SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain

SS "Great Britain" was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller and, when launched in 1843, was the largest vessel afloat. She originally carried 120 first-class passengers (26 of whom were in single cabins), 132 second-class passengers and 130 officers and crew but, when an extra deck was added, it increased the number of passengers to 730.

It is now an award-winning visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour.


The SS "Great Britain" was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson for the Great Western Steamship Company and built in a specially adapted dry dock in Bristol, England.

The launching or, more accurately, the "floating out" took place on 19 July 1843. Conditions were generally favourable but diarists recorded that, after a dull start, the weather brightened later on with only a few intermittent showers. The atmosphere of the day can best be gauged from a report published the following day in the "Bristol Mirror". The reporter recorded that "large crowds started to gather early in the day including many people who had travelled to Bristol to see the spectacle. There was a general atmosphere of anticipation as the Royal Emblem was unfurled. The processional route had been cleaned and Temple Street decorated with flags, banners, flowers and ribbons. Boys of the City School and girls of Red Maids were stationed in a neat orderly formation down the entire length of the Exchange. The route was a mass of colour and everybody was out on the streets as it was a public holiday. The atmosphere of gaiety even allowed thoughts to drift away from the problems of political dissension in London."

Prince Albert arrived at 10am at the Great Western Railway Terminus. The royal train, conducted by Brunel himself, had taken two hours and forty minutes from London. There was a guard of honour, consisting of members of the police force, soldiers and dragoons and, as the Prince stepped from the train, the band of the Life Guards played works by Labitsky and a selection from the "Ballet of Alma". Two sections of the terminus platform were boarded off for the reception and it was noted by the "Bristol Mirror" that parts were covered with carpets from the Council House. The Prince Consort, dressed as a private gentleman, was accompanied by his equerry in waiting, personal secretary, the Marquis of Exeter, and Lords Warncliffe, Liverpool, Lincoln and Wellesley.

Introductions were made, followed by the "Address to His Royal Highness the Prince Albert", by the town clerk, D.Burgess. Honours were then bestowed on him by the Society of Merchant Venturers, and there were speeches from members of the Bristol clergy. The royal party then had breakfast and, after twenty minutes, reappeared to board horse-drawn carriages.

At noon, the Prince arrived at the Great Western Steamship yard only to find the ship already "launched" and waiting for the royal inspection. Prince Albert boarded the ship, took refreshments in the elegantly decorated lounge and then commenced his tour of inspection. He was then received in the ship's banqueting room where all the local dignitaries and their ladies were gathered.

After the banquet and the toasts, His Royal Highness left for the naming ceremony. It had already been decided that the actual christening would be performed by Mrs Miles, mother of Bristol's MP and a local company director. When the appropriate time came, she stepped forward, grasped the champagne bottle and swung it towards the bows. Unfortunately the steam packet "Avon" had started to tow the ship into the harbour and the bottle fell about convert|10|ft|m short of its target and dropped unbroken into the water. A second bottle was rapidly obtained and the Prince himself hurled this against the iron hull of the "Great Britain". In her haste, the "Avon" had also started her work before the shore warps had been released. The tow rope snapped and, due to the resultant delay, the Prince was obliged to return to the railway station and miss the end of the programme.

The size of the new lock at the Floating Harbour caused problems when she was launched. She was being towed away from her builders to have her engines and interior fitted out on the River Thames but was fractionally too big to go through. The ship was moored in the Floating Harbour for a year or more before proceeding into Cumberland Basin in December 1844. After proceeding successfully through the first set of lock gates, she jammed on her passage through the second set which led to the River Avon. It was only the seamanship of Captain Claxton that enabled her to be pulled back and severe structural damage avoided. The following night, an army of workmen, under the supervision of Brunel, took advantage of the slightly higher tide, removed coping stones and lock gate platforms from the Junction Lock and allowed the tug 'Sampson' to tow her safely into the River Avon. [cite web | title=The creation of Bristol City docks | work=Farvis | url='s%20locks.htm | accessdate=2006-08-18]

At the time of her launch in 1843 she was by far the largest ship in the world, over convert|100|ft|m|0|abbr=on longer than her rivals, and the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship. On 26 July 1845, the ship undertook her maiden voyage to New York, a journey completed in 14 days. [cite web | title=Brunel's SS Great Britain | url= | accessdate=2006-08-20]

In November 1846, the ship went aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland and there was doubt as to whether she could be re-floated. Brunel himself advised that if anyone could rescue the ship, it was the naval engineer James Bremner. He was engaged and the "Great Britain" was re-floated on 27 August 1847 with the assistance of HMS "Birkenhead".cite book|title=Warships of the World to 1900|accessdate=2008-02-15|author=Lincoln P. Paine|date=2000|publisher=Houghton Mifflin Books|isbn=0395984149|url=] However, the cost of the salvage bankrupted the Great Western Steamship Company, and the SS "Great Britain" was sold and turned into an emigration ship.

Originally intended as an Atlantic steamer, she made most of her working voyages from the United Kingdom to Australia. In 1852, she made her first voyage to Melbourne, Australia, carrying 630 emigrants. She excited great interest in Melbourne, with 4,000 people paying a shilling each to see over her. During her time, she was considered the most reliable of the emigrant ships between Britain and Australia.

Between 1855 and 1858, she was used as a troopship, during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. In 1882, she was turned into a sailing ship to transport bulk coal but, after a fire on board in 1886, she was found on arrival at the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond repair. She was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a storage hulk (coal bunker) until the 1930s, when she was scuttled and abandoned. In her role as coal bunker, she served to refuel the South Atlantic fleet that defeated Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's fleet, in the First World War Battle of the Falkland Islands. In the Second World War, some of her steel was scavenged to repair HMS "Exeter", one of the Royal Navy ships that fought the "Graf Spee" and was badly damaged, in the Battle of the River Plate.


In April 1970, she was refloated on a pontoon, the "Mulus 3", and towed back (code name "Voyage 47") to Bristol by the tug "Varius II", for conservation as a museum ship. "Voyage 47" was chosen as the code name because it was on her 47th voyage from Penarth, in 1886, during a tempest that S.S. Great Britain had sought for shelter in the Falklands. [Citation | year = 2005 | title = Successfully salvaged | page = 42| publisher = Bristol Evening Post | location = United Kingdom | date = 1 March 2005] She returned to her original birthplace, the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard, in which she had been built, which had been disused since bomb damage during World War II, which is now a grade II* listed building. [cite web | title=Great Western Dry Dock | work=Images of England | url= | accessdate=2006-08-20] The salvage operation was made possible by several large donations, including one from Sir Jack Hayward, and the late Sir Paul Getty. The original intent was to restore her to her 1843 state. However, the philosophy of the project changed in recent years and the conservation of all surviving pre-1970 material became the aim.

By 1998, an extensive survey discovered that the hull was continuing to corrode in the humid atmosphere of the dock and estimates gave her 20 years before she corroded away. Extensive conservation work began which culminated in the installation of a glass plate across the dry dock at the level of her water line, with two dehumidifiers, keeping the space beneath at 22% relative humidity, sufficiently dry to preserve the surviving material of the hull. [cite news | url = | title = Ship's restoration work goes on | publisher = BBC News | date = 18 January 2005] This was completed, the ship was "re-launched" in July 2005, and visitor access to the dry dock was restored.

The engineers Fenton Holloway won the IStructE Award for Heritage Buildings in 2006 for the restoration of the SS "Great Britain".

In fiction

In Stephen Baxter's novel, "Ring", the Great Britain still exists in 3953 AD and is carried aboard the GUT starship Great Northern throughout its unusual voyage. The ship is preserved under a layer of plastic that preserves and nourishes it.


*Length: 322 ft (98.15 m)
*Beam (width): 50 ft 6 in (15.39 m)
*Height (main deck to keel): 32 ft 6 in (9.91 m)
*Weight unladen: 1,930 long tons (2,161 short tons, 1,961 tonnes)
*Displacement: 3,018 long tons (3,380 short tons, 3,066 tonnes)

*Actual Rated Horse Power: 1,000 H.P
*Total weight: 340 tons
*Cylinders: 4 x inverted 'V' convert|88|in|cm diameter
*Stroke: convert|72|in|cm
*RPM: Max. 20 RPM
*Main Crankshaft: convert|17|ft|m|2 long and convert|28|in|cm diameter

*Diameter: 15'6"
*Weight: 77 cwts (3,912 kg)
*Speed: 55 RPM

Other data
*Fuel capacity: 1,100 tons of coal
*Water capacity: 200 tons
*Cargo capacity: 1,200 tons
*Cost of construction: £117,295


ee also

* SS "Great Eastern"
* SS "Great Western"


Further reading

*cite book
author = Ewan Corlett
title = The Iron Ship: The Story of Brunel's SS Great Britain
year = 1975; revised 1990, Conway Maritime Press
id = ISBN 0-85177-531-4.

External links

* [ Official website]
* [ Panoramic pictures of the ship] Look around the ss Great Britain
* [ Panoramic tour from the BBC]
* [ YouTube video] — stills from tour of ship.

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