SS Great Britain

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SS Great Britain in dry dock at Bristol in 2005.
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Name: SS Great Britain
Owner: Great Western Steamship Company
Builder: William Patterson
Cost: Projected: £70,000
Actual: £117,000
Laid down: July 1839
Launched: 19 July 1843
Completed: 1845
Maiden voyage: 26 July 1845
In service: 1845–1886
Homeport: Bristol, England
General characteristics
Type: Passenger steamship
Displacement: 3,675 tons load draught
Length: 322 ft (98 m)
Beam: 50 ft 6 in (15.39 m)
Draught: 16 ft (4.9 m)[1]
Installed power: 2 × twin 88-inch (220 cm) cylinder, 6 ft (1.8 m) stroke, 500 hp (370 kW), 18 rpm inclined direct-acting steam engines
Propulsion: Single screw propeller
Sail plan: Original: Five schooner-rigged and one square-rigged mast
After 1853: Three square-rigged masts
Speed: 10 to 11 knots (19 to 20 km/h; 12 to 13 mph)
Capacity: 360 passengers, later increased to 730
1,200 tons of cargo
Complement: 130 officers and crew (as completed)

SS Great Britain was an advanced passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company's transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. While other ships had previously been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship.

When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat. However, her protracted construction and high cost had left her owners in a difficult financial position, and they were forced out of business in 1846 after the ship was stranded by a navigational error.

Sold for salvage and repaired, Great Britain carried thousands of immigrants to Australia until converted to sail in 1881. Three years later, the vessel was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was utilised as a warehouse, quarantine ship and coal hulk until scuttled in 1937.[2]

In 1970, Great Britain was returned to the Bristol dry dock where she was first built. Now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection, the vessel is an award-winning visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour, with between 150,000-170,000 visitors annually.


After the initial success of its first liner, SS Great Western of 1838, the Great Western Steamship Company collected materials for a sister ship, tentatively named City of New York.[2] The same engineering team that had collaborated so successfully on Great Western—Isambard Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson—were again assembled for the new project. This time however, Brunel, whose reputation was at its height, would come to assert overall control over design of the ship—a state of affairs that would have far-reaching consequences for the company. Construction of the vessel would be carried out in a specially adapted dry dock in Bristol, England.[3]

Adoption of iron hull

Two chance encounters were to profoundly affect the design of Great Britain. In autumn 1838, John Laird's 213 ft (65 m) channel packet ship Rainbow—the largest iron-hulled ship then in service—made a stop at Bristol, where the Great Western Company was preparing to build its new ship. Brunel despatched his associates Christopher Claxton and William Patterson to make a return voyage to Antwerp on Rainbow in order to assess the utility of the new building material. Both men returned as converts to iron-hulled technology, and Brunel scrapped his plans to build a wooden sister ship for Great Western and persuaded the company directors to build an iron-hulled ship instead.[4]

Great Britain's builders recognized a number of advantages of iron over the traditional wooden hull. To begin with, wood in Britain was at the time becoming more expensive, while iron was getting cheaper. Iron hulls were not subject to dry rot or woodworm like their wooden counterparts, and they were also lighter in weight and less bulky. The chief advantage of the iron hull however, was its much greater structural strength. The practical limit on the length of a wooden-hulled ship is about 300 feet, after which the phenomenon of hogging—the flexing of the hull as waves pass beneath it—becomes too great. Iron hulls are far less subject to hogging, so that the potential size of an iron-hulled ship is much greater.[5]

The ship's designers, led by Brunel, were initially cautious in the adaptation of their plans to iron hulled-technology. With each successive draft however, the ship grew ever larger and bolder in conception. By the fifth draft, the proposed new vessel had grown to a capacity of 3,400 tons – 1,000 tons larger than any ship then in existence.[6]

Adoption of screw propulsion

Artist's impression of SS Archimedes

In the spring of 1840, a second chance encounter occurred which was to have an equally profound impact on Great Britain's development—the arrival at Bristol of the revolutionary SS Archimedes, the world's first screw-propelled steamship, completed only a few months before by F. P. Smith's Propeller Steamship Company. Brunel, who had been looking into methods of improving the performance of Great Britain's paddlewheels, took an immediate interest in the new technology, and Smith, sensing a prestigious new customer for his own company, agreed to loan Archimedes to Brunel for extended tests.[6] Over a period of several months, Smith and Brunel tested a number of different propellers on Archimedes in order to find the most efficient design, which was eventually determined to be a new four-bladed model submitted by Smith.[7]

Having satisfied himself as to the advantages of screw propulsion, Brunel wrote to the directors of the Great Western Steamship Company to persuade them to embark on a second major design change, which in this case would entail the abandonment of the original paddlewheel engines—already half constructed—and the design of completely new engines suitable for powering a propeller.

Brunel listed the advantages of the screw propeller over the paddlewheel as follows:

  • Screw propulsion machinery was lighter in weight, thus improving fuel economy;
  • Screw propulsion machinery could be kept lower in the hull, reducing the ship's centre of gravity and making it more stable in heavy seas;
  • By taking up less room, propeller engines would allow more cargo to be carried;
  • Elimination of bulky paddle-boxes would lessen resistance through the water, and also allow the ship to manoeuvre more easily in confined waterways;
  • The depth of a paddlewheel is constantly changing, depending on the ship's cargo and the movement of waves, while a propeller stays fully submerged and at full efficiency at all times;
  • Screw propulsion machinery was cheaper.[8]

Brunel's arguments proved persuasive, and in December 1840, the company agreed to adopt the new technology for Great Britain. The decision however would once again be a costly one for the company, setting the ship's completion date back by an additional nine months.[8]


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.[9]

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.[9]

Launch of Great Britain at Bristol, July 1843.

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.[9]

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.[9]

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 Clarissa Miles (1790–1868), wife of Philip John Miles (1773–1845) and mother of Bristol's MP, Philip William Skinner Miles (1816–1881), a Director of the Company. 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 10 feet (3.0 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 Great Britain. In her haste, 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.[9]

Another extended delay

File:SS Great Britain by Talbot.jpg
Fitting out in the Cumberland Basin, April 1844. This historic photograph by William Talbot is believed to be the first ever taken of a ship.

Following the launch ceremony, the builders had planned to have Great Britain towed to the Thames for her final fitting out. Unfortunately, the Harbour authorities, with responsibility for widening the dock, had failed to carry out the necessary modifications to their facilities in a timely manner.[10] Exacerbating the problem was the fact that the ship itself had been widened beyond the original plans to accommodate the propeller engines, and also that her designers had made a belated decision to fit the engines prior to launch, which resulted in the vessel having a deeper than originally planned initial draught.[11]

This dilemma was to result in another costly delay for the company, as Brunel's negotiations with the Bristol Dock Board dragged on for months. It was only through the intervention of the Board of Trade that the Harbour authorities finally agreed to the lock modifications, which were begun in autumn 1844.[12]

After being trapped in the harbour for more than a year, Great Britain was at last floated out in December 1844, but not before causing more anxiety for her proprietors. After passing successfully through the first set of lock gates, she jammed on her passage through the second which led to the River Avon. Only the seamanship of Captain Claxton enabled her to be pulled back and severe structural damage avoided. The following night, an army of workmen under the direct supervision of Brunel, taking advantage of the slightly higher tide, removed coping stones and lock gate platforms from the Junction Lock, allowing the tug Samson to tow the ship safely into the Avon.[13]


General description

File:SS Great Britain diagram.jpg
Sketch of Great Britain. The lower image shows the internal arrangement of her decks and machinery.

When completed in 1845, Great Britain was a revolutionary vessel—the first ship to combine an iron hull with screw propulsion, and at 322 ft (98 m) in length and with a 3,400 ton displacement, more than 100 ft (30 m) longer and 1,000 tons larger than any ship previously built. Her beam was 50 ft 6 in (15.39 m) and her height from keel to main deck, 32 ft 6 in (9.91 m). She had four decks including the spar (upper) deck, a crew of 120, and was fitted to accommodate a total of 360 passengers, along with 1,200 tons of cargo and 1,200 tons of coal for fuel.[1]

Like most steamships of the era, Great Britain was provided with secondary sail power, consisting in Great Britain's case of one square-rigged and five schooner-rigged masts—a relatively simple sail plan designed to reduce the number of crew required. The masts were of iron, fastened to the spar deck with iron joints, and with one exception, hinged to allow their lowering as a means of reducing wind resistance in the event of a strong headwind. Similarly, all the rigging was of iron cable instead of the traditional hemp, again with a view to reducing wind resistance.[14] Another innovative feature was the lack of traditional heavy bulwarks around the main deck; instead, the builders opted for a light iron railing,[15] which both reduced weight and allowed water shipped in heavy weather to run unimpeded back to sea.

The ship's hull and single funnel amidships were both finished in black paint, with a single white stripe running the length of the hull highlighting a row of false gunports. The hull was flat-bottomed, with no external keel, and with bulges low on each side amidships which continued toward the stern in an unusual implementation of tumblehome—a legacy of the late decision to install propeller engines, which were wider at the base than the originally planned paddlewheel engines.[16]

Brunel, anxious to ensure the avoidance of hogging in a vessel of such unprecedented size, designed the hull to be massively redundant in strength. Ten longitudinal iron girders were installed along the keel, running from beneath the engines and boiler to the forward section. The ship's iron ribs were Template:Convert/x/AoffSoff (15 × 7.6 cm) in diameter. The iron keel plates were an inch thick, and the hull seams were lapped and double riveted in many places. Safety features, which also contributed to the structural strength of the vessel, included a double bottom and five watertight iron bulkheads.[17][18] The total amount of iron which went into the building of the ship, including the engines and machinery, was 1,500 tons.[19]


Transverse hull section, showing arrangement of gearwheels, gear chains and engine cylinders Side view of engines, showing arrangement of gears and gear chains between the engines
Transverse hull section, showing arrangement of gearwheels, gear chains and engine cylinders
Side view of engines, showing arrangement of gears and gear chains between the engines

At the heart of the great ship, installed amidships, and with a combined weight of 340 tons,[19] were the two giant propeller engines, built to a modified patent of Brunel's father Marc. The engines, which rose from the keel through the three lower decks to a height just below the main deck, were of the direct-acting type, with twin 88-inch bore (220 cm), 6 ft (1.8 m) stroke cylinders inclined upward at a 60° angle, capable of developing a total of 1,000 horsepower (750 kW) at 18 rpm.[17][20] Steam power was provided by three 34 ft (10 m) long by 22 ft (6.7 m) high by 10 ft (3.0 m) wide, 5 psi (34 kPa) "square" saltwater boilers, located forward of the engines, with eight furnaces each – four at each end.[21]

File:Model of SS Great Britain's engines.jpg
A model of Great Britain's engines

In considering the gearing arrangement, Brunel had no precedent to serve as a guide. The gearing for the only existing propeller-driven ship of the time, Archimedes, which was of the spur-and-pinion type, had proven almost unbearably noisy, and would not be suitable for a passenger ship.[22] Brunel's solution was to install a chain drive. On the crankshaft between Great Britain's two engines, he installed a huge 26 ft (7.9 m) diameter primary gearwheel,[23] which by means of a set of four massive inverted-tooth or "silent" chains, operated the smaller secondary gear near the ship's keel which turned the propeller shaft. Brunel's chain-drive system was the first commercial use of silent chain technology, and the individual silent chains installed in Great Britain are thought to have been the largest ever constructed.[24]

Great Britain's main propeller shaft, built by the Mersey Iron Works, was the largest single piece of machinery in the ship. 68 feet long and 28 inches in diameter, the shaft was bored through its length with a 10-inch diameter hole, reducing its weight and allowing cold water to be pumped through to reduce heat. At each end of the main propeller shaft were two secondary coupling shafts: a 28 foot, 16 inch diameter shaft beneath the engine, and a screw shaft of 25 ft (7.6 m) and diameter 16 inches (41 cm) at the stern. Total length of the three shafts was 130 ft (40 m), and the total weight 38 tons.[19] The shaft was geared upward at a ratio of 1 to 3, so that at the engines' normal operating speed of 18 rpm, the propeller turned at a speed of 54 rpm.[24] The initial propeller installed was a six-bladed "windmill" model of Brunel's own design,[25] 16 ft (4.9 m) in diameter and with pitch of 25 ft (7.6 m).[26]


The interior of the ship was divided into three decks, the upper two of which were used for passenger accommodations and the lower for cargo. The two passenger decks were in turn divided into forward and aft compartments, separated by the engines and boiler amidships.[27]

In the after section of the ship, the upper passenger deck contained the after or principal saloon, 110 ft (34 m) long by 48 ft (15 m) wide, which ran from just aft of the engine room to the stern. On each side of the saloon were corridors leading to 22 individual passenger berths, arranged two deep, making a total of 44 berths for the saloon as a whole. The forward part of the saloon, nearest the engine room, contained two 17 × 14 ft (5.2 × 4.3 m) ladies' boudoirs or private sitting rooms, which could be accessed directly—without entering the saloon itself—from the twelve nearest passenger berths, reserved for females. The opposite end of the saloon opened onto the stern windows. Broad iron staircases at both ends of the saloon ran to the main deck above and the dining saloon below. The saloon was painted in "delicate tints", furnished along its length with fixed chairs of oak, and supported by twelve decorated pillars.[28]

File:SS Great Britain 1st class dining room.jpg
Looking down one aisle of the reconstructed dining saloon in the museum ship SS Great Britain.

Beneath the after saloon was the main or dining saloon, 98 ft 6 in (30.02 m) long by 30 ft (9.1 m) wide, and fitted with dining tables and chairs capable of accommodating up to 360 people at one sitting. On each side of the saloon, seven corridors opened onto four berths each, for a total number of berths per side of 28, or 56 altogether. The forward end of the saloon was connected to a stewards' galley, while the opposite end contained several tiers of sofas. This saloon was apparently the ship's most impressive. Columns of white and gold, 24 in number, with "ornamental capitals of great beauty", were arranged down its length and along the walls, while eight Arabesque pilasters, decorated with "beautifully painted" oriental flowers and birds, enhanced the aesthetic effect. The archways of the doors were "tastefully carved and gilded" and surmounted with medallion heads. Mirrors around the walls added an illusion of spaciousness, and the walls themselves were painted in a "delicate lemon-tinted hue" with highlights of blue and gold.[28]

The two forward saloons were arranged in a similar plan to the after saloons, with the upper "promenade" saloon having 36 berths per side, and the lower, 30, for a total number of berths in the forward passenger section of 132. Further forward still, separate from the passenger saloons, were the crew quarters.[28] The overall finish of the passenger quarters was unusually restrained for its time, a probable reflection of the proprietors' diminishing capital reserves.[29] Total cost of the ship's construction, not including the £53,000 cost of plant and equipment acquired to build her, was £117,000[30]—£47,000 more than her original projected price tag of £70,000.

Service history

Transatlantic service

On 26 July 1845 seven years after the Great Western Steamship Company had decided to build a second ship, and five years overdue—Great Britain embarked on her maiden voyage, from Liverpool to New York, with a complement of 45 passengers. The ship made the passage in 14 days and 21 hours, at an average speed of 9.25 knots (17.13 km/h; 10.64 mph) – almost 1.5 knots (2.8 km/h; 1.7 mph) slower than the prevailing record. She made the return trip in 13½ days, again an unexceptional time.[29]

File:Great Britain propeller and rudder wideshot.jpg
Replica of Great Britain's original six-bladed propeller on the museum ship. This propeller proved totally unsatisfactory in service and was quickly replaced with a four-bladed model.

Brunel, who prior to the ship's commencement of service had substituted Smith's proven four-bladed propeller design with a six-bladed "windmill" design of his own, now decided to try and improve the vessel's speed by rivetting an extra two inches of iron to each propeller blade. On her next crossing to New York, carrying 104 passengers, the ship ran into heavy weather, losing a mast and three propeller blades. After repairs in New York, she set out again for Liverpool, this time with only 28 passengers, and again lost four propeller blades during the crossing. By this time, another design flaw had become evident. The ship rolled heavily, especially in calm weather without the steadying influence of sail, causing great discomfort to the passengers. The long-suffering shareholders of the company dipped into their pockets once more to try and solve the problems. The six-bladed propeller was dispensed with and a four-bladed cast iron model, similar to that originally chosen for the ship, substituted. The third mast was removed, and the iron rigging, which had proven unsatisfactory, was replaced with conventional rigging. Additionally, in a major alteration, two 110-foot long bilge keels were added to each side of the ship in an effort to lessen her tendency to roll. These repairs and alterations together were to delay Great Britain's return to service until the following year.

In her second season of service in 1846, Great Britain successfully completed two round trips to New York and back at an acceptable speed, but was then laid up again, for repairs to one of her chain drums which showed an unexpected degree of wear. Embarking on her third passage of the season to New York, Great Britain's captain made a "truly inexplicable" series of navigational errors which resulted in the ship being run hard aground in Dundrum Bay on the northeast coast of Ireland.[31]

The vessel remained aground for almost a year, protected by temporary measures organized by Brunel. In August 1847, she was finally floated free at a cost of £34,000 and taken back to Liverpool, but this final expense exhausted the company's remaining reserves. After languishing at the North Dock for some time, Great Britain, completed only a few years earlier at a cost of £117,000, was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co., former agents of the Great Western Steamship Company, for a mere £25,000.[32][33]

Refit and return to service

The new owners of Great Britain decided not merely to repair the vessel but to give her a total refit. The ship's keel, badly damaged during the recent grounding, was completely renewed along a length of 150 feet, and the owners took the opportunity to further strengthen the hull. The old keelsons were replaced, and ten new ones laid, which ran the entire length of the keel. Both the bow and stern were also strengthened by heavy frames of double angle iron.[34]

Reflecting the rapid advances in propeller engine technology since Great Britain's development, the original engines were removed and replaced with a pair of smaller, lighter and more modern oscillating engines, with 82½ inch cylinders and 6-foot stroke, built by John Penn & Sons of Greenwich. The engines were also provided more support at the base, and supported further by the addition of both iron and wood beams running transversely across the hull, which had the added benefit of reducing engine vibration.[34]

The cumbersome chain-drive gearing was removed, and replaced with a simpler and by now proven cog-wheel arrangement, although the gearing of the engines to the propeller shaft remained at a ratio of one to three. The three large boilers were also replaced, with six smaller ones, operating at 10 psi (69 kPa) or twice the pressure of their predecessors. Along with a new 300 ft (91 m) cabin on the main deck, the smaller boilers allowed the ship's cargo capacity to be almost doubled, from 1,200 to 2,200 tons.[34]

File:SS Great Britain with four masts 1853.jpg
Great Britain in 1853, after her refit to four masts

The four-bladed propeller was replaced by a slightly smaller, three-bladed model, and the bilge keels, previously added to reduce the ship's tendency to roll, were removed and substituted by the addition of a heavy external oak keel, intended to serve the same purpose. Finally, the five-masted schooner sail plan was dispensed with, and replaced by four masts, two of which were square-rigged.[34]

With the refit complete, Great Britain went back into service on the New York run, but after only one further round trip across the Atlantic, the ship was sold again, to Antony Gibbs & Sons, who planned to place her into England-Australia service.[34]

Australian service

Antony Gibbs & Sons may only have intended to employ Great Britain to exploit a temporary demand for passenger service to the Australian gold fields following the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851,[35] but the ship was to find long-term employment on this route. For her new role, Great Britain was given a third refit. Her passenger accommodations were increased from 360 to 730, and her sail plan altered again, to a traditional three-masted, square-rigged pattern. She was also fitted with a removable propeller, which could be hauled up onto deck by means of chains in order to reduce drag when the vessel was operating under sail power alone.

In 1852, Great Britain made her first voyage to Melbourne, Australia, carrying 630 emigrants. She excited great interest there, with 4,000 people paying a shilling each to inspect her. She would continue to operate on the England–Australia route for almost thirty years, interrupted only by two relatively brief sojourns as a troopship—first during the Crimean War and later during the Indian Mutiny. Gradually, she came to earn a reputation for herself as the most reliable of the emigrant ships to Australia.

An 1862 source preserves some statistics of a typical trip during this period. The ship put out from Liverpool on 21 October 1861, carrying a crew of 143, 544 passengers (including the first English cricket team ever to visit Australia), a cow, 36 sheep, 140 pigs, 96 goats and a total of 1114 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The journey to Melbourne (her ninth) occupied 64 days, during which the best day's run was 354 miles and the worst 108. With favourable winds the ship travelled under sail alone, the screw being withdrawn from the water. Three passengers died en route. The captain was John Gray, a Scot, who had held the post since before the Crimean War.[36]

On Thursday 8 October 1868 The Argus (Melbourne) reported 'To-day, at daylight, the fine steamship Great Britain will leave her anchorage in Hobson's Bay, for Liverpool direct. On this occasion she carries less than her usual complement of passengers, the season not being a favourite one with colonists desiring to visit their native land. The Great Britain, however, has a full cargo, and carries gold to the value of about £250,000. As she is in fine trim, we shall probably have, in due time, to congratulate Captain Gray on having achieved another successful voyage.'

Later history

In 1882, Great Britain was converted into a sailing ship to transport bulk coal but, after a fire on board in 1886, she was found on arrival at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond repair. She was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used, afloat, as a storage hulk (coal bunker) until 1937, when she was towed to Sparrow Cove, 3.5 miles from Port Stanley, 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 iron was scavenged to repair HMS Exeter, one of the Royal Navy ships that fought the Graf Spee and was badly damaged during the Battle of the River Plate.

Recovery and restoration

Coordinates: 51°26′57″N 2°36′30″W / 51.4492°N 2.6084°W / 51.4492; -2.6084

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SS Great Britain
Shown within Bristol and the UK

The salvage operation, made possible by several large donations, including one from Sir Jack Hayward, and the late Sir Paul Getty, was organised by 'the SS Great Britain Project', a group chaired by Richard Goold-Adams. Ewan Corlett conducted a naval architect's survey on the ship, reporting that in his opinion the ship could be refloated. A submersible pontoon, Mulus III, was chartered in February 1970. A German tug, Varius II, was chartered, reaching Port Stanley on March 25. By April 13, after some concern about a crack in the hull, the ship was mounted successfully on the pontoon and the following day the tug, pontoon and the SS Great Britain sailed to Port Stanley harbour for preparations for the transatlantic voyage. The voyage (code name "Voyage 47") began on April 24, stopped in Montevideo from May 2 to May 6 for inspection, then across the Atlantic, arriving at Barry Docks, west of Cardiff on June 22. ("Voyage 47" was chosen as the code name because it was on her 47th voyage from Penarth, in 1886, during a tempest that SS Great Britain had sought for shelter in the Falklands.[37]) Bristol-based tugs then took over and towed the ship, still on its pontoon, to Avonmouth Docks.

The ship was then taken off the pontoon, in preparation for her re-entry into Bristol, now truly afloat. On Saturday 5 July, amidst considerable media interest, the ship was towed up the River Avon to Bristol.[38] Perhaps the most memorable moment for the crowds that lined the final few miles was her passage under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, another Brunel design. She then waited a further two weeks in the Cumberland Basin, until a high enough tide occurred that would get her back through the locks to Bristol's Floating Harbour, back to her birthplace, the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard in which she had been built (now a grade II* listed building, it had been disused since bomb damage during World War II.[39]).

File:SS Great Britain showing air seal for hull.jpg
The air seal around Great Britain's hull.

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.[40] 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.[41][42] This was completed, the ship was "re-launched" in July 2005, and visitor access to the dry dock was restored.

A BBC West documentary called 'When Brunel's Ship Came Home' tells the story of the salvage operation and is due for transmission on BBC One in the West of England on July 12th 2010 at 7.30pm (a provisional slot subject to late changes). The programme includes the personal memories of many of the people who were involved.


The engineers Fenton Holloway won the IStructE Award for Heritage Buildings in 2006 for the restoration of the SS Great Britain. In May of that year the ship won the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries, the chairman of the judging panel Professor Robert Winston commented,

SS Great Britain got our unanimous vote for being outstanding at every level. It combines a truly groundbreaking piece of conservation, remarkable engineering and fascinating social history plus a visually stunning ship above and below the water line. Most importantly, the SS Great Britain is accessible and highly engaging for people of all ages.[43]

The project won the The Crown Estate Conservation Award in 2007.[44] and the European Museum of the Year Award’s Micheletti Prize for 'Best Industrial or Technology Museum'.[45] In 2008 the educational value of the project was honoured by the Sandford Award for Heritage Education.[46]

In fiction

In Stephen Baxter's novel, Ring, Great Britain still exists in AD 3953 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' 88 inches (220 cm) diameter
  • Stroke: 72 inches (180 cm)
  • RPM: Max. 20 RPM
  • Main Crankshaft: 17 feet (5.18 m) long and 28 inches (71 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

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Claxton, p. 3.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gibbs, pp. 41-45.
  3. "SS Great Britain". Brunel 200. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  4. Fox, pp. 147-148.
  5. Fox, p. 144.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Fox, p. 148.
  7. Fox, pp. 148, 151.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Fox, p. 149.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 "Royal Visit". The Bristol Mirror: pp. 1–2. 20 July 1843. 
  10. Dumpleton and Miller, p. 64.
  11. Claxton, p. 21.
  12. Ball and Wright, p. 13.
  13. "The creation of Bristol City docks". Farvis.'s%20locks.htm. Retrieved 2006-08-18. 
  14. Claxton, pp. 19-20.
  15. Fox, p. 152.
  16. Fox, pp. 149, 152.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Fox, p. 150.
  18. Claxton, p. 5.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Claxton, p. 18.
  20. Claxton, pp. 3-6.
  21. Some sources, such as Claxton (p. 3), state that there was only a single boiler, but others, such as Fletcher and Maginnis, state that there were three side by side. This apparent discrepancy is explained by the fact that there were three separate boilers or boiler compartments sharing a common housing (Dumpleton and Miller, p. 60).
  22. Fox, pp. 148-149.
  23. Claxton, p. 6.
  24. 24.0 24.1 American Chain Association, p. 10.
  25. Fox, p. 151.
  26. Claxton, p. 13.
  27. Claxton, pp. 4, 6.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Claxton, pp. 14-17.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Fox, p. 153.
  30. Fox, p. 155.
  31. Fox, p. 154.
  32. Fox, pp. 154-155.
  33. Fletcher, pp. 225-226.
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 Fletcher, pp. 226-227.
  35. Fletcher, p. 227.
  36. Reid.
  37. Successfully salvaged. United Kingdom: Bristol Evening Post. 1 March 2005. p. 42. 
  38. Anon (1986). SS Great Britain. Farnborough: The Greywell Press. 
  39. "Great Western Dry Dock". Images of England. Retrieved 2006-08-20. 
  40. "SS Great Britain". Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  41. "Ship's restoration work goes on". BBC News. 18 January 2005. 
  42. "Articles and Research". SS Great Britain Trust. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  43. "Brunel’s SS Great Britain wins Gulbenkian Prize". Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  44. "SS Great Britain wins The Crown Estate Conservation Award". RIBA. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  45. "The Micheletti Award". European Museums Forum. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 
  46. "Holders of The Sandford Award for Heritage Education". Heritage Education Trust. Retrieved 2009-01-07. 


  • American Chain Association (2005): Standard Handbook of Chains: Chains for Power Transmission and Material Handling, Second Edition (Dekker Mechanical Engineering), CRC Press, p. 10, ISBN 978-1574446470.
  • Ball, Adrian and Wright, Diana (1981): SS Great Britain, David & Charles, London, ISBN 0-7153-8096-6.
  • Claxton, Capt. R. N. (1845): History and Description of the Steamship Great Britain, J. Smith Homans, New York.
  • Dumpleton, Bernard and Miller, Muriel (2002): Brunel's Three Ships, Intellect Books, page 64, ISBN 978-1841508009.
  • Fletcher, R. A. (1910): Steamships: The Story Of Their Development To The Present Day, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., London, pp. 225–227.
  • Fox, Stephen (2003): Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0060195953.
  • Gibbs, Charles Robert Vernon (1957). Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean: A Record of Atlantic Steam and Motor Passenger Vessels from 1838 to the Present Day. John De Graff. pp. 41–45. 
  • Maginnis, Arthur J. (1900): The Atlantic Ferry: Its Ships, Men and Working, Whittaker and Co., London and New York.
  • Reid, Alexander (ed.) (1862): The Cabinet, or a Repository of Facts, Figures and Fancies relating to the Voyage of the "Great Britain" SS Melbourne: J. Reid, 1862 (a modified reprint of a periodical compiled and printed on board during the voyage).

Further reading

  • Ewan Corlett (1975; revised 1990, Conway Maritime Press). The Iron Ship: The Story of Brunel's SS Great Britain. London: Conway Maritime. ISBN 0-85177-531-4.. 

External links

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