As I entered the dockyard of the SS Great Britain this December, I was transported back in time. I had arrived in Victorian Britain and found myself wandering amongst scruffy street urchins, common folk on their way to the market and gentlemen in top hats.
The scene was straight from a Dickensian novel. As part of its Christmas celebrations, one weekend every year the SS Great Britain whisks visitors back in time to Victorian Christmas, and I’d come to experience it for myself.
I’ve visited Brunel’s great ship many a time, across all the seasons, but this was my first foray into an immersive Victorian winter. I loved how they’d brought the period to life – actors of all ages played their parts with gusto, interacting with us as we explored the dockyard, museum and eventually the ship. The kids of today squealed with joy over the snow falling from the sky while us adults tried to avoid getting our shoes covered in the foam ‘snow’, but you couldn’t help but start getting yuletide feels when you spotted the mistletoe hanging from crates.
Did you know?
I also learnt a lot from this visit. I had no idea that Dickens and Brunel had both been members of the renowned private members’ club the Athenaeum before this visit, or that A Christmas Carol had been published during the same year as the SS Great Britain was launched. Can you imagine them toasting their successes together?
Visitors get to see Victorian Christmas come to life during the two-day festival, with activities such as Victorian card making and carol singing all included in the price of a normal ticket. Isambard Kingdom Brunel kindly held the door open for me as I boarded the SS Great Britain, and while I explored the boat I met a lovely older lady who was happy to teach me to cross stitch and was invited to join a game of charades in the promenade saloon with a rather well-to-do Victorian man and wife.
I took a break to listen to the amazing carollers who – in-between Christmas songs – did some fun modern-day mash-ups, before I sampled some Christmas pudding and tried my hand at creating a Victorian Christmas card.
There’s so much to see and do at the SS Great Britain all year round. The museum tells you all about the ship’s history and the epic story of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship is an amazing museum in its own right and I love the activities available to the kids (big and small). Who wouldn’t want to be Brunel’s ‘apprentice’ for the day, exploring the ship and undertaking tasks set by the great man himself, or playing dress up as a Victorian lady *cough*?!
However, I really love how they pull out all the stops for Christmas. Not only is there this great Victorian Christmas festival, there’s also a special Christmas trail that runs throughout December. Visitors of all ages can learn the role Victorian Britain had in creating some of our modern day Christmas traditions – I have to say I learnt a few things myself!
How the Victorians engineered Christmas
I discovered that the 1840s was a very important time for the celebration of Christmas. As I followed the trail I learnt where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe came from, that the first Christmas cracker was inspired by a visit to Paris and that the first ever Christmas card was designed in 1843 by Brunel’s brother in law John Callcott Horsley. A replica of this can even be seen on site.
I also learnt all about the story behind ‘stir up Sunday’ on board the shop (a tradition, I have to admit I hadn’t heard of before moving to the UK’s south west) and got to try Christmas pudding made from Mrs Beeton’s original recipe.
The favourite thing I learnt though, was that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were the ones who introduced the concept of the Christmas tree to the UK. Their popularity quickly grew from there – so thanks Vic!
Making Victorian Christmas cards
I was also excited to try my hand at making a Victorian Christmas card. A big kid at heart, I joined all the actual kids around a large round table, where we used pens, pencils, glue, glitter and boxes of felt and plastic to create our masterpieces.
It seemed that they liked 3D cards at the time, so I had a go at making one of a toad and robin around the Christmas tree, even adding my own special touches like a roaring fire. My friend’s little boy, who is OBSESSED with dinosaurs, decided to go above and beyond, creating a diorama of a meteor coming down on a t-rex, diplodocus and stegosaurus.
To be honest, his was probably more fitting of the era, I mean, have you actually seen a Victorian Christmas card? They’re pretty darn creepy, with pictures of fighting frogs, dead birds and melting snowmen. Think I’m joking? Then check out this post on 25 bizarre and disturbing Victorian Christmas cards.
Why you should visit the SS Great Britain during Christmas
TheSS Great Britain is a really brilliant place to visit any time of year, but if you get a chance to visit during the Christmas festivities I highly recommend it. I learnt so much about the role the Victorian era has in creating our modern day Christmas traditions, plus it was so much fun getting involved in the activities and interacting with the characters wondering around the ship and dockyard.
The Christmas trail runs until December 31st and the Victorian Christmas festival will return next year, so keep your eyes open. Do check out the SS Great Britain website throughout the year though, as they have special events taking place all the time including historical talks, murder mystery dinners etc. I’d absolutely love the chance to dress up and have dinner in the first class dining saloon!