iron plates. A study centre and library are being constructed alongside. The ship has become a major tourist attraction and educational resource. In 2006 it received the prestigious Gulbenkian Museum of the Year award.

John Smith the Stanley maritime historian with a piece of the original figurehead Royal Arms. It was found on a local beach washed-up by the tide. Madge Biggs descended from a family of the first settlers in the islands donated the ship's original weather-glassW H. 'Tommy' Thompson, the Colonial Secretary in the Stanley musuem with an original water flask from the ship.The ship's bell was kept for many years outside the cookhouse at Goose Green a settlement in the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas. Photos show cover of Marion Morrison's 1969 Falklands story for the Observer magazine, and a replica of the polished bell now back on the restored ship in Bristol
'The Incredible Journey' This project of the Great Britain Trust was launched on 17th July 2009. Its aim is to document the complete history of the salvage in time for July 19th 2010 exactly forty years after the ship was inched back into the dock where she was launched. A call has gone out for personal memories of the epic salvage and the 'Britain's' memorable return to Bristol. Tony and Marion have contributed recordings made with Ray and photographs giving a day by day history of the salvage operation. Their personal reminiscences can be heard on the SS Great Britain website - Historic Collections.
In 1978 BBC Books published an anthology of the most signifcant programmes presented by Chronicle. The book was edited by Ray Sutcliffe and Tony Morrison contributed a chapter 'The Salvage of the SS Great Britain.'Tony Morrison filming elephant seals in the West Falklands in 1969Ray Sutcliffe [centre] and Marion Morrison [bottom] on a journey between some of the remotest islands 1969.
Tony Morrison is a graduate of the University of Bristol and has made films for the BBC Natural History Unit based in Bristol. He and his wife Marion spent two summer seasons in the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas and while making a natural history film were asked to begin work on the saga of the SS Great Britain. Marion was writing for British papers including the Guardian, Economist and Observer. Ray Sutcliffe is now an eminent maritime historian with an interest in historic ships across the world. Dr. Ewan Corlett the naval architect who recognised the importance of the Great Britain and stimulated the salvage, died in 2005. See Ewan Corlett - Champion of the Great Britain.

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