Today I finally made it to Bristol to see the S.S. Great Britain, Brunel’s revolutionary passenger ship which made many trips from the U.K. to Australia in the mid 1800s. The longest serving captain of the S.S. Great Britain was John Gray, an Unst man, and a relative of mine.
The museum takes you back through the ships history from when she was salvaged from the Falklands where she was scuttled after becoming damaged beyond repair after a fire on board; through her life as a passenger ship for emigrants to Australia; back to being built in the same dock where she now rests. The ship is also part of the museum, and you can roam around her freely, over all three decks. Much of the ship is presented to show how it would have been as a passenger on the ship, either in Steerage or First Class, and it is very well laid out.
Part of my interest of course, was due to Captain John Gray. Having been born in Unst, he is part of my Complete Unst Family Tree, but there is more to it than that, because he is also a relation of mine. I’m a direct descendant of his grandfather, my 5th Great Grandfather, making the Captain my 1st cousin 5 x removed.
When we were buying our tickets to the museum I jokingly asked whether you got a discount for being related to the Captain. You didn’t (of course) but they did phone the curator of the archives to come through to say hello to me and we got to go in the archives and see the portrait of him which is in there.
The story of Captain John Gray is more than just a Shetland man becoming the most well liked Captain; being the most well travelled on the best and fastest passenger ship of that time; it also has a tragic and somewhat mysterious ending. On the way back to the U.K. from Australia in 1872, on a journey he had by now, made many times, Captain John Gray went missing from the ship and a storm port was found open that had previously been closed by a steward making his rounds. No one who knew the Captain would ever have believed he could have taken his life, and yet he did prepare his affairs before going missing, so it seems he knew he was going to leave the ship. There are some stories that suggest that he had a mistress in Australia and that he left the ship to return to her. It’s a mystery that will likely never be solved.
Lots of research has already been done by many others on Captain John Gray, so I’m not going to specifically focus on him, rather I’ll be concentrating on the ordinary folk of Unst. However, it was wonderful to see the ship and the museum and read about him.
You can also read more about Captain John Gray at the museum website.