The history of the SS Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent ship led an exciting life at sea, before becoming one of Bristol’s most-loved attractions 

Before Titanic, there was the SS Great Britain, a ship so vastly ambitious that some called it “the greatest experiment since Creation”. The illustrious engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel had a vision and it was his pioneering ambition that changed the shape of shipping and created a ship that was not only enormous, but also featured the unique combination of having an iron hull and propelled by a steam engine.

Unlike its famously tragic successor, it made it the whole way across the Atlantic and to even further flung destinations besides. The SS Great Britain made history when she became the first iron steamship to cross the Atlantic, making it from Liverpool to New York in 14 days. These days, she sits in dry dock in Bristol, offering visitors a glimpse back into her storied past.
Teething pains
uilt in Bristol, the SS Great Britain didn’t have the paddle wheels that were typical of steamships in those days. Brunel instead chose to replace them with a screw propeller, the first time one had been fitted to an iron ocean-going ship. Many doubted his revolutionary idea and it caused numerous lengthy delays to the ship’s completion but, in the end, Brunel was more than vindicated. 

The ship was launched by Prince Albert in 1843 in Bristol – the Prince having travelled from London on a train that was also designed by Brunel – but she didn’t make her maiden voyage for another two years, five years later than was initially planned. She proved an uncomfortable ride on her first trip to New York, rolling heavily even in calm seas. Extensive modifications were needed and it was another year before she returned to service. 
After two successful round trips to New York, disaster struck. The Great Britain was on her third journey across the Atlantic when her captain made a series of navigational errors that led to the ship running aground off the coast of Ireland. There she remained for a year, until she was rescued and returned to Liverpool. The rescue mission used up the rest of the shipping company’s funds and the ship was sold for £25,000, which was almost £100,000 less than it cost to build her. She made one further trip to America and back before being sold again and having her bow pointed in a very different direction.
Antony Gibbs & Sons bought the Great Britain with the intention of using her to temporarily help out with the demand in emigrants heading to Australia to find their fortunes in the gold mines of Victoria. She made her first voyage to the southern hemisphere in 1852, taking 608 passengers to Australia. She became a regular on the route, only missing out on service to become a troopship during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. She carried the first ever English cricket team to visit Australia in 1862, making the journey in 64 days – which puts a 23-hour flight into stark relief.
An inglorious end
Once her days transporting passengers to America and Australia ended, the Great Britain was used to transport coal. A fire on board en route to Panama in 1886 put an end to her sailing days and she was used as a floating coal bunker until she was scuttled and abandoned in the Falkland Islands. 

But it would be beyond tragic for such a ship to meet such an end. Thankfully, the story has a happy end for the SS Great Britain. In the 1970s, a rescue project was arranged, thanks to several large donations. The great ship was transported back across the Atlantic one last time, and returned to her birthplace in Bristol’s Great Western Dockyard. The return and restoration of the great ship was depicted in the BBC documentary series Chronicle.
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