1845 - Present Day
of the greatest engineers of the 19th century was undoubtedly
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Employed as the head engineer of the Great Western
Railway Co., Brunel had visions that not many could match. His idea of
extending the company’s London-Bristol service with a steamer operating
from Bristol to New York resulted in the world’s then greatest ship so
far – the Great Western.
success of the Great Western prompted Brunel to realise more of his dreams.
Great Western had been built with a wooden hull, but Brunel figured
that being a stronger material, iron would allow for even larger ships.
If the Great Western Railway Co. would have any hopes of winning a mail contract,
they would need a few equally fast sister ships to the Great Western.
But Brunel instead suggested that the company should build just one, really large ship.
|The launch of the Great
Britain in July 1843.
Such revolutionary ideas were not always appealing to others,
and it took some convincing from Brunel’s side before the company finally
agreed to build the new ship. And so, in July of 1839, the first keel plates
were laid down at Patterson’s shipbuilding yards in Bristol. Her intended
name was Mammoth.
ship grew in her construction dock, everything proceeded according to plans.
Just as with the Great Western, the Mammoth would be constructed
with conventional paddle wheels on her sides. But in May 1840, an event
took place that made Brunel change his plans. At that time, the new experiment
237-ton vessel Archimedes arrived in Bristol to demonstrate her
innovative propulsion system. She had been fitted with a screw-type propeller
invented by Sir Francis Pettit Smith and Brunel, eager to examine her performance,
chartered the Archimedes for private trials.
was fascinated with what he learned. The propeller appeared to be much
more efficient than the traditional paddle wheels, and Brunel was so convinced
of its superiority that he immediately changed the plans for his new ship
– it would be fitted with a propeller instead. At about the same time,
it was also decided that she would instead bear the name Great Britain.
leap ahead with the Great Britain was large. Not only would she
be the first iron-hulled ship ever, she would also be one of the absolute
safest. Brunel had divided the ship’s hull into six compartments by equipping
her with five watertight bulkheads. This division would be able to contain
the rush of water, should the hull ever be breached.
the Great Britain’s steam engine was of the very latest in design.
Equipped with four 7-foot 4-inch cylinders, it was
able to generate a steam pressure
of 15lb/square inch, developing some 1,500 horsepower for the single, six-bladed
|The Great Britain
as originally built, with six masts and a lone funnel.
19th 1843, the day of launch had finally arrived. His Royal
Highness Prince Albert was present for the occasion. When the ship had
been given its name, Mrs. Miles (the wife of one of the company directors)
swung the bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, the bottle missed the bows
and remained whole. Luckily, there was a spare bottle available, and the
Prince showed better accuracy in his aiming when he made the second try.
The construction dock was then flooded, and the Great Britain was
floated out. A remarkable ship had been born.
the ship was still far from finished. The fitting out would take another
two years, but the work that was done on the ship was fantastic. When finished,
the Great Britain sported the most luxurious accommodations so far
ever put to sea. Being the largest ship so far, the Great Britain
had plenty of space to use for passenger areas. Matched by no other ship,
she had cabins for as many as 350 passengers. The public areas had been
done in the finest style, and the decorators had put mirrors to extensive
use to enhance the impression of space. The main dining saloon on board
was the most lavishly appointed afloat.
on July 26th 1845, the Great Britain set out on her maiden
voyage from Liverpool to New York. Sporting six masts ready to set sail,
she must have been a wonderful sight. Although the steam engine had evolved
greatly, ships were still built with masts and sails as a safety precaution.
After all, the machinery could malfunction!
days later, she arrived safely in New York. For the first time in history,
an iron-hulled and propeller-driven ship had crossed the North Atlantic.
The Great Britain was a ship with many ‘firsts’, and this may have
discouraged people at the start. In fact, only 50 passengers had occupied
the cabins on her premiere voyage. Nevertheless, the Great Britain
would soon prove her worth.
|The Great Britain
stranded on the shores of Dundrum Bay.
15th, the Great Britain arrived back in Liverpool following
her first eastbound passage. She had performed rather well, but had rolled
more than anticipated. Brunel started to try and come up with a remedy,
and in 1846 the ship was taken in to be fitted with bilge keels. Furthermore,
her six-bladed propeller was replaced with a four-bladed one, and her masts
were reduced to five. These changes were successful,
and the ship’s rolling was decreased considerably.
Britain continued to be successful, but in 1846 she suffered a major
mishap. On September 22nd, she ran ashore on the rocky coast
of Ireland at Dundrum Bay. The grounding was caused – it is said – by deviations
in the ship’s compass caused by the iron of the hull. Unfortunately, the
accident happened at the top of the spring tides, and it would take almost
a year before there was another tide high enough to float her off.
the winter, the ship remained lying on the shore, battered by the cold
gales. It was during this time that her iron hull showed its superiority
to those made of wood. When the Great Britain was finally refloated
on August 27th 1847, it was discovered that the hull had hardly
been strained at all. The ship would be ready for service again within
a short period of time.
accident had been serious in another respect. Her nearly year-long absence
from the North Atlantic had caused large financial losses for the Great
Western Railway Co. To deal with this situation, the company decided to
sell the ship for £18,000 to Gibbs, Bright & Co. They decided
to have the Great Britain refitted with a new, slightly less powerful
set of engines and a lifting propeller. She was also re-rigged as a four-masted
barque and fitted with two funnels instead of the original one.
Retaining her name, the Great Britain was now intended for the Australian
emigration run, and for this purpose her passengers accommodations were
altered to 50 people in First Class and 680 in Third.
21st 1852, she set out on her first voyage from Liverpool to
Melbourne. The passage was long though, and the Great Britain could
not store the required amount of coal in her bunkers. As a result, she
had to stop for refueling at St. Helena. In spite of this, going to Australia
on the Great Britain offered one of the fastest passages available.
She averaged 120 days on a round-trip voyage.
after her debut on her new run, the Great Britain was taken in for
yet another extensive refit in late 1852. Once again, a mast was removed
and the ship was now fitted with only three masts. In addition, the funnels
were reduced to the original single one. Following this refit, the ship
returned to the Australian run, where she operated with success for the
following three years.
|The hulk of the Great Britain
under tow back to the country of her birth.
the British government requisitioned the Great Britain for military
purposes. Along with a number of paddle steamers from Cunard and P&O,
she was used for troop transports in the Crimean War. As so many times
that would follow in the future, the merchant liners had been brought in
to defend the British Empire. And they greatly contributed to the final
outcome. After two years of government work, the Great Britain was
returned to commercial service in 1857. She had now been transferred to
the Liverpool and Australian Navigation Co.
followed was another 20 years on the Australian run. The Great Britain
did not see much action out of the ordinary, but one voyage was interrupted
to claim the uninhabited island of St. Martin for the Empire. During the
20 years that passed, the liners of the world evolved swiftly and the Great
Britain became more and more outdated with every year. In 1876, she
was laid up after having completed 32 round-trip voyages to Australia.
Awaiting a possible buyer, the ship’s future remained uncertain.
years later, the ship was finally sold in 1882. Bought by Anthony Gibbs,
Sons & Co., her new owners decided to remove the ship’s old engines and completely
refit her as a three-masted windjammer. In stark contrast to her glory
days as a passenger liner, the Great Britain was now employed as
a pure cargo vessel, carrying Welsh coal and wheat to San Francisco around
service would not last very long. In 1886, on only her third voyage, the
ship encountered trouble in a storm off Cape Horn and had to seek refuge
at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. When inspected, it was found that
the ship had suffered considerable damage and her owners found it too expensive
to repair her. Instead, she was sold to the Falklands Trading Company.
|The Great Britain
at her present location in Bristol.
Great Britain now faced her most disgracing time, as she was converted
into a floating coal and wool storage hulk. For the next 51 years she was
used for this purpose, and was finally moved to the nearby Sparrow Cove
on April 12th, 1937. Here she was scuttled and as the years
went by, she slipped further into oblivion.
this was not the end of the Great Britain. Fortunately, there were
still those who appreciated her historic value. A recovery group was formed
in 1968, and on April 12th 1970 – 33 years to the day after
her scuttling in Sparrow Cove – the Great Britain was refloated
by means of a submersible pontoon. Then the 8,000-mile journey back to
Bristol could begin.
later, the Great Britain was towed up the River Avon into Bristol.
Some 100,000 people lined the riverbanks to welcome the old lady home.
Upon the ship’s arrival in her home town, she was put into the very same
dock where she had been built some 130 years ago.
to her original appearance, the Great Britain remains in Bristol
to this day. A great monument of times gone by, the forerunner of all modern
ocean liners remains every inch a stately and elegant lady into the 21st
|The Great Britain - Specifications:
||322 feet (98.4 m)
||50.6 feet (15.5 m)
||3,270 gross tons
||Four cylinder steam engine
turning a single propeller.
||Originally 350 people
all in First Class. Rebuilt with 50 in First and 680 in Third when refitted for
the Australian run in 1850.