1838 - 1856
early 19th century was a time of great technological advances.
The industrial revolution had given the world the steam engine, and Man
had not been late in taking advantage of its strength. Railroads stretched
across the countries, suddenly making long distances quite easy to travel.
the largest British railway companies was the Great Western Railway Co.
In 1837, they decided to extend their rail service to Bristol, and summoned
the company’s board for a meeting. Here one of the directors complained
that a railway between London and Bristol would be too long. The company’s
head engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then replied that he thought it
would be far too short. Instead, he suggested that the company should extend
the line across the North Atlantic to New York by means of a new,
large passenger steamship.
|The Great Western's
maiden departure from Bristol in 1838.
was indeed radical but nevertheless, the board took the subject into consideration.
Following discussions and economic calculations, they approved and gave
Brunel permission to go ahead and build a ship for them.
was constructed in the shipyards of William Patterson, Bristol. As the
very first purpose-built transatlantic steamer, she would be the largest
ship ever so far. Constructed with a wooden hull, the new ship would be
built with paddle wheels as means of propulsion. The propeller’s superiority
had yet to be proven.
19th 1837, the new ship was launched and christened Great
Western amidst great ceremony. When afloat, the ship was towed to London
to have her engines, which had been built by Maudslay, Sons & Field,
installed. Although she was the first ship built specifically for the North
Atlantic run, she already had a rival.
the plans of the Great Western Railway Co. became known, another company
decided to give them a match. Backed by the American businessman Junius Smith,
the British & American Steam Navigation Co. set out on constructing
a transatlantic liner of their own – the Royal Victoria. But, its
construction was plagued by delays and it was soon apparent to her owners
that their ship would not be completed in time.
still wanted to beat their rivals. So, instead of waiting for the Royal
Victoria, they chartered the steamer Sirius to do the job. She
was in fact a 700-ton coastal steamer, ordinarily employed on a service
between London and Cork. Now she would set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
companies finished final preparations, and soon the actual race could begin.
On March 29th 1838, the Sirius left London for New York.
She would make a brief stopover at Queenstown to take on passengers, mail
and as much coal as she could possibly carry. The ship was not built for
ocean service, and would require great amounts of coal to finish the journey
under steam. When the Sirius steamed out of Queenstown on April
4th, every space available below was used to store coal and
she even carried two large heaps of it up on deck. As she reached
open waters, she had a head start of the Great Western, but would
it be enough?
|A painting depicting the Great Western
in rough seas.
Western was at the time still tied up in Bristol, with final preparations
being made for the forthcoming crossing. Four days later, on April 8th
and with only seven passengers on board, she finally slipped her moorings
and started the race to catch up with the Sirius.
the Sirius, the crew was aware that their rival had a far more powerful
engine plant, and in order to reach New York first, they had to keep up
the steam until the very end. In mid-Atlantic, the Sirius encountered
a storm that slowed her down and increased the engine’s consumption of
coal. As a result, she ran out of coal before reaching her destination.
Still eager to win the race though, the crew now scavenged the ship for
auxiliary fuel. Furniture, doors and even the ship’s emergency mast were
used to feed the furnace. With sparks and smoke belching from her single
stack, the Sirius arrived in New York harbour on April 22nd.
The first Atlantic crossing made entirely under steam had been made, and
history with it. But what of the Great Western?
in New York only four hours after the Sirius. The Sirius
had reached New York first, but the Great Western’s crossing time
– 14 days and 12 hours – was four days faster than her rival’s. The race
for the Blue Riband was now underway, and would go on for more than a century.
important of all though, was the fact that the Great Western still
had 200 tons of coal to spare when she reached New York. Brunel had proven
to the world that, with the proper coal storage space, the new, large steamers
could very well be employed on a regular transatlantic service.
of the Great Western did not only allow for more bunker space, but
also more space for the passengers. Capable of carrying 148 people, the
ship offered the finest amenities afloat so far. Her grand saloon was the
most beautiful seen on the high seas, adorned by wall-panel paintings in
the Watteau style. To summon a steward, all a passenger had to do was to
pull a bell-rope. Luxury was indeed working its way onto the ocean liners.
her successful maiden voyage, the Great Western continued her regular
service across the North Atlantic. The next year, she was surpassed as
the largest ship in the world when the British & American Steam Navigation
Co. liner Royal Victoria – by now renamed the British Queen
– was finally finished. Great Western kept the Blue Riband though,
and would not lose it until the arrival of Cunard’s Britannia in
1840. In 1842, the Great Western was transferred to the Liverpool-New
York run. But to secure the success, the company would probably have needed
to build some equal sister ships to the Great Western.
|This beautiful painting shows the Great
Western in all her splendour.
did not happen, as Brunel and the company instead decided to build a new
giant ship – the Great Britain. After having made 64 crossings,
the Great Western was laid up in late 1846. The following year,
she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. She served her new company
during nine, rather uneventful years. In 1855, the Great Western
was requisitioned by the British government for military use. Along with
the Great Britain and a number of Cunard and P&O paddle steamers,
she was used as a troop transport in the Crimean War.
her return to commercial service, her owners no longer had much interest
in her. Instead, the 18-year old ship was sold for scrap in late 1856.
Her last trip was to Vauxhall, London, where she was subsequently cut up.
|The Great Western - Specifications:
||212 feet (64.8 m)
||35.3 feet (10.8)
||1,340 gross tons
||Steam engine turning
two paddle wheels.