SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is a British ocean liner that was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched on July 19, 1843. Very advanced for her time, she was the first ocean liner with a hull made of iron and was the first passenger ship to be propelled by a propeller. At the time of her completion, the Great Britain was, with her 98 meters in length, the largest ship in the world, and remained so until 1854, when she was surpassed by the HMS Himalaya.

She was powered by two inclined twin-cylinder engines of the direct-acting type, with twin cylinders 220 cm in diameter and 180 cm stroke. It was also fitted with sails as a secondary mode of propulsion.

She was originally designed with four decks, allowing for 360 passengers and 130 crew, but when an extra deck was built, her capacity increased to a total of 730 passengers. On July 26, 1845, she made her maiden voyage to New York, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 14 days.

After running aground in Dundrum Bay (Ireland) in 1846, she was grounded in 1847 and sold in 1850, being repaired and modified. The Great Britain transported thousands of immigrants to Australia from 1852 until she was converted into a coal-carrying sailing ship in 1882. Four years later, she was withdrawn to the Falkland Islands, where she served as a coal storehouse until she was scrapped and abandoned in 1937.
Thanks to several donations of money, the ship was salvaged in 1970 and brought back to the United Kingdom, returning to the dry dock in Bristol (England) where it had been built for restoration. Today, the Great Britain is used as a museum ship in the port of Bristol and receives between 150,000 and 175,000 visitors each year.
The ship was in 1988, temporarily, one of the former United Kingdom’s Tentative List assets.


The Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson for the Great Western Steamship Company. Originally, the ship had been designed with side-bladed wheels, but Brunel realized the advantages offered by the propeller and decided to modify the design. She was built at Bristol, in a specially adapted dry dock.

The launching took place on July 19, 1843, in the presence of Prince Albert. Weather conditions were generally favorable, but the newspapers recorded that, after a poor start, the weather improved with only intermittent showers. The mood of that day can best be defined by a report published the following day in The Bristol Mirror:
On July 26, 1845, the ship made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York, a voyage she completed in 14 days. Due to a navigational error, in November 1846 (only a year after making her maiden voyage), the ship ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, in County Down (Ireland) and there were serious doubts as to whether it would be possible to unship her. Brunel himself advised that if there was a naval engineer who could do it, it would be James Bremner of Scotland. Bremner was hired and the Great Britain was unshipped in August 1847. Meanwhile, the cost of saving the Great Britain bankrupted the Great Western Steamship Company, and she was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co. in 1850 and converted into an emigration ship. A new deck was built, the internal cabin structure was modified (allowing up to 730 passengers to be carried), the machinery was changed (as the original was rendered totally unusable), a second smokestack was added and the number of masts was reduced from six to four. The Great Britain then went on to make most of her voyages between the United Kingdom and Australia. In 1852, she made her maiden voyage to Melbourne, Australia, carrying 630 emigrants. Interest in the ship was so great in the city that approximately 4,000 people paid a shilling to see it.

Between 1855 and 1858 she was also used for troop transport during the Crimean War and the rebellion of the Cyprians, and in 1882 she was transformed into a sailing ship for the transport of coal, her engines being removed.
In 1886, a fire on board seriously damaged the ship, and it was then sold to the Falkland Islands Company, remaining in the Falkland Islands as a coal storage ship until 1937, when it was scrapped and abandoned. In its role as a coal carrier, it was used to resupply the South Atlantic Navy, which defeated the fleet of German Admiral Maximilian von Spee in the battle of the Falkland Islands during World War I. In World War II, when it had already been abandoned, part of its steel was used to repair the HMS Exeter, one of the British Royal Navy’s ships that was seriously damaged in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. In the Second World War, when it had already been abandoned, part of its steel was used to repair the HMS Exeter, one of the ships of the British Royal Navy that was seriously damaged in the battle of the Río de la Plata in December 1939.

In the 1930s and 1960s attempts were made to salvage the ship, but the attempts were unsuccessful. She remained in the Falklands until 1970, when she finally returned to England to be restored. Before she left the islands, a mast was left in Stanley, as a reminder of her time in the Falklands. This mast, with a diameter of 1.06 meters, is mounted on Victory Green, in front of the Upland Goose Hotel.

Recovery and restoration

In April 1970, the ship was refloated on the submersible pontoon Mulus III, and was taken back to Bristol by the German tug Varius II, to be preserved as a museum ship. The SS Great Britain then returned to her birthplace, the dry dock of the Great Western dockyard, which had been abandoned during World War II due to bomb damage. To this day, this dock is a UK Grade II listed Scheduled Monument.

The salvage operation was only possible thanks to several donations, including one from Jack Hayward and another from John Paul Getty, which had been organized by the SS Great Britain Project (a group chaired by Richard Goold-Adams). Originally, the intention was to restore the ship to her original 1843 condition. However, the philosophy of the project was altered, and the goal was set to preserve all pre-1970 material.

In 1984 the SS Great Britain was designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the fourth such designation outside the United States.
In 1998, after an extensive survey, it was discovered that the hull was still corroding due to the damp harbor environment, and estimates gave the ship 25 years before it would corrode completely. To prevent further corrosion and preserve the original hull material, extensive conservation work was initiated, culminating in the installation of a glass plate around the waterline (which is covered with water and simulates the ship floating), with two dehumidifiers to remove moisture.

Engineers Fenton Holloway won the 2006 IStructE Historic Buildings Award for the restoration of the SS Great Britain. In May of that year the ship also won the prestigious Gulbenkian Award for Museums and Galleries. The head of the jury, Professor Robert Winston, commented:

‘The project won The Crown Estate Conservation Award in 2007, and the Micheletti European Museum of the Year Award in the category of Best Industrial or Technological Museum. In 2008, the educational value of the project was awarded the Sandford Award in History Education. Despite the awards received by the Great Britain, the way in which the exhibition is presented has been criticized for presenting a particular view of cultural history in general and the British Empire in particular.

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