Monthly Archives: July 2018

175th anniversary of the launch of the SS Great Britain

175 years ago today, 19 July 1873, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great ship, the SS Great Britain, was launched. The Great Britain was Brunel’s second ship, innovative in a number of ways. She was the first ship to be propelled by a screw, and the first ocean-going iron ship. Amongst Brunel’s Special Collections are artefacts relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ship-building career.

Fragment of wood thought to be from SS Great Britain

Fragment of wood thought to be from SS Great Britain

She served as a passenger ship to Australia and later as a freight vessel; her working life ended in 1933, and in 1970 she was salvaged and brought home from the Falkland Islands to Bristol, where she had been built. After expert conservation, SS Great Britain is now open to visitors.

Within Special Collections is a piece of rust-stained wood thought to be a fragment of the original timber, taken from SS Great Britain at Bristol.

SS Great Eastern, begun in 1854 as a passenger liner, was the biggest ship there had ever been, and her building and launch presented a number of engineering problems for Brunel and his colleagues to solve. After suffering a number of mishaps and contributing to the bankruptcies of more than one company, Great Eastern was converted into a cable-laying ship.

Cable alleged to be from that laid by SS Great Eastern

Cable alleged to be from that laid by SS Great Eastern

A previous attempt had been made to join England and North America by cable, but the cable had failed after connection. Great Eastern, the only vessel available that had the capacity to carry the whole of the transatlantic cable, laid the successful cable in 1866. This enabled almost instant communication between Europe and the USA, with far-reaching economic and political effects.

Amongst the artefacts held at Brunel is a short section of cable thought to be from the remnants of this cable, the first of several laid by SS Great Eastern.

Other collections relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel include the Blount Archive and a collection of photographs of the SS Great Eastern.

References and further reading:

(all websites accessed 16 July 2018)

Emmerson, George S., The Greatest Iron Ship: SS Great Eastern (London: David & Charles, 1981)

http://www.ikbrunel.org.uk

http://www.ibiblio.org/maritime/photolibrary/index.php?cat=1638

http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/

 

 

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Industrial heritage month: urban housing

A blog post by Emma Smith, history student and Special Collections volunteer.

In light of our focus on Urban Environment as part of the 2018 Industrial Heritage theme months, we have delved into our records here at Brunel Special Collections in pursuit of details about urban housing. One common theme present throughout the majority of records is the sheer variation in accommodation: the juxtaposition of the slums and poor institutions of the penniless, and the mansions and townhouses of the affluent, accentuates the considerable difference in housing within urban localities.

Mckenzie slum to mansion

‘It was a complete transition from slum to mansion’ – extract from McKenzie 1:473

James McKenzie’s account emphasises the stark contrast between deprived and luxurious dwellings within urban London (an extract of which is shown above). McKenzie details his childhood experiences of the slum housing of Battersea adjacent to a river ‘poisoned with waste’ from surrounding factories; undoubtedly symbolising his housing conditions. Due to orphan-hood, however, McKenzie soon finds himself residing in a ‘rather weird old mansion’ in Kensington, only a stone’s throw away over the old Battersea Bridge. With its ornamental gates, fashionable Victorian drawing room and antique paintings, such a mansion was a world apart from the destitute Battersea slums, despite its geographical closeness.

Castle goal

‘More like a goal than anything I could imagine’ – extract from Castle 1:134

John Castle also illuminates another prevalent type of urban housing: the workhouse. Castle certainly harboured strong opinions toward Leighton Buzzard Union workhouse as an abode, as shown above. By producing a detailed structural plan of the workhouse, including the location of the Master’s House, Board Room and segregated living quarters of men, women and children, Castle’s memoir provides a personalised vision into the construction of one of the most recurrent, yet often ill-defined, urban living abodes throughout Britain. Emphasis on the presence of factory equipment within the institution arguably highlights the industrial nature of nineteenth-century housing and living areas.

Balne Greenford

‘Lovely leafy lanes of Greenford’ – extract from Balne 1:137

Similarly, Edward Balne provides insight into another, relatively rare, category of urban housing. Residing in a Hanwell ‘Cuckoo School’ (a Poor Law School, officially!), Balne emphasises the juxtaposition between the urbanity of this institution and adjacent ‘lovely leafy lanes of Greenford;’ highlighting the presence of both rural and industrial influences in urban living quarters. Though inferring that the School was superior in comparison to other housing, citing its swimming bath, onsite hospital and ‘large and lovely garden;’ Balne contends that it was still ‘pretty grim.’ While pupils were cramped into dormitories (ten allocated to each side of a room and another ten to the centre), their designated dormitory nurses enjoyed private ‘comfortably furnished’ cubicles. Any luxury in urban living, again, seemed to remain in the hands of those more well-off.

You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment

Burnett Archive
1:473 J. H. McKenzie
1:134 J. Castle
1:37 E. Balne

NHS 70th anniversary

NHS staff and balloons

Picture from the NHS7TEA party held on campus yesterday 

Today we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service by focussing on some items from our Special Collections that show how healthcare has changed over the last century. Our accounts include nursing in peacetime and at war, medical procedures and the arrival of antibiotics.

Brunel University itself has played its part in the development of healthcare, including helping design and test a hearing screening device to detect hearing impairments in babies in the 1970s, which was used at Hillingdon Hospital between 1980 and 2004 (when a national screening programme was introduced). Last year a new partnership was launched, the Brunel Partners Academic Centre for Health Sciences, a partnership between the university, Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, which aims to revolutionise the way health and social care is delivered.
Frith nursing

Susan Frith was a nurse and midwife whose career spanned thirty years, between 1912 and 1942. Her personal diary covers both of the World Wars and leads up to the foundation of the NHS. She went to people’s homes and stayed with them, assisting at the births of babies and caring for those with long term health conditions or who were terminally ill. You can read more about her diary in our previous blog post celebrating International Nurses’ Day.

Jean Court’s autobiography relates her experience of family life in the 1920s. Her sister caught diphtheria when they were children, and was lucky to survive what was then a common childhood illness with a high death rate, but is now routinely vaccinated against. She also recounts experiences of her grandfather’s ill-health, particularly after he came to live with them to avoid being put in a geriatric hospital. You can find out more about Jean’s autobiography on the Writing Lives website.

Lorna Kite’s autobiography traces her experience as a nurse during the Second World War. She qualified a year before war broke out, and initially worked as a theatre sister at Millbank Military Hospital before going to France and working in casualty clearing stations, then joining hospital ships and going to Egypt. She describes medical procedures, such as removing a live shell from a Prisoner of War’s heart muscle and, in 1944, was a member of one of the first units to use penicillin.

Hilda Salusbury trained as a district nurse and midwife in Plaistow, East London. She describes her training and then first posts, including her day to day work and the poverty she saw in East London during the 1920s and 1930s.

You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment.

Burnett Archive
4 Susan Frith
2:188 Jean Court Living in the lane
4 L.E. Kite Mentioned in despatches: world war II seen through the eyes of a nurse
4 Hilda Salusbury Only yesterday

Explosion in a WWI munitions factory

100 years ago, on 1 July 1918, there was a devastating explosion in a munitions factory in Nottinghamshire, where shells were filled for use in trench warfare. The disaster killed 134 workers and injured many more. One of our autobiographies, part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, contains an eye-witness account of the explosion.

The munitions factory had been set up in 1915 at Chilwell, which had good road and rail links, and supplied over half of the shells fired during the war, including most of those used at the Somme. Lottie Barker, the author of our autobiography, had joined the factory in April 1916 with a friend, Polly. They were known as ‘Canary Girls’ because the chemicals involved in the manufacture turned their skin yellow and their hair green.

Barker canary girls 1

The explosion was the biggest loss of life during a single explosion during the First World War but was downplayed at the time, less it lead to loss of morale. At the time it was only reported in the newspapers as “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion”. Most of the dead were buried in a mass grave in Attenborough without being named, and a memorial wasn’t erected for fifty years. The cause of the explosion was never made public.

Barker coffin

Lottie had, fortunately, been at home doing the washing up when the explosion happened, and her autobiography describes the house shaking, and what she found when she ventured out to the factory.

You can find out more about Lottie Barker’s autobiography on the Writing Lives website and in this account in the Independent newspaper When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky. There are further accounts of the canary girls in Edith Hall’s autobiography Canary girls and stockpots, also part of the Burnett Archive.

Burnett Archive
2:37 Lottie Barker ‘My life as I remember it, 1899-1920’
4 Edith Hall ‘Canary girls and stockpots’