Great Britain

Great Britain (1843)

Even before the Great Western had completed her second transatlantic crossing Brunel was busily preparing the plans for her successor, the Great Britain. In the early 1800’s Britain was engaged in the Napoleonic wars and during that time much of the trans-Atlantic trade had been taken over by the Americans. The Great Western Railway Company in a bid to redress the imbalance of trade sought to build a vessel and, as Brunel was the company’s chief engineer, who better was there to complete the task.

The initial sketches were for a wooden paddle-steamer and Brunel had deduced that the space required for bunkers was proportionately less in a larger vessel and that, consequently, speed could be greater. Before the keel was laid in 1839 Brunel was able to examine a small iron built vessel, the Rainbow, and immediately changed the construction of the Great Britain to iron even thought the timber had already been purchased. The design was further amended in 1840 after Brunel had seen a small screw-driven ship, the Archimedes, which visited Bristol. After delaying construction for several months while he studied the concept he concluded that the new screw propulsion was superior to paddles and changed the plans accordingly.

The Great Britain aground at Dundrum Bay with the protective barrier of wood around her stern, 1846-7.

Brunel, in essence, was a civil engineer rather than a naval architect and the building of the Great Britain presented new problems which had to be overcome. The hull was plated with 6ft x 3ft sections each overlapped clinker-style and riveted. The traditional bluff bow of the day was replaced with a fine bow with hollow lines, a style which was later adopted by the sailing clippers. As ship owners were not convinced that a ship could be powered by steam alone the Great Britain had six masts to carry sail. Only one of the masts was stepped on the keel, the remainder being fitted to hinged bases on the deck. The funnel was located between the second and third masts.

The engines Brunel used were based on an earlier design of his father, Sir Marc. Intended to drive the paddle wheels which required athwartships placement Brunel merely turned them 90 degrees to provide power to a fore to aft propeller shaft. Even so, the crankshaft, driven by two double-acting twin cylinders beneath the shaft, was intend to power high mounted paddle wheels and not a low positioned propeller shaft. Brunel solved this problem by installing a massive chain drive. A shaft between the engines was fitted with an 18ft diameter sprocket. Four chains then transferred the drive to a small sprocket on the propeller shaft which was positioned between the cylinders. The shaft turned by the engines revolved 18 times per minute but the simple method of gearing enabled the propeller shaft to turn at 53 rpm. The propeller shaft was constructed of forged steel plates with an internal diameter of around 30in, large enough to allow a boy to slither in to hold the dolly during riveting.

When it came to the design of the propeller Brunel had to start from scratch and establish new principles. The end result was a six-bladed unit some 15ft 6in diameter and weighing 4 tons. The performance of Brunel’s propeller compares favourably with the six-bladed propellers fitted to the modern day tankers. The steering gear installed did not differ substantially from that used by sailing ships. The steering wheel was located aft but the rudder was balanced, i.e. a small area of blade extended forward of the rudder post. This lightened the control and enabled more precise maneuvering.

Completed, the Great Britain was 322ft long with a beam of 51ft and a registered tonnage of 1016 GRT. She had berths for 252 passengers but up to 360 could be carried using settees and other sleeping arrangements. The crew numbered 130. In addition to carrying passengers she had space for up to 1200 tons of cargo. She carried 20 days supply of coal, well in excess of the requirement for an Atlantic crossing of 14 days. The ship cost £117,295 6s 7d to build and, as there was no existing yard big enough to build a ship of that size at that time, the owners had to provide their own facilities at a cost of £53,081 12s 9d.

The Great Britain was launched by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort, in July 1843, at least, in theory. The entrance to the dry dock in which she had been built was too narrow and the ship stuck fast. The masonry and brickwork had to be broken away before the ship could be released. After being grounded for an overhaul the Great Britain was moved into a floating harbour for fitting out. On 11th December, 1844, under the supervision of Captain Claxton, the ship was eased through the lock on a spring tide and proceeded under sail to London. Once there she was inspected by Queen Victoria and had her engines installed.

From London the Great Britain proceeded to Liverpool where, under the command of Captain James Hosken, she commenced her maiden voyage on 26th July,1845. In addition to 50 passengers who had paid between 20 and 35 guineas she carried 600 tons of cargo and completed an uneventful voyage in 14 days 21 hours entirely under steam. During the second voyage to New York with 102 passengers the ship suffered a minor stranding and an inspection revealed that the propeller had shed a blade. A second blade was removed to compensate but on the return voyage she shed three more and had to complete the voyage under sail. The journey took only 20 days which proved the Great Britain could perform well under sail.

Sailing ship men considered that the Great Britain’s rig was too dumpy because the masts were too low. Brunel had designed the ship so that the sails could be handled by no more than 30 men. Back in Liverpool the ship was dry-docked and a spare four bladed propeller was fitted. At the same time alterations were made to the masts and sails. The No.3 mast abaft the funnel was removed and the wire rigging replaced by then then traditional hemp. The No.4 mast was altered to take square sails and the 2nd and 4th masts were fitted with top-gallants all, supposedly, to improve the sailing performance.

On 22nd September,1846, the Great Britain sailed from Liverpool on her fifth voyage with 180 passengers, the most that she had ever carried. Later that night while passing the coast of County Down, Ireland, she ran aground in Dundrum Bay. It was a squally night with rain and Chicken Rock Light on the Isle of Man had not been sighted and the ship ran too far before turning up the Irish coast. There were no casualties and the passengers were embarked next day but the Great Britain was stuck fast and holed. It was nearly twelve months before the ship was towed back to Liverpool at the end of August 1847. The cost of repairs were estimated at £22,000 but the ship was under insured and the company did not have the resources to cover the difference. Consequently, the company was forced to sell its two famous ships the Great Western and the Great Britain.

Gibbs, Bright & Company of Liverpool were looking for a ship to carry gold prospectors and emigrants to Australia and purchased the Great Britain. Further alterations were made before she re-entered service. A fourth mast was added with two being square rigged and the other two fore and aft rigged. Two smaller funnels, installed side by side, replaced the single funnel and a deck house was fitted to increase the passenger capacity. The engines, damaged when the ship ran aground, were replaced by twin-cylinder oscillators which turned a three-bladed propeller which was fitted with a clutch to allow it to freely rotate when the ship was under sail.

Re-entering service the Great Britain made one crossing to New York before, in 1852, departing for Melbourne, Australia with 630 passengers. The length of the voyage to Australia meant that the ship had to depend a lot on sail to conserve fuel. But the new rig proved to be unsatisfactory and there was still excessive drag of the propeller. In an attempt to improve the ship's performance she was, in 1853, virtually rebuilt. The twin funnels, which may have interfered with sail handling, were replaced with a single small funnel and a three-masted ship rig with a long bowsprit provided the auxiliary sail power. A two-bladed propeller was fitted and a lifting frame enabled it to be lifted clear of the water when the ship was under sail.

Without any further alterations the Great Britain made more than 30 voyages to Australia and also carried troops to the Crimea and India. In 1855, when Florence Nightingale required emergency hospitals to be sent to the Crimea Brunel designed sectional buildings which were transported in 23 ships within 10 months of the commencement of the operation, with the Great Britain playing a major role. The standard of living on board was far superior to that found on the majority of other ships sailing at the time. The accommodation was more lavish and the first-class menu listed a choice of twelve dishes. On the long voyages passengers on sailing ships were expected to help in the working of the ship which, in many cases, was a welcomed break to the monotony. When she was carrying troops the ship carried up to 1650 men and 30 horses.

In 1876, as she was beginning to show her age, the Great Britain was taken out of service and put up for sale. Antony Gibbs & Company bought her in 1862, converted her to sail only and removed the engines, deck housing and all of the passenger accommodation. The propeller aperture was sealed, hatches were cut into the deck to facilitate the loading of cargo and wooden cladding was fixed to the hull between the high and low load lines. She had been modified so that she could be loaded to 25 feet - 50 percent deeper than Brunel's original design draught.

When the modifications were completed she undertook two voyages to San Francisco carrying coal on the outward passage and wheat on the return. Her third voyage commenced at Penarth in South Wales on 6th February, 1886 and proved to be her last under her own power. As the Great Britain was negotiating Cape Horn a hurricane was blowing causing her cargo to shift. At the same time parts of her masts were carried away and she was forced to put into the Falkland Islands for repairs. A survey of the damage caused by the hurricane revealed that repairs were not viable and, consequently, she was condemned. From that time until 1933 she was used as a hulk for storing bales of wool.

The ship lay idle for four years until, on 14th April, 1937, she was towed round to Sparrow Cove, a few miles from Port Stanley, and scuttled. Holes were punched into her bottom and she slowly settled on the sea bed. For most ships this would been the end. Left to the elements she would have eventually broken up and rusted away. But the Great Britain was to live to see another day.

In 1967 a naval architect, Dr ECB Corlett, wrote to The Times about the ship which aroused a lot of public interest. Consequently, in 1968 the SS Great Britain was formed with Dr Corlett as the technical director and Richard Goold-Adams as chairman and organiser. Businessman, Jack Hayward, offered to underwrite the basic cost of getting the ship home.

The ship was surveyed where she lay and the various available salvage techniques considered. The hull was, in fact, fairly sound although there was a crack on the the starboard side. This crack was 7" wide at the top tapering to nothing as it extended almost to the keel. The surveyors considered that the hull could be patched and that it would be possible to tow her across the Atlantic but the risk of loss would be high if adverse weather was encountered. In the end a new method was devised whereby the ship was lifted onto a pontoon which had been designed by the Anglo-German company Rizdon Beazley Ulrich Harms Ltd who were based in Southampton.

Before the recovery could begin the masts had to be removed. They had remained standing since 1857 and the mainmast still carried its yard which was of hollow riveted steel construction, 106ft long and weighing 4 tons. The mainmast had lost its topmast during the hurricane some eighty odd years earlier. All that remained was 95ft in length weighing some 15 tons. It had been constructed by banding four trees together and was possibly the largest mast ever installed in a ship during the days of sail. The masts were removed, the mizen mast being left in the Falkland Islands as a memorial and the foremast being given to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The mainmast stayed with the ship.

The hull was patched up and made as watertight as possible. The technical experts concluded that had the ship been left she could have broken into two at any time. The water was pumped out of the hull and, unexpectedly on 7th April 1970, she broke away from the seabed. After the ship was moved from her original position gales sprang up and it was thought prudent to sink her again. This was done and on 10th April, 1970, she was refloated again to a draught of 14ft 6in. The Great Britain was ready to begin her last journey to her final resting place in Bristol, England.

The pontoon Mulus 111, a giant weighing 2667 tons, had arrived on the scene and was sunk. When the Mulus 111 had firmly settled on the sea bed the Great Britain was carefully positioned over it. Compressed air was pumped into the pontoon and as it slowly rose to the surface it gently lifted the Great Britain clear of the sea. In doing so the hull straightened and closed the crack causing the patching to buckle. This then had to be removed and a new patch welded to the hull. Once this had been done the ship was securely supported on the pontoon and the was ready for the 7,500 miles tow home by the salvage tug Varius 11.

The first leg of the journey was the few miles to Port Stanley for a celebratory farewell. From there the tow proceeded up the coast of South America to Montevideo. During this leg a force 8 gale was encountered which was weathered successfully giving the towing party added confidence that the crossing of the Atlantic would be equally successful. On 2nd May, 1970, the tow reached Montevideo to a tumultuous reception. The salvage flotilla stay there until 6th May when it began the long tow across the Atlantic Ocean arriving off Cape Finisterre on 31st May. On 24th June,1970, the tug Varius 11 pulled the pontoon carrying the Great Britain into Avonmouth Docks. She was home, well almost.

On 1st July the Great Britain, which had been further waterproofed with concrete and the crack in the hull reinforced with steel, was parted from the pontoon. Four days later, on the 5th, the Great Britain was towed up the River Avon towards Bristol. Thousands lined the banks to witness the spectacle as the great ship was towed towards her final resting place passing under another of Brunel’s masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, on the way. At the end of her journey she was eased into a floating harbour to wait for the sufficiently high tide to complete the operation. On 19th July, 1970, the 127th anniversary of her launching, the Great Britain, with HRH Prince Philip on board, was eased stern -first into the Great Western Dry Dock, the dry dock where she was built.

The Great Britain was home, home to join the other two monuments to Britain’s maritime heritage, the Cutty Sark, permanently dry docked at Greenwich, and Nelson’s Victory similarly dry docked in the Royal Naval dockyard at Portsmouth. Since that memorable day in 1970 restoration has been on-going and visitors to the dock, which has changed little since 1843 and adds to the authenticity, can see how the abandoned hull is being restored to her former glory.


The wrought iron steamship ss Great Britain was built in 1843 in the Great Western Dockyard, Bristol, under the superintendence of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his colleagues Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton, and William Patterson, all members of the Great Western Steamship Company. She is widely recognised as one of the technological fore-runners of much modern shipping and she is seen by many as exemplifying the industry and inventiveness of the Victorian era,and symbolising the birth of international passenger travel and world communications.

1839-1846, Luxury Trans-Atlantic Passenger Liner

Originally conceived as a paddle steamer, her constructors quickly saw the advantages that the new technology of screw propulsion could give the vessel, and converted her and her engines to power a sixteen foot iron propeller. At the time of her launch in 1843 she was by far the largest ship in the world, over 100 feet longer than her rivals, and the first screw propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship. She was designed initially for the Trans-Atlantic luxury passenger trade, and could carry 252 first and second class passengers and 130 crew.

Her first few voyages successfully demonstrated her potential, but were not great financial successes, with far fewer passengers than anticipated. Her career in this trade was short lived, as she ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay in Northern Ireland in 1846. Although her hull was not badly damaged, her engines were ruined, and the expense of re-floating her did great damage to the financial resources of her owners.

1852-1876, Emigrant clipper

Under Gibbs Bright and Co, the ship prospered, and wrenched back her good name. The new owners took advantage of the upsurge in emigration that the Australian gold rush encouraged, and re-built the ship, to use her as a fast and luxurious emigrant carrier, taking people to Australia. A 300 foot long deck house was added to the ship’s upper deck, a new 500 hp, Penn engine was fitted, and her internal accommodation was rebuilt to allow her to transport 750 passengers in three classes. She now had a radically different external appearance, being lower in the water, with more massive superstructure and twin funnels. For her initial voyage, she carried four masts – two ‘fore and aft’ and two square sails. After this voyage she was re-masted, to carry three masts, all square sails. Over the next 24 years and 32 voyages she was a frequent sight in Australian waters, as well as making stops in Cape Town, St Helena, and the odd trip to New York. The ship averaged 60 days out and 60 days home - a very fast time for the nineteenth century, and carried over 15000 emigrants. In 2002 the ship celebrated her 150th anniversary of the maiden voyage to Australia.

1854, Troop Ship

Between 1854 and 1855 and she was chartered by the Government to carry troops to and from the Crimean War. At one stage she carried 1650 French troops, as well as 30 horses. Over the course of the conflict, the vessel carried over 44,000 troops. Following this episode she was again rebuilt, with her hurricane deck expanded breadthways to her bulwarks. This deck was henceforth known as the ‘Spar’ deck. Her masts were re-positioned, and a new, wider funnel replaced the earlier twin funnels. In this configuration she was again chartered by the Government for a further trooping voyage, carrying the 17th Lancers and 8th Hussars to the Indian Mutiny, and in 1861 she carried the first ever English cricket team to tour Australia.

She took the second team in 1863, which included E.M. Grace, brother of Dr. W.G. Grace, the later Captain of the English side.

1882-1886, Windjammer

By the late 1870’s the ship was showing her age, and her owners were not able to maintain their full registration as a passenger vessel. However, the ship was still serviceable, and her sleek hull profile allowed her easy conversion into a fast three-masted sailing ship. Her engines were removed, as was her upper ‘Spar’ deck, and her lithe hull was clad with pitch pine sheathing. In this guise, barely recognizeable as the same vessel launched in 1843, she took Welsh coal to San Francisco around Cape Horn. On her third trip, however, she ran into trouble around the Cape, and was forced to run for shelter in Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. Her owners were not willing to have her repaired, and she was sold as a coal and wool storage hulk in Port Stanley.

1886-1970, Coal Hulk

Here she remained through the First World War, with coal from her hold helping to replenish the battle cruisers Inflexible and Invincible before the decisive battle of the Falkland Islands on 7 December 1914, in which the armoured cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and light cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk. By 1937 the Great Britain’s hull was no longer watertight, and after being towed a short distance from Port Stanley, she was beached, holes were riven in her sides, and she was abandoned to the elements.

Even there her historic significance was recognised, as witnessed by attempts to rescue her in the late 1930’s and 1960’s, and by the raffle of souvenirs from her during the Second World War to raise funds for the purchase of Spitfires. Finally, in 1970, an epic salvage effort refloated the ship, and she was towed back home across the Atlantic to Bristol. Her new life began, and she works today as an educational resource and international monument for current and future generations.

Amazing Facts and Figures about the ss Great Britain

  • She was the first screw-propeller-driven iron ship to cross the Atlantic, and the first to include the combination of waterproof bulkheads, iron wire rigging, a balanced rudder, iron lifeboats, and a ‘patent log’ for measuring the distance she travelled. She was also the first ship to employ a six-masted schooner-rigged configuration.
  • The ship carried one of the earliest ‘clipper’ bows ever built, and it is probably the earliest surviving example of the type.
  • She originally carried 120 first class passengers (26 of whom were in single cabins), 132 second class passengers, and 130 officers and crew. In 1852, however, she had an extra ‘hurricane’ deck added, to increase her passenger carrying capacity to 730.
  • On one voyage in 1854 between Malta and the Crimea, the ship carried 1600 French Troops, as well as 30 horses. In all, she carried over 45000 troops to and from the Crimea.
  • She is over 320 feet long, 50 feet wide and originally weighed 1930 tons. She has 165 wrought iron frames, arranged in 20 overlapping ‘strakes’ with each strake fabricated from butt-jointed wrought iron plates around 180 cm x 60cm.
  • The ss Great Britain travelled the world for nearly 45 years and covered over a million miles. She carried over 16000 emigrants to Australia, and was known in her time as one of the fastest, most elegant and luxurious emigrant clipper ships – the ‘Greyhound of the seas’.
  • The average time she took on the return journey to Australia was 120 days - a very competitive time for the mid-nineteenth century. Passage on the ship could virtually guarantee that a passenger would arrive on time, well ahead of the ship’s sail powered rivals.
  • One of the ship’s captains, Captain Gray, used to climb each mast at least once a week. Captain Gray interrupted one voyage to Australia to claim the uninhabited island of St. Martin for the Empire. That evening he held a banquet to celebrate.
  • The ship had at least 25 accidents entered in her logs – ranging from collisions with other vessels, running aground, lost spars and mast damage, to losing Captain Gray in mysterious circumstances.
  • The ship was fitted with a wrought iron main mast yard in 1860 that weighed 4 tonnes and was 104 feet in length. The yard can still be seen today in Bristol. It is believed to be one of the largest yards ever built, and certainly the largest still in existence.
  • Her fresh water tanks held 35,338 gallons of water, and she was fitted with two condensers capable of supplying 1,500 gallons a day.
  • In 1865 the ship’s carpenter, Mr Morgan, kept a koala bear on board as a pet. As reported in the ship’s newspaper, the ‘Great Britain Times’, the marsupial died of ‘pulmonary consumption’ on 25 October 1865, much to the sadness of crew and passengers.
  • In 1861 the ss Great Britain carried the first ever English cricket side to tour Australia. This was not an ‘official’ touring side, being made up of a combination of professional players from the All-England XI and the United England XI. Each player received £150 plus their expenses. The tour was immensely successful in a number of different ways, not least of which was the enthusiasm with which the party was received, as evidence by the 15,000 crowd that attended the opening match against Eighteen of Victoria, which was played at Melbourne. The tourists played 12 games, winning 6, drawing 4 and losing 2. The 2 defeats were by Castlemaine and a combined NSW/Victoria team.
  • As meat went off quite easily on long voyages, large numbers of live animals were carried for food, giving the ship the appearance of Noah's Ark, rather than an emigrant ship. On one voyage in 1859, the ship carried 133 live sheep, 38 pigs, 2 bullocks, 1 cow, 420 fowl, 300 ducks, 400 geese and 30 turkeys. 2 tons of freshly killed beef were also carried. Passenger diaries frequently cite the ship as smelling and sounding like a barnyard
  • Despite spending nearly 100 years suffering in the harsh South Atlantic weather, the Great Britain was able to float up the River Avon herself! The 155 year old iron hull had stood the test of time superbly.