"I'm really rich," laughs a dark-haired girl, showing off her mustard and blue velvet waistcoat and cocking her matching cap at a jaunty angle. "I'm really poor," says her classmate, looking dolefully at her smock-style dress and plain brown shawl.
"I can't see," giggles a young boy as his black 'stove pipe' hat slides down his face, hiding his whole head from view. "Isambard Kingdom Brunel wore a hat like that because it made him look taller," explains education officer Helen Horler. "But his head must have been a bit bigger than yours."
The children, from Brookside Community Primary School in Street, Somerset, are gathered in Bristol at the Medlock Education Centre beside the world's first ocean-going liner the SS Great Britain. They're here to look round the ship, learn about how Brunel built it, peruse artefacts from the accompanying museum and get a feel for what life was like for passengers in Victorian times. Launched in 1843 to provide luxury travel to New York, the SS Great Britain later carried intrepid travellers on the two-month journey to Australia.
In the classroom the 27 pupils sit in groups at four hexagonal tables.
Those sporting costumes are comparing the different types of clothes that first-class and steerage passengers wore, using grainy black and white photographs of upright, tight-lipped Victorians to check they have dressed themselves correctly. Their fellow six and seven-year-olds are finding out what tools the sailors used, what items passengers took with them and what games children played on board. "I think I would have been bored with only these toys," announces one ginger-haired boy, as he tries in vain to catch a ball on a string in a wooden cup. "And I think it would have been easy to lose the balls from this game if the ship was rolling around a lot,"
observes a girl playing solitaire beside him. "Writing with a feather is quite hard, isn't it," declares their inky-fingered classmate, who is trying her hand at calligraphy. "It's not like just getting a Biro out, is it?"
After an hour in the classroom, it's time for lunch. The rain has been falling persistently all morning, so Helen leads everyone to sit in the dry dock beside the SS Great Britain's vast iron hull. The dock is roofed with glass, which at ground level makes the ship look as though it's floating and prompts the children to think they're going under water. "Hold your noses," shrieks one boy as they all descend the steps. When lunch is over, everyone gathers at the stern to inspect the ship's giant replica propeller. "The ship was the first one to be driven by a screw propeller,"
explains Helen. "The original one was 4.7 metres across and weighed almost four tonnes."
When the sun comes out, the children race up to the deck to inspect the full-size model Friesian cows in the livestock shed; dare each other to cross the white strip marked "First class passengers only beyond this line"; and take turns to try and turn the ship's huge wheel. Then they go below deck to roam the minimally furnished steerage area, opulent banqueting hall and dimly lit wood-panelled cabins. Carefully placed life-sized models of passengers, the ship's physician and Brunel himself look eerily life-like in their period costumes. One inquisitive boy gets a fright when he tries to inspect the first-class passengers' lavatories, and is greeted by a booming, upper-crust voice shouting, "Do you mind? This toilet is occupied."
"I think the models really brought it alive for the children," enthuses class teacher Linda Robertson at the end of the outing. "It was brilliant; I wish we had more time to look around. We've got so much to talk about back in the classroom now."
On the map
SS Great Britain
Great Western Dockyard
Gas Ferry Road
Bristol BS1 6TY
Tel: 0117 926 0680