The Great Britain. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 1843. Current location: Bristol.

The Great Britain was arguably the most important steam ship ever built. A single-step revolution that once and for all changed ocean-going from a small scale thing of wood and canvas to a large scale one of iron and steam. After Great Britain the world has been quite a different place. So much about her was a first that almost every powered ship to this day is a direct descendant. She was the world's first all-iron, screw-driven ocean going steamer, the first to have what are now commonplace, a balanced rudder, watertight bulkheads and a double bottom. Great Britain was bigger than any previous ship (322 ft, 3270 tons gross). No other ship had so many revolutionary ideas built into her. . . .

When she was floated out on 19 July 1843, Great Britain was a six- master (the masts were named Monday to Saturday by the crew) with a 1000 nominal horse power single expansion engine. In the winter of 1846 she proved the strength of her revolutionary build by surviving a winter ashore at Dundrum Bay in Ireland.

Between 1851 and 1876 she carried more emigrants to Australia (including the first English touring cricket team) than any other single ship. Mostly in those pre-coaling station days she cruised under canvas. On one 71 day passage, only 31 days were spent in steam. As a troopship she took 44,000 men to the Crimea.

In the end her simple machinery was outdated by the new compound engines and she was changed from a steam passenger liner into a three masted sailing cargo ship, her revolutionary iron sides incongruously clad in timber. As such she carried South Wales coal to San Francisco, running home with grain until in 1886 a gale forced her into Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. For fifty years she was coal and wool store there before being beached at Sparrow Cove in 1937.

In 1970, 127 years to the day she was floated out. Great Britain was floated back into the same Bristol dry dock where she was built. New ideas were associated with her even at the end: just getting her back across two oceans on the backs of pontoons needed a lot of original thinking. — Dick Sullivan

Related Web Resources

Related Material outside the Victorian Web

  • S. S. Great Britain (outside the Victorian Web)
  • Bibliography

    Sullivan, Dick. Old Ships, Boats & Maritime Museums. London: Coracle Books, 1978. Pp. 11-12.

    Last modified 11 April 2006

    Links last added 17 June 2021