Shirley's UK Trip 2012 travel blog

The hull of SS Great Britain

Showing the false water-line

SS Great Britain "floating" in the dry-dock

Weather deck of great Britain

Promenade deck

The First Class kitchen

The steerage accomodation

The First Class dining room

SS Great Britain

SS Great Britain


Still very cold today so I was a bit slow this morning but my little apartment is quite cosy.

Today I went to Bristol & spent about 3 hours learning about a most remarkable ship with an even more remarkable history. It’s the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (don’t you love that name), generally considered the greatest of the Victorian engineers.

A few years ago there was a survey to find Britain’s most admired person of all time. Winston Churchill came first & Brunel came second although neither of them are truly British – Churchill’s mother was American & Brunel’s father was French.

The SS Great Britain was built in Bristol & launched in 1843 from the same dry dock where she now rests. The dry dock was actually built for her because when she was launched she was the largest ship ever built. (HMS Warrior which I saw in Portsmouth, the first iron ship built for the Royal Navy was launched in 1860, so this was a long time before that.)

Brunel’s theory was that he could use wrought iron to make a ship much bigger & stronger than a wooden one. An iron ship can have a lighter, thinner but very strong structure so it can go faster & have more room for cargo. Brunel tested these ideas on the Great Britain & she was amazingly successful. When she retired in 1933, she had sailed 1,000,000 miles around the world.

The way she’s displayed is very innovative too. She looks like she’s floating in the dry dock but in fact the water is only a couple of inches deep on a bed of glass so you can walk underneath & go right around her hull.

Although she could also travel under sail, Brunel designed the ship as a paddle steamer, which was really the only known way to power a steam-ship at that time. However, in 1840, a small wooden ship called Archimedes steamed into Bristol harbour using an innovative propeller to drive her through the water. Brunel was so impressed that he persuaded the steamship company to abandon the paddles & they let him redesign his 1,000 horsepower coal-fired steam engine to work with a propeller.

Now to her history. In 1843 she was launched as the world’s first great ocean liner, taking First Class passengers in absolute luxury from Liverpool to New York. She was immediately successful - on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic the Great Britain easily broke the previous speed record.

When she left Liverpool to make her 5th Atlantic crossing in 1846 she was carrying 186 passengers, more than any of her previous crossings. After just a few hours sailing, she inexplicably ran aground off the coast of Northern Ireland. The Captain blamed inaccurate charts but who knows, maybe he was showing off! Luckily, no one was hurt & the passengers were all carried safely to shore.

However, the ship lay stranded for the next 11 months battered by heavy winter seas. A wooden ship would have broken apart but her strong iron hull remained intact. Against strong opposition, Brunel succeeded in refloating her in August 1847.

Then, in 1852 the Great Britain was purchased & modified for carrying emigrants to Australia. Her original engine was replaced by a more efficient one, a second funnel was added & the rudder & propeller were also replaced although, to save money, she relied more on sail power than steam which was only used as a back-up. An extra upper deck was built so she could carry up to 700 passengers.

The SS Great Britain made 32 trips to Australia between 1852 & 1875 & she became the most famous ship on the run. I looked on my family tree & can’t find any ancestors who came out on her but I’ve often noticed the name when searching passenger lists. I was most intrigued to read that the first England cricket team to tour Australia sailed on her in 1861. Of course, this is the team which was transported around Victoria by Cobb & Co.

Then, in 1882 she was considered too old for the emigration run so she was converted into a sailing ship. Her engine & funnels were removed so she had more room for cargo & she was fitted with 3 masts. She could carry up to 2,640 tons of coal or wheat & with a good wind she could travel as fast as many clipper ships.

After a fire on board in 1886 she was found on arrival at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond repair. She was sold and used, afloat, as a storage hulk for coal until 1937, when she was towed to Sparrow Cove 3.5 miles from Port Stanley, scuttled and abandoned.

In December 1914, during the 1st World War, in her role as coal bunker, she served to refuel the South Atlantic fleet that defeated Admiral von Spee’s fleet, in the battle of the Falkland Islands.

In December 1939, during the 2nd World War, some of her iron was scavenged to repair HMS Exeter one of the Royal Navy ships that fought the Graf Spee and was badly damaged during the Battle of the River Plate.

Many naval historians recognized the importance of the Great Britain and attempts were made to salvage her but it wasn’t until 1970 that an expert salvage team managed to refloat her. She was floated onto a submersible pontoon then towed across the Atlantic to Avonmouth, near Bristol, on a voyage that took 2 months.

The ship was then taken off the pontoon, in preparation for her re-entry into Bristol, now truly afloat. On Saturday 5 July 1970, amidst considerable media interest, the ship was towed up the River Avon to Bristol. Perhaps the most memorable moment for the crowds that lined the final few miles was her passage under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, another Brunel design. She then waited a further two weeks in the Cumberland Basin for a high enough tide to get her back through the locks to Bristol's Floating Harbour, back to her birthplace, the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard in which she had been built.

A truly remarkable story, isn’t it?

She’s been beautifully restored & I felt it was a great honour to be able to wander about her armed with an excellent audio guide.

After all that, I bought a sausage roll for lunch then headed to the Bristol Records Office which is just down the road. I spent the rest of the afternoon researching the ancestors at Aust. I found some interesting records but nothing very exciting.

Peak hour traffic in Bristol isn’t fun but I managed to find my way to the M4 & it was a reasonable trip home although I didn’t get back here until after 6:00pm. I’ve had dinner & it’s almost 9:30pm so I’ll post this on the diary, then it’s time for bed.



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