FreightWaves Classics: SS Great Britain was launched 179 years ago

FreightWaves Classics profiles the historic SS Great Britain.

The restored SS Great Britain. (Photo: eventfull.com)

On a rainy summer morning in 1843 excited crowds flowed into the city of Bristol, which is located in southwestern England. They sought to witness the “floating out” of a revolutionary new ship – the SS Great Britain. It was July 19, 1843, exactly four years to the day since the ship’s construction began. 

The ship

The SS Great Britain was the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship. Most large ships of the era were fitted with more conventional paddle wheels. 

Designed by the renowned civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship was constructed specifically for the Great Western Steamship Company’s service between Bristol and New York. Brunel originally conceived the ship to be a traditional paddle steamer, but he altered the ship’s design in order to use the new technology of screw propulsion. 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 
(Photo: historic-uk.com)
Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
(Photo: historic-uk.com)

The ship’s engines were also converted during construction to generate 1,000 horsepower, in order to power a massive 16-foot iron propeller. When the ship was launched it was the largest ship in the world, at almost 330 feet long – almost 100 feet longer than the second-longest ship at that time. The SS Great Britain weighed 1,930 tons – much heavier than any ships on the world’s oceans at that time. The ship was initially designed for the Great Western Steamship Company’s trans-Atlantic luxury passenger trade. It could carry 252 first- and second-class passengers and a crew of 130. It was the world’s longest passenger ship between 1845 and 1854.

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By combining key innovations, Brunel created a ship that changed history. It is not an overstatement that the SS Great Britain set the standard for modern ship design. It also demonstrated the capabilities and inventiveness of the Victorian era. Almost by himself  “Brunel shaped the future of mass passenger travel and international communications.”

Launching the ship

Prior to the launch of the SS Great Britain, the preceding years had been difficult in Bristol. A “busy trading port since ancient times, the city was in serious commercial decline by 1843.” Many residents hoped that the ship’s construction would help reverse the city’s fortunes. 

The Bristol Mirror published a special supplement to commemorate the launch. The newspaper described how the visit of Prince Albert should be regarded as much a celebration of Bristol as a celebration for the ship. The newspaper described the pride of the city’s residents that Prince Albert would take part in the festivities. It also outlined the efforts they went to in the days ahead of his arrival to spruce up the city. According to the reports, the city streets were decked with flags, banners, ribbons and flowers. On July 19, “when the royal cortege passed through the city, all of its shops were shut and business was entirely suspended. Crowds lined the streets, church bells rang, ships were dressed out in a variety of colors and a cannon was fired.” 

Prince Albert. (Image: royal.uk)
Prince Albert. (Image: royal.uk)

The Royal Train was a special Great Western Railway train driven by Brunel on the newly completed railroad. It arrived at the packed rail station and was greeted by thunderous applause.

Prince Albert was the Prince Consort of the United Kingdom and the husband of Queen Victoria. The prince was accompanied by the Marquis of Exeter; Lord Wharncliffe, President of the Council; Lords Liverpool, Lincoln and others in his retinue. In addition, Charles Russell, Chairman of the Railway Company and C. A. Saunders, the railroad’s secretary, were present. 

The Mayor of Bristol and the Town Clerk addressed the Prince, and then the dignitaries had a private breakfast. Prince Albert then took his seat in one of the royal carriages and began his procession through Bristol. The route was lined with thousands of cheering spectators.

Prince Albert boarded the SS Great Britain and inspected the ship during a tour. The ship was described by contemporaries as ‘revolutionary’ in its design. At about 3:30 p.m., as cannon thundered in all directions, a band struck up ‘Rule Britannia.’ 

Prince Albert hurled a bottle of wine at the vessel and scored a decisive hit. At that point the ship was named to rapturous applause. The Illustrated London News reported, “Amid the shouts of thousands… the Prince broke against the bows a bottle of wine and pronounced as the name by which the ship is after to be known, the words ‘Great Britain.’” 

The ship was slowly towed out of her dock, and with the proceedings over, the Prince returned to the Royal Carriages and was driven to the railway terminal for his return to London.

S.S. Great Britain leaving Bristol, circa 1950. (Painting by Harold Vivien Ing/dominicwinter.co.uk)
S.S. Great Britain leaving Bristol, painted circa 1950. (Painting by Harold Vivien Ing/dominicwinter.co.uk)

The ship’s voyages

In 1845 the SS Great Britain became the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The voyage took just 14 days. 

While her first few voyages demonstrated her technological abilities, they were not a major financial success, because the ship attracted far fewer passengers than its owners had anticipated. The SS Great Britain’s career in the trans-Atlantic market therefore was short-lived. Following a navigational error, the ship was run aground in Dundrum Bay in Northern Ireland in 1846. 

The ship’s owners were forced out of business after they spent all their funds re-floating the ship. Moreover, her engines were badly damaged when the ship ran aground. This led the ship to be sold for salvage in 1850. Gibbs, Bright & Co. purchased the SS Great Britain to carry emigrants to Australia. The new owners replaced the ship’s original engine with a more efficient one, added a second funnel, replaced the ship’s rudder and propeller, and added an extra upper deck so that the ship could carry up to 750 passengers. 

A painting of the SS Great Britain at sea. (Image: history-for-kids.com
A painting of the SS Great Britain at sea. (Image: history-for-kids.com)

Under Gibbs Bright and Co, the ship prospered. The company took advantage of the increase in emigration caused by the Australian gold rush, and used the ship to transport those seeking a new life in Australia. To save money on the run to Australia, the ship relied more on sail power than her steam engine. 

From 1852 to 1881, the SS Great Britain carried over 16,000 emigrants to Australia on 32 voyages. During that period the ship was known as one of the fastest, most elegant and luxurious emigrant clipper ships – the “Greyhound of the Seas.”

Between 1854 and 1855 the ship was chartered by the British government to carry troops to and from the Crimean War. During the course of the conflict it transported over 44,000 troops.

It then returned to carrying passengers to Australia. It took about 120 days to journey to Australia, which was very competitive for the mid-19th century. Passage on the SS Great Britain virtually guaranteed that a passenger would arrive on time, well ahead of any sail-powered rivals.

The stern of the SS Great Britain. (Photo: bbc.com)
The stern of the SS Great Britain. (Photo: bbc.com)

Conversion to a sailing ship

The SS Great Britain was showing her age in the late 1870s. By 1876 shipbuilding standards had changed; the vessel was no longer insurable for passenger use. Gibbs, Bright & Co. sold the ship; its new owners adapted her after 30 years as a passenger ship into a bulk cargo carrier. They removed the ship’s engines and rigged her as a huge, three-masted windjammer. 

In 1882 she set sail from Penarth, Wales full of coal and bound for San Francisco. Until 1886 she carried different exports (such as coal and wheat) between England and the U.S. West Coast. 

Following storms off Cape Horn (the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile) in 1886 the SS Great Britain was badly damaged. Her captain was forced to seek shelter in the Falkland Islands. Her owners determined that the ship was too damaged to maintain the ability to sail; and repairs would have cost more than the ship was then worth. 

So the SS Great Britain was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a floating storage hulk. The ship served as a warehouse, quarantine ship, and coal storage vessel.

During the First World War, coal from her hold was used to replenish the British battle cruisers Inflexible and Invincible before the decisive battle of the Falkland Islands on December 7, 1914. In that battle, the British fleet sunk Germany’s armored cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and light cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig.

By 1933 the ship’s hull was no longer watertight. In 1937, after being towed to Sparrow Cove, a short distance from Port Stanley, she was beached, abandoned and left to rust away. 

The abandoned SS Great Britain. (Image: history-for-kids.com)
The abandoned SS Great Britain. (Image: history-for-kids.com)

Rescuing the SS Great Britain

There were attempts to rescue the ship in the late 1930s and again in the 1960s. These attempts failed, but in 1970 a major salvage effort refloated the ship, and she was towed across the Atlantic to Bristol – a distance of 8,000 miles.

Naval architect Ewan Corlett understood the importance of the SS Great Britain. After months of research and planning he mounted a rescue operation to bring the ship back to the United Kingdom. The salvage operation was made possible by several large donations, and those working on it managed to refloat the SS Great Britain on April 13, 1970, despite ferocious gales that lashed the area. The ship crossed the Atlantic sitting on a huge floating pontoon pulled by tugboats.

Despite spending nearly 100 years in the harsh weather of the South Atlantic region, the SS Great Britain was able to float up the River Avon under her own power. After sailing over one million miles, Brunel’s 155-year-old iron hull had stood the test of time superbly.

Exactly 127 years after she was christened – on July 19, 1970 – the SS Great Britain returned to Bristol’s Great Western Dockyard. 

The SS Great Britain sailing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge on her way "home." (Photo: history-for-kids.com)
The SS Great Britain sailing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge on her way “home.” (Photo: history-for-kids.com)

Corrosion was the biggest threat facing the iron ship, so conservators spent three years cleaning, repairing and restoring the ship’s hull, ensuring its preservation and preventing further corrosion or deterioration. 

Following this refitting, Brunel’s SS Great Britain was relaunched in 2005 as one of the world’s most important maritime museums. This very special ship is now part of the National Historic Fleet and also serves as a museum ship in Bristol Harbor.

The ship today in Bristol Harbor. (Photo: ssgreatbritain.org)
The ship today in Bristol Harbor. (Photo: ssgreatbritain.org)

SS Great Britain today

Dominating the historic waterfront of Bristol, the ship has been painstakingly restored to recreate life on the world’s first great luxury liner and to celebrate’s Bristol’s history as one of the most important ports in the world. 

Now, the SS Great Britain is one of Bristol’s most popular attractions. The complex where she resides includes the Dockyard Museum (which charts the ship’s history from her conception to the modern day, featuring some helpful historical context to steamships and personal effects from those associated with the ship), the ‘Being Brunel’ exhibition (which explores Bristol’s most famous resident in greater depth), and the ship itself, which has been lovingly restored since returning to Bristol in 1970.