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Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009
Portrait of 'disappeared' captain
Rhian Tritton unveils the portrait
Captain Gray disappeared on a return voyage from Melbourne in 1872

A portrait of the ss Great Britain's longest-serving captain goes on show at its new home in Bristol today.

John Gray captained the ship from 1854-72 and was extremely popular with crew and passengers alike, but his story ends in tragedy.

After complaints of ill health and suspected depression he disappeared on a return voyage from Australia in 1872.

The captain's cabin window was found open, but he could not be found and mystery still surrounds his death.

Captain Gray's portrait will sit alongside artwork, ranging from an oil painting of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed and built the ss Great Britain, to pictures of the ship in harbour and at sea.

The oil painting, by John Kemp, was bought by the ship's trust for £17,250 and transported to England from Australia.

Rhian Tritton, the ss Great Britain Trust's director of museum and educational services, said: "It is a great privilege to be unveiling the portrait of Captain John Gray.

"[He] was not only an excellent captain but very well-liked by passengers and crew. He is mentioned so often in the passengers' diaries that it is marvellous to add a portrait of him to our collection.

I suppose he is the most popular captain afloat, I think the passengers would do anything for him.

Diary of Charles Albert Chomley

Captain Gray was well known in Victorian society, being in charge of the most famous ship afloat.

Travelling on board the steam ship Great Britain meant a voyage in relative comfort and at twice the speed of a vessel reliant only on wind and sails.

'Safe' passage

By travelling with Captain Gray, Victorians of all classes could be assured they were likely to arrive in Melbourne alive.

Many other British vessels were shipwrecked, often within view of the Australian shoreline, or gripped by disease.

Eminent passengers of the Great Britain included author Anthony Trollope, who wrote 'Lady Anna' on board ship, and the first 'All-England' cricket team to tour Australia. Almost 15,000 people emigrated to Australia under Captain Gray's command.

As well as commanding the respect of crew and passengers, he was charismatic and well-liked.

The Trust has many records from diaries, and the captain's own log, which stand testament to his skills and shed light on his engaging personality.

'I love every plank of her'

ss Great Britain
The ship sailed at twice the speed of passenger vessels with only sails

Mary Crompton writes in her diary: 'I was walking with the captain the other day and I asked him if he was not very proud of his ship.

'Dear little girl' he exclaimed 'I love every plank of her, I pat her sometimes and I've promised her a rest if she will only get home in less than 70 days'.

'What a very nice man the captain is, he seems always to be looking out for something to make his passengers more comfortable; he generally chooses those ladies who are travelling alone to walk with.

'Among so many of course he cannot give much time to each one but he always has a pleasant word or a smile for everyone.'

And Charles Albert Chomley writes in his diary: 'I suppose he is the most popular captain afloat, I think the passengers would do anything for him.'

Ship gets online visitor book
07 Jul 08 |  England
Passenger memories of ship
26 Nov 07 |  England



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