We’ve all heard of ghost ships, right: The Flying Dutchman or the Mary Celeste, drifting at sea with no living crew on board?
Well, on Saturday night – for one night only – Bristol’s ss Great Britain became a ghost ship, or rather a ship possessed by the ghosts of its passengers, each with a gruesome story to tell.
During a seemingly normal guided tour of the vessel, we encountered a number of spectres, who offered an alternative history than the familiar “the longest ship of the period” and “she crossed the Atlantic in 14 days”.
(It’s worth remembering, of course, that the Brunel’s famous ship has its own back-from-the-dead story to tell: being retired 40 years after its 1845 maiden voyage, and scuttled in 1937 before – in 1970 – limping back to the Bristol dock at which she was built, to be restored to her former glory.)
Some of the ghosts – portrayed marvellously by young actors in a joint production with the Bristol Old Vic – were based on historical characters. Others were embellishments, or their fates imagined.
The first ghost our tour group met was Mrs Gray, the wife of celebrated merchant fleet captain John Gray. Gray commanded the ss Great Britain for 18 years before disappearing in mysterious circumstances on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Being on a ship, there was no way for the news to be communicated to shore, and the first Mrs Gray knew of her husband’s demise was when the ship docked. Clad in funereal black, our Mrs Gray (Stephanie Kempson) was doomed to spend eternity at the dockside, waiting for her husband to return.
On the dry dock we met nursery rhyme-singing Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins), one of the passengers to succumb to an outbreak of smallpox on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Her tale was a sad one, and told us a lot about the treatment of steerage class passengers, but was she really cast into the sea not yet dead, as her ghost suggested? And did her mother really not shed a tear?
In the ship’s galley we met The Butcher, played by Hal Kelly. His story was based on a diary entry from a passenger, which told how a drunk butcher had stuck a pig in the wrong place, and the bleeding beast had run around the ship for half an hour. But in our story, the butcher’s motives were reinterpreted as psychopathy, as the slaughterman revealed how he had learnt to prolong, and relish in, the death of an animal.
There was more psychopathy in the first class dining saloon, where bored passengers played by Julia Head and Matt Landau gorged themselves on a banquet while discussing killing animals to relieve the boredom of their voyage. But after a rat, a cat, and a fellow passenger’s Labrador, what could they torture next? Their eyes turned to the children on the tour – it was played for laughs but suffice to say the little ‘uns were holding their parents’ hands a little tighter as the aristocratic apparitions pursued our tour group down the corridor with carving knives.
We also met brides (Jenny Davies and Faye Bishop) a traumatised Crimean soldier (Scott Bayliss) and Sister Benedict, played by Kirsty Asher, a nun struggling with the conflict between her wrath at the immoral women sharing her third class accommodation and succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins.
This event could have been reduced to a common jump-out-of-cupboards fright fest, and I was glad that it was not. Like the best horror stories, the grisly yarns woven by the passengers of the ss Great Britain stayed with me long after I had left the dock, and was tucked up safe in my own bed.
Photographs by John Rowley courtesy of the ss Great Britain Trust