SOUE News Issue 4

Ewan Corlett, 1923-2005

Ewan Corlett will be long remembered for his part in the rescue of Brunel's pioneer steamship, The Great Britain, from a sandbank in the Falklands, and her subsequent restoration at Bristol.

He read Engineering Science at Queen's, 1941-4, in the middle of World War Two, and then went to work for the Naval Construction Department of the Admiralty in Bath. After the war he did a PhD in naval architecture at Durham. From 1952 onwards he was with Burness, Corlett & Partners, Naval Architects and Marine Consultants, and was their Managing Director from 1955.

It was in 1967 that he wrote a letter to The Times pointing out that this historic ship, "the first iron built ocean-going steamship and the first such ship to be driven entirely by a propeller", was lying, an abandoned and broken hulk, on a sandbank in the Falkland Islands, and suggesting that she at least be surveyed, and if possible brought back and restored. The proposal attracted wide support, and after a trip to the Falklands in 1968 to survey her, the rescue was planned and funded. In 1970 the 3000-ton vessel was patched up, floated, loaded on to a pontoon, towed across the Atlantic and put into the very dock at Bristol where she had originally been built. Since then she has been substantially restored, and has become a major visitor attraction in Bristol. Corlett's book The Iron Ship (1975) tells the story both of The Great Britain herself, her construction and voyages, and of her dramatic rescue.

From 1974 Corlett was appointed a trustee of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He was subsequently made OBE, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and given other honours.

In 1990 he attended the annual dinner of the SOUE, and made a memorable after-dinner speech, of which, as luck would have it, the transcript is in our files.

For those who did not hear it then we have re-printed it below.

He died in the Isle of Man, where his home was, in August this year.

Ewan Corlett's after-dinner speech at the 1990 SOUE Dinner:

I think it was James Duport who said "whom God would destroy He first sends mad". When I first wrote to the Times suggesting that something should be done about THE GREAT BRITAIN - and got an overwhelming response - quite a few people, including I fear, my wife, thought I had gone mad. The ship was 8000 nautical miles away, virtually in the Antarctic, was a wreck and 123 years old at the time! Well that was 23 years ago and I am reassured. The ship has been restored and I am demonstrably here and undestroyed. Perhaps, then, I was not mad - but then who am I to say.

Joking apart, though, for a serious modern engineer to contemplate such a thing must have raised, quite reasonably, some doubts as to judgement. It seems less strange today because rescuing old ships has become quite an "in" thing but really it was, and indeed is, only justifiable on very special grounds. Well the grounds were there. Isambard Kingdom Brunel C.E. was one of the most remarkable engineers that Britain or indeed the world has ever produced. His energy, vision and engineering genius must excite the admiration of any engineer - it certainly did mine. This was his ship and what a ship, the progenitor of all modern ships. So, between admiration for Brunel and a growing awareness of the sheer importance of this particular ship I plead grounds for a verdict of sanity and dismissal of the charge of madness.

In Brunel's day all engineers were "civil", with the initials C.E. While today C.Eng. means something different, the wheel has in a way turned full circle as the term encompasses all qualified engineers as did C.E. in Brunel's time. That reminds me of a young acquaintance who had just achieved the professional status of Chartered Engineer. His family were obviously very impressed, as that evening, when saying her prayers, his four year old daughter was heard to start the Lord's Prayer with "Our Father Chartered in Heaven"! I doubt that any of us would claim that degree of professional standing - but if any engineer could, I suspect that it would be friend Isambard! Actually, it's rather like the parson who heard his children burying their dead hamster in the garden, to the invocation "In the name of the Father and of the Son and into the hole he goes!"

Enough of such levity. Let me adopt a lofty attitude. Most engineering disciplines deal with mere machinery, bridge structures, aircraft, vehicles and so on. Naval architects deal with ships. Ships are different, they have personalities - sometimes very cussed ones - maybe that is why we refer to a ship as she. You can build two identical sister ships and one will be a bitch all her life, apparently justifying the aphorism that the goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man and ultimately defeat him. Yet the sister ship can be the exact opposite, living out her life with the affection of all who have to do with her.

Oh, I know what you are thinking - I am being a sentimental old salt and not a scientific engineer, but a long career has left me quite convinced. THE GREAT BRITAIN is just such a ship, kind, cooperative and never giving trouble. Her career from her launch in 1843 to her hulking at Stanley in 1886 repeatedly showed this. Two examples; the ship was designed for a load draft of 17 feet. When on the Australian route she was loaded to 21 feet and when she finished up as a sailing ship she was loaded down to 25 feet - an enormous increase over her design. Yet she was not overdesigned structurally. Out of interest I converted her structural scantlings from iron into their steel equivalent and her rivetted construction into welded. The disposition of material in her hull girder and the total weight of equivalent steel were almost identical to those taken from today's Lloyds Small Ship Rules.

Yet Dupuy du Lome the French Naval Constructor in Chief commented, after seeing her under construction, that she was flimsy. Wrong; she never gave any structural trouble at all in her service life. When we came to salvage her in 1970 she was broken in two, right down the starboard side to the keel - not her fault as the gunwale had been brutally cut away to make an entry port when hulked in Stanley. When scuttled in Sparrow Cove the scour under her bow and stern had left a considerable hogging moment amidships as the ends were unsupported. However I was able to dive through sand tunnels under her port side and check that she was intact right to the keel. The holes in her hull were plugged and the Great Britain was floated. When we lifted her out of the water onto a pontoon, the bow had to lift first and an enormous sagging moment was imposed amidships. Hinging on the port side structure, this should close the twist and the two foot gap at the top of the break. At least that was the theory and with some ships it would have been most unwise to rely on it and the scanty data available.

With the G.B. I truly did not worry. We had done all we could and I knew in my bones that the old girl would play ball, and she did. With a loud report, the 48 in wide by 1 in thick steel stringer plates we had fitted at various deck levels buckled, the ship straightened and the gap completely closed. You can see this today. Of course we had left the straps unstiffened over a fair span so that their critical buckling stress was low. But just think how easily it could have gone wrong. We never had any real worries in that salvage. When she first floated a force 11 storm blew up immediately. Her rudder which had been jammed hard over, came free and we were able to ride it out at anchor using the rudder to keep her head to the wind. Everything went to schedule and the crowning blessing was that she docked at Avonmouth about £500 inside budget estimates. When one thinks how many things could have gone wrong, it is hair raising, or would be if one had enough hair to raise. Some of you may think "the old boy is in his dotage" when I say that somehow that ship inspired confidence that things would not go wrong - and they did not.

Well, there she is in Bristol, in her original building dock. We have the VICTORY, of enormous historical importance, CUTTY SARK, epitome of the beautiful age of commercial sail, WARRIOR, the first modern warship and THE GREAT BRITAIN, the forerunner of all modern merchant ships. She represents all that has been best in British Engineering. Built with great courage, way ahead of the practice of her time, she incorporated a host of original features that were highly successful and pointed the way for the next half century; we are incredibly lucky that this particular ship has survived. I have spent my working life at the sharp end of the modern marine industry but am completely unrepentant over the time and effort that I and many others have put into the ship.

Having said that I detect a disturbing tendency for the old ship/old industrial equipment bandwagon to roll faster and faster. We must not allow Britain to become a theme park for historical engineering but must keep our eyes as a nation on the future, just as did Brunel. THE GREAT BRITAIN is one of the few real specials and we should restrict ourselves to preserving those. You see, THE GREAT BRITAIN was built - and nobly - in the days before engineers lost their national charisma, something that has only begun to return in recent years. When I.K.B. swallowed half a guinea doing conjuring tricks for his children it lodged in his gullet. There was widespread concern in the country. Eventually it came out with him upside down on a frame of his own devising. Such was his standing that the business of the House of Commons was interrupted for the Prime Minister to announce the fact. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the exposure and standing that professional engineers in this country must aim for and attain in the future - they deserve it on their achievements.

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