More than 350 vessels were at anchor in Hobsons Bay when gunfire was heard. Military officers on shore were unable to see what was happening as clouds of gun smoke obscured all but the tops of the ships’ masts. The Crimean War had begun the previous year and the obvious conclusion was that the two Russian warships known to be in the Pacific had begun attacking the shipping ahead of an invasion.
Uniformed militia supported by large numbers of volunteers rushed to their posts. Two regiments of infantry assembled at their defensive positions and gun crews loaded their weapons waiting for the signal to fire. Fortunately, it was quickly realised that the gunfire was from salutes being fired in celebration of the arrival of the s.s. Great Britain. The soldiers were stood down and the ‘battle’ was over without loss of life or of ships.
On her arrival at Port Phillip Heads at dawn on Friday, August 18, 1854, the Great Britain should have been quarantined at Portsea. There were cases of smallpox aboard. Instead she continued on to anchor in Hobsons Bay where, to avoid infection being brought ashore, nobody was permitted to leave the ship. Four days later, because of the risk to the people of Melbourne, she was ordered to Portsea, where she remained for 18 days.
When she returned to Hobsons Bay, Capt Gray was persuaded to fire his signal gun in celebration. As the Great Britain passed them, a large number of ships returned the salute, leading to the panic in Melbourne.
In 1970, Great Britain was returned to Bristol, UK – where she was built in 1843 – and restored. Each year more than 150,000 people visit her there. Designed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, she was the first iron-hulled, screw-driven ship to be built. At 98m she was also the longest ship in the world from her launch until 1854. Originally used in the North Atlantic, she later made 32 voyages to Australia, bringing about 15,000 settlers. Her steam engines along with her square rig enabled her to make the passage from Liverpool in about 60 days.
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula Ship Society
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society will not be meeting until further notice.