Belfast Telegraph

Discovered - the exact spot mighty SS Great Britain ran aground on Tyrella Beach

By Linda Stewart

An extraordinary link between Tyrella Beach and engineering pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel has been uncovered by a team of archaeologists.

The team has discovered the exact position in Dundrum Bay where the SS Great Britain - Brunel's second great steamship - was grounded for almost a year during her fifth voyage to New York in 1846.

The ship was left high and dry on the sands of Dundrum Bay as a result of a gross navigational error and it was only after a lengthy salvage that she was rescued and put back into service.

After more than 150 years, archaeologists have finally pinpointed the exact location of the shipwreck, thanks to a week-long survey of the site using advanced geophysical techniques. A team from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol and the SS Great Britain Trust chose the exceptionally low tides last September to survey Tyrella.

They already knew many items had been removed to lighten the ship during the salvage operation and hoped some of these had remained buried in the sand where they could be detected by magnetometry.

"The results were far better than we could have dreamt of. We actually located a huge doughnut ring of debris that fitted exactly the shape of the ship, and faced the precise direction contemporary accounts said she lay," project leader Professor Mark Horton of the University of Bristol said.

In addition to huge quantities of metal, a linear feature was also found that is probably what remains of the breakwater, constructed on Brunel's orders to protect the ship from storms.

Contemporary accounts were confused as to the exact location for the grounding. Remarkably, one set of compass bearings, made by a Captain Williams, turned out to be within 80 metres of the correct location. This should help historians understand why the ship was so far off course as the effect of iron hulls on the magnetic compass was not fully understood at the time.

While a wooden ship shipwrecked at Dundrum Bay would have been lost, the revolutionary iron hull was able to withstand the winter storms.

Joanna Thomas, curator at the SS Great Britain and one of the team members, said: "The Dundrum Bay incident represented the birth of modern ship salvage methods. Anything that we can learn about how this was done will be immensely valuable to historians of the ship. Because they were able to rescue her in 1847, the ship survives today."

The SS Great Britain set out from Liverpool to New York on September 22, 1846. Mistaking St John's Point light for the Chicken Rock light on the Isle of Man, the ship rounded the headland and was grounded in Dundrum Bay. The ship was refloated in August 1847 using a system of sandboxes, and towed back to Liverpool.


The SS Great Britain is probably the most significant surviving ship from the Victorian Era, the first screw-propelled large passenger ship, and one of the first iron ships to cross the Atlantic. The cost of salvage and refitting bankrupted the company that built and owned her. In 1970, the hull was brought back from the Falklands, and, now fully restored, is part of an award-winning museum in Bristol Harbour.

Belfast Telegraph


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