ST5674 : SS Great Britain under tow on the River Avon

taken 52 years ago, near to Clifton, Bristol, Great Britain

SS Great Britain under tow on the River Avon
SS Great Britain under tow on the River Avon
50 years ago today the SS Great Britain returned to Bristol City Docks. This is the view as she passed the Sea Walls. In the foreground the Portway (A4) is packed with stationary cars. On the far river bank is the Portishead branchline - then only open for goods traffic.
The SS Great Britain returns to Bristol Docks

The SS Great Britain arrived at Avonmouth on 22 June 1970 after a journey from the Falklands aboard a pontoon of almost 3 months. Temporary repairs were required to make the hull sufficiently watertight to allow her to be towed up the Avon afloat in her own right. Her final journey up the Avon was planned for Saturday 4 July when there would be a suitably high tide in the evening. There was a great deal of enthusiasm to witness this event & much advance publicity. British Rail was enterprising enough to announce 2 excursions, from Paddington & Plymouth I seem to remember. Their cunning plan was to 'park' these trains on the Portishead branch (by then freight only) which ran along the west bank of the Avon to allow the excursionists a good view of the ship being towed up the river. Unfortunately the weather didn't oblige & an Atlantic depression gathered strength to the extent that by mid-day the wind was gusting to 40 knots - too high to risk towing a very large ship, with no power or rudder, up the Avon & the attempt was called off. Whether the decision was made before the
excursion trains departed I know not - let's hope so! The following tide on Sunday morning was going to be sufficiently high too but whether the wind would have dropped was unknown. In the event there was a lull in the gale & the decision to go ahead was made & all went well (although it was a very dull day). How the decision was made public I can't remember (BBC Radio Bristol didn't start up until the following September) but in the event the public turned out in their thousands - the SS Great Britain website (LinkExternal link ) gives a figure of approximately 100,000.

The most unbelievable aspect of this project was the attitude of Bristol City Council - they really didn't want the ship to be returned to the city. In the event they allowed the ship to return for 3 years to allow restoration to take place. Then it should be taken to somewhere 'more suitable'! London, Portsmouth, & Plymouth were suggested - unbelievable! The infamous & derogatory description by one of the civic leaders of the ship as 'this heap of rusting iron' just about sums up the City Council's total lack of vision. Since WW2 the Council had seemed hell-bent on turning its back on Bristol's medieval & maritime past & turning it into just another English provincial city given over to the motor car. Their vision for the docks, once they had closed for commercial traffic, was to cover over lengths of the Avon & Frome to give scope for development. In the event of course attitudes changed during the 1970s, the restored SS Great Britain remains as a major attraction & the City Docks remain uncovered & a major leisure resource.

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright Martin Tester and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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ST5674, 209 images   (more nearby search)
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Date Taken
5 July 1970   (more nearby)
Sunday, 5 July, 2020
Geographical Context
Rivers, Streams, Drainage  City, Town centre  Docks, Harbours 
Primary Subject of Photo
Subject Location
OSGB36: geotagged! ST 5600 7451 [10m precision]
WGS84: 51:28.0702N 2:38.0891W
Camera Location
OSGB36: geotagged! ST 5613 7462
View Direction
Southwest (about 225 degrees)
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