SS Great Western

SS Great Western

The steamship SS "Great Western", launched in 1837 and named after the Great Western Railway Company, was the first steamship purposely built for the Atlantic crossing. When it completed the crossing on 23 April 1838, it was the fastest ship ever to do so, also beating the SS Sirius (1837) which arrived a few hours earlier.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel's idea was that steam would replace sail power on the regularly-scheduled trans-Atlantic "packet boat" services, which had been operating under sail since 1818.

Brunel tried to convince the directors of the Great Western Railway to build such a ship, but failed. However, he did manage to convince a number of Bristol merchants, who formed the Great Western Steamship Company. The principle that Brunel understood, which many ship owners did not, was that the carrying capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its dimensions, whilst the water resistance only increases as the square of its dimensions. This meant that large ships were more fuel efficient, something very important for long voyages across the Atlantic.Rolt, L.T.C., “Victorian Engineering”, 1970, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, ISBN 713901047]


The "Great Western" was an iron-strapped, wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer (with four masts to hoist the auxiliary sails), designed by the great railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The hull was built of oak by traditional methods. It was the largest steamship of its time, measuring convert|236|ft|m|2|abbr=on in length, and designed to carry 148 passengers. It included a big passenger saloon (75 feet long by convert|34|ft|m at its widest). The sails were not just intended to provide auxiliary propulsion, but were used in rough seas to keep the ship on an even keel and ensure that both paddle wheels remained in the water, driving the ship in a straight line.

The "Great Western" demonstrated that ships could not use steam engines and sails at the same time, because hot cinders from its smokestacks would set the sails on fireFact|date=March 2008.

Maiden voyage

The "Great Western" was built at the shipyard of Patterson & Mercer in Bristol. She was launched on 19 July 1837 and then sailed round to the Thames, where she was fitted with two side-lever steam engines from the firm of Maudslay, Sons & Field, producing 750 i.h.p. (indicated horsepower) between them. On 31 March 1838, the engines were in place and the "Great Western" set off for Bristol, from where the maiden trip to New York was to begin. However, a fire broke out in the engine room. During the confusion Brunel fell convert|20|ft|m, and was badly injured. The fire was extinguished, and the damages to the ship were minimal, but Brunel had to be put ashore at Canvey Island. As a result of the accident, more than 50 passengers canceled their bookings for the Bristol-New York voyage and when the "Great Western" finally set off from Bristol on April 8th, it was with only 7 passengers aboard. [ about SS Great Western] ] The "Great Western" arrived in New York on 23 April 1838 setting the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing. The "Sirius", which arrived the day before, therefore only held the record for a few hours (see The Blue Riband of the Atlantic).

ervice career

The "Great Western" served on the trans-Atlantic run until 1846, completing 45 crossings in eight years.Kludas, Arnold. "Das blaue Band des Nordatlantiks", 1999, pg 36 (in German)] In 1847 she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and used on The West Indies run. Later, after serving as a troopship in the Crimean War, she was broken up at Castles' Yard, Millbank on the Thames in 1856.

The early history of transatlantic steamships

The rival British and American Steam Navigation Company expected to open the first steam-powered regularly-scheduled "packet" trans-Atlantic service with their SS "British Queen". But with their ship still at the shipyard, it became clear at the opening of the season that the "Great Western", which had already been launched and was being fitted out with its machinery in London, was going to beat them to it. So they chartered the "Sirius", which was an Irish Sea steam packet travelling between London and Cork. The "Sirius" had a displacement of 700 tons and was convert|178|ft|m long with a breadth of convert|26|ft|m, considerably less than the "Great Western". Part of the passenger accommodation was removed to make room for extra coal bunkers.

The "Sirius" set off from the Thames on 28 March 1838 heading for Cork, where she replenished her coal bunkers and left for New York on April 4 with 97 passengers. [ [ about SS Sirius] ] The "Great Western" was put some days behind because of the fire and did not leave until April 8.

Though the "Sirius" narrowly beat the "Great Western" to New York, arriving on April 22, they had to burn the cabin furniture, spare yards and one mast to do it, inspiring the similar sequence in Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1872). The "Great Western" arrived the following day, with 200 tons of coal still aboard, and after only 15 days at sea. "Great Western" was subsequently awarded the Blue Riband for setting the record for trans-Atlantic travel speed at convert|8.66|kn|km/h, beating "Sirius" which clocked in at convert|8.03|kn|km/h.


See also

*List of world's largest wooden ships

External links

* [ Houghton-Mifflin "Ships of the World"]
* [ Maritimequest Great Western photo gallery]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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