The Bow of the SS Great Britain











SS Great Britain

Launched 19 July 1843


SS Great Britain

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Dimensions and Statistics (at launch)

Length (excluding bowsprit):   322 feet
Breadth overall:   51 feet
Tonnage:   3443 burthen, 1010 net registered
Accommodation:  After saloon 110’ long; forward saloon 61’ long; after dining saloon 98’6” long; forward dining saloon 61’ long.
Capacity:   252 passengers with berths (360 could be carried if necessary, but not all with berths); 26 single cabins. 130 Crew.
Cargo: 1200 tons. Coal bunkers fore and aft and alongside the engines – 1,000-1,200 tons.

Cost (1843):   Construction £117,295 6s. 7d.
Building facilities at her dock: £53,081 12s. 9d.
Widening the Bristol locks:  £1,330 4s. 9d.


The Design of the SS Great Britain was advanced for its time. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had already built the SS Great Western in 1838. The Great Western Steamship Company wanted to build another ship based on the success of the Great Western. No firm would tender for the building of such an unusual and large vessel so the Great Western Steamship Company itself took the job. A new dry dock was built in Bristol and special construction machinery installed on the quayside.

Brunel teamed up again with Thomas Gruppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson although he took the reins and headed the team. Brunel had ambitious plans for the second ship.

Brunel learned from advances in technology and wanted to incorporate them into his designs. His first incorporation was to give the ship an iron hull rather than a traditional wooden hull. He sent his team to Antwerp on the largest iron-hulled ship "Rainbow" (1838 designed by John Laird) to assess the suitability of the material used. His colleagues returned convinced that an iron hull was the future. There were several advantages why iron was preferred over wood. Wood was becoming more expensive and iron was getting cheaper. Iron hulls were not subject to dry rot or woodworm. They did not weigh as much as wood and less bulky.

The Iron Hull

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The main advantage of the iron hull was its much greater structural strength. Wooden-hulled ships tended to be only about 300 feet because the flexing of the hull as waves pass beneath it (hogging) becomes too great. Iron hulls are far less subject to hogging and could be built bigger. Brunel kept this in mind and every draft the ship grew and by the fifth draft it had grown to 3,400 tons, over 1,000 tons larger than any ship then in existence.

In early 1840, the revolutionary SS Archimedes sailed to Bristol. It was the first screw-propelled steamship, designed and completed only a few months before arriving at Bristol by F. P. Smith. Brunel took an immediate interest in the new technology and wanted to improve efficiency with the paddlewheel. Smith agreed to loan the SS Archimedes to Brunel so that together extended trials and tests could be made. Smith suggested a four-bladed propeller to maximise efficiency but Brunel fitted a six-bladed propeller to SS Great Britain. To implement the new technology was expensive which put back the launch of the ship nine months.

SS Great Western Replica 6 Bladed propeller

SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going screw-propelled ship, and first iron ship to cross any ocean. She was also the first ship fitted with: a six-bladed propeller, a semi-balanced rudder, wire rigging, an electric log, a double bottom, transverse water-tight bulkheads, golding masts and a hollow wrought-iron propeller shaft.

The ship was designed to be a steamer with auxiliary sail. Sail would only be used to save coal when the wind was strong enough. This made her unique.


The Engines


The SS Great Britain was launched on the 19th July 1843 in the presence of Prince Albert. The date is auspicious as it is exactly the same date that she was returned to Bristol on a floating pontoon in 1970, this time in the presence of Prince Philip.

Photograph taken by William Talbot at the launch

A selection of local dignitaries and their ladies including the Marques of Exeter and Lords Wharncliffe, Liverpool, Lincoln and Wellesbey gathered on board in the banqueting room. They had a banquet and after toasts were made they all gathered for the naming ceremony. A first attempt to christen the ship failed because the stem packet "Avon" had started to pull the ship and the bottle of champagne missed the bow by some 10 feet and fell to the ground unsmashed. Prince Albert grabbed another bottle and threw it at the hull. He missed the conclusion of the ceremony because there was another delay when the tow rope snapped.

Tensions grew once more when there was another unexpected delay. It had been hoped to tow the ship to the Thames to complete its fitting out. However, the harbour authorities had not carried out the modifications needed in order to accommodate the ship. SS Great Britain propellers were too large to fit. The ship would remain in the harbour for another year until modifications had been made. The delay was costly for the Company.


There were three decks - the upper two for passengers and the lower for cargo. The two passenger decks were divided into forward and aft compartments, separated by the engines and boiler amidships.

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, a total of 44 berths for the saloon as a whole.

The forward part of the saloon, nearest the engine room, contained two 17-by-14-foot (5.2 m × 4.3 m) ladies' boudoirs or private sitting rooms, which could be accessed without entering the saloon from the 12 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 12 decorated pillars.

Dining Saloon

Beneath the after saloon was dining saloon, 98 ft 6 in (30.02 m) long by 30 ft (9.1 m) wide, 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, 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 of all the passenger spaces.

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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.

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, totalling 132. Further forward, separate from the passenger saloons, were the crew quarters. The overall finish of the passenger quarters was unusually restrained for its time, a probable reflection of the proprietors' diminishing capital reserves.

The total cost of construction of the ship, not including £53,000 for plant and equipment to build her, was £117,000 This was £47,000 more than her original projected price tag of £70,000.

Service History

Maiden Voyage

On 26 July 1845 the SS Great Britain sailed from Liverpool to New York on her maiden voyage. It was five years later than planned. The 3,300 miles were covered in 14 days and 21 hours, at an average speed of 9.4 knots – easily breaking the previous speed record for this journey. Fares for a stateroom ranged from 20 to 35 guineas but she carried only 50 passengers on this trip – many people were still a little afraid of her.

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 for Liverpool with only 28 passengers, and 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 passengers.

Further funding was given by the shareholders of the company to rectify the apparent issues. The six-bladed propeller was replaced with the original four-bladed one of cast iron design. The third mast was also removed. Complicated rigging was replaced and two 110-foot-long bilge keels were added. The ship was out of service for the rest of the year.

Her second year of service saw several completed trips to New York at good speeds but she was laid up for repairs to her chain drums which had shown sign of wear.

Disaster at Dundrum Bay

On her fifth voyage to New York with 180 passengers and a substantial cargo, disaster struck and she ran aground in Dundrum Bay, County Down, Ireland. It was due to “the most egregious blundering” of her captain. The ship was aground for almost a year. Brunel went to inspect the ship and was satisfied that the ship was “almost as sound as the day she was launched, and ten times stronger in character”. He also remarked “…the finest ship in the world… has been left and is lying like a useless saucepan kicking about on the most exposed shore that you can imagine…”

Beached at Dundrum Bay

In August 1847, she was floated free at a cost of £34,000 and taken back to Liverpool, but this expense exhausted the company's remaining reservesAfter languishing at the North Dock for some time, she was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co. former agents of the Great Western Steamship Company, for a mere £25,000.

Under new ownership, the ship under went several alterations and a refit. The keel had been badly damaged by the impact and needed strengthening. The engines were replaced with a pair of modern and smaller oscillating engines built by John Penn & Sons of Greenwich. They were also given more support at the base which added benefit of reducing engine vibration.

The chain-drive gearing was 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 replaced with six smaller ones with twice the pressure of the old ones. A new 300-foot (91 m) cabin on the main deck was made and the cargo capacity was almost doubled, from 1,200 to 2,200 tons.

The four-bladed propeller was replaced by a smaller three-bladed model. The bilge keels were replaced by a heavy external oak keel for the same purpose. The five-masted schooner sail-plan was replaced by four masts, two of which were square-rigged.

With the refit complete, SS Great Britain went back into service on the New York run.

After only one more round trip she was sold to Antony Gibbs & Sons. They planned to place her into England-Australia service.

Australian Service

The SS Great Britain’s first sail to Melbourne began in August 1852 and despite some coaling trouble the voyage was completed in 83 days. She carried 630 emigrants.

Upon return to Liverpool more modifications were carried out - the two funnels were replaced with a single small one, and the ship was fitted with three square-rigged masts and a large bowsprit. These masts were all replaced in a refit in 1857 and a new stern frame was installed. The SS Great Britain settled down to nearly 20 years of steady passages between Liverpool and Melbourne in a career that made her the most celebrated ship on the Australia run.

The SS Great Britain carried the first England cricket team to contest the Ashes. During some light-hearted practice in the saloon, the log records that the bat slipped from the hands of the batsman and flew across the deck to strike another passenger in the face creating the need for attention from the ship's doctor.

Mail and Bullion Carrier

The SS Great Britain's was a mail ship and a carrier of bullion. This meant that she had to be fast and secure. She needed to be repainted with false gun ports to deter anyone of ill-intent from attempting to raid her.

Painted gun ports for security

The need to adhere to tight commercial deadlines meant that the outbreak of an epidemic amongst the passengers could be a commercial catastrophe. It appears that the Great Britain was not exempt from episodes of Smallpox which if declared on arrival at port, would result in the whole ship being quarantined for a period of forty days, thus threatening this commercial viability.

A Cargo Ship

In 1876 the SS Great Britain was laid up and offered for sale. Her usefulness as a passenger ship had come to an end.

In 1882 she was purchased by Antony Gibbs, Sons & Co. of Liverpool for use as a cargo ship carrying Welsh coal to San Francisco returning with wheat. These voyages around Cape Horn were long and slow, taking over a year to complete.

The Final Voyage

On 6th February 1886, the Great Britain sailed from Cardiff for Panama on Voyage No. 47. She left Penarth Dock on 8th February 1886.

On 18th April, as she neared Cape Horn, the ship began to get into serious difficulties in high winds and massive seas. She was taking on serious amounts of water and the hull was under tremendous strain. The crew asked Captain Stap to return to the Falklands but he refused. The cargo had shifted and the ship was listing to port (which had to be corrected by shovelling the coal back). On 10th May the fore and main topgallant masts were both lost overboard. Three days later the crew again asked the captain to turn back and this time he agreed. Having battled for three weeks without making any progress, the SS Great Britain finally turned and ran before the gale, reaching shelter in Port Stanley on 26th May 1886.

It was decided that repairs would be too costly and the ship was sold to the Falkland Islands Company for use as a storage hulk. The ship floated in Stanley harbour for some 50 years, holding coal and wool for the FIC. By 1937 it was no longer economical to use the ship as a hulk and she was replaced with another condemned sailing ship, the "Fennia".

On 12th April the hulk was towed to Sparrow Cove. Holes were drilled in her sides to ensure that she would never float again.

Salvage and Restoration

In the 1950s, the Director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, Karl Kortum and a renowned naval architect, Ewan Corlett, became interested in the ship and began researching her history. They were working independently of each other. In 1968 meetings were held in the UK to decide if a British salvage attempt was practicable.

"The SS Great Britain Project” was formed and Corlett visited the Falklands to survey the hulk with help from the crew of the British Ice Patrol ship, HMS Endurance. He came to the conclusion that she could be refloated. Fund raising began following encouragement from Prince Philip. Jack Hayward, a British philanthropist, pledged £150,000.

A submersible pontoon Mulus III was chartered in February 1970 and a German tug was chartered reaching Port Stanley on 25 March 1970.

Mulus III was lashed end on to the port side of the Great Britain and sheerlegs were erected on the pontoon deck. Work began on the removal of the masts and the patching of holes below the waterline. A large crack had opened up below the forward entry hatch on the starboard side and this was dealt with by bolting steel strip plates across it and stuffing the crack with old mattresses gathered from Stanley.

The hulk was pumped out and once afloat was towed and pushed onto the submerged pontoon where it was secured to steel dolphins. The following day the hulk was towed on her pontoon into Stanley harbour.

It took 10 days to position the ship onto the pontoon alongside the jetty. On Friday, 24th April, at 9.15am Brunel’s great ship left Stanley on her final voyage home to Bristol. 47 days later the Varius II handed over to Bristol tugs and the following day, on 23rd June, Brunel’s ship was towed into Avonmouth Docks.

On 5th July before an estimated crowd of 100,000, the SS Great Britain was towed up the River Avon to Bristol. There was a slight wait for a high enough tide to enable her to get through the shallow but on 19th July she returned to the Great Western drydock exactly 131 years to the day her first plates were laid and 127 years since her launch.

SS Great Britain being towed down the River Avon

SS Great Britain Today

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