Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,186 pages of information and 245,641 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

SS Great Britain

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Mizzen Mast. Photographed in Falkland Islands.
The ship in the (very) dry dock in which she was built
Ships Bell.
Replica of Brunels screw propeller and rudder.
Original Rudder minus iron plating.
Iron plate detail of hull.
Replica working engine.
Replica working engine.
Replica working engine.
Replica working engine.
1st class deck.
1852 1st May. After a refit, leaving Liverpool on her way to Australia.


The SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to have an iron hull and a screw propeller and, when launched in 1843, was the largest vessel afloat. She originally carried 120 first-class passengers (26 of whom were in single cabins), 132 second-class passengers and 130 officers and crew but, when an extra deck was added, it increased the number of passengers to 730.

Concept and Design

The SS Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson for the Great Western Steamship Co and built in a specially adapted dry dock at Bristol.

1839 In response to a request for tenders to supply engines for the ship, only Maudslay, Sons and Field and Francis Humphrys with John Hall and Sons of Dartford responded. Humphrys's tender was much cheaper than Maudslay's although Brunel suspected that his costings were wrong (Humphrys had not consulted Hall's before submitting his tender) and his health was suspect; the novelty of the trunk engine design added to Brunel's disquiet. Nevertheless the Company accepted his tender. Hall's declined to tool-up for a one-off engine so the Great Western SS Co set up its own engine works. Humphrys encountered problems in making the paddle shaft from wrought iron and instead sought advice from James Nasmyth, of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co, who devised a steam hammer in order to make the shaft from cast iron[1]

1840 Work was suspended for 3 months for trial of the new screw propellor in SS Archimedes, which led to Brunel taking up the propellor in place of the paddle-wheel.

'In her it was incontestably proved that a three or four-bladed screw was a decided improvement on one of six blades, and that without any propeller at all the Great Britain was a triumph of naval architecture as a sailing ship, which of course cannot be said of a modern Atlantic, or, in fact, any ocean passenger screw steamship.'[2]

The engines were based on an earlier design of his father, Marc Brunel but the crankshaft, driven by two double-acting twin cylinders beneath the shaft, was intended to power higher-mounted paddle wheels rather than a low positioned propeller shaft. Brunel solved this problem by installing a massive chain drive. Four chains transferred the drive to a small sprocket on the propeller shaft which was positioned between the cylinders. The propeller shaft was constructed of forged steel plates with an internal diameter of around 30inches.[3]

Read about her technical specifications in The Engineer 1893/10/13 and The Engineer 1897/11/26.


The launching, or more accurately the 'floating out', took place on 19th July 1843

The size of the new lock at the Floating Harbour caused problems when she was launched. She was being towed away from her builders to have her engines and interior fitted out on the River Thames but unfortunately was fractionally too big to go through. The ship was moored in the Floating Harbour for a year or more before proceeding into Cumberland Basin in December 1844.

After proceeding successfully through the first set of lock gates, she jammed on her passage through the second set which led to the River Avon. It was only the remarkable seamanship of Captain Claxton that enabled her to be pulled back and severe structural damage avoided. The following night, an army of workmen, under the supervision of Brunel, took advantage of the slightly higher tide, removed coping stones and lock gate platforms from the Junction Lock and allowed the tug 'Sampson' to tow her safely into the River Avon.

At the time of her launch in 1843 she was by far the largest ship in the world, over 100 feet longer than her rivals, and the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship.

Maiden Voyage and After

On 26 July 1845, the ship undertook her maiden voyage to New York, a journey completed in 14 days.

In November 1846, within a few short years of being launched, the ship went aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay, Ireland and there was serious doubt as to whether she could be re-floated. Brunel himself advised that if anyone could rescue the ship then the man to do it was the naval engineer Andrew Swan of Brisbane.

James Bremner was in charge of taking the Great Britain off the strand at Dundrum Bay in August, 1847, assisted by his eldest son, Alexander Bremner[4]. However, the cost of the salvage bankrupted the Great Western Steamship Company.

She spent 3 years in dock at Birkenhead before being purchased by Gibbs, Bright and Co who refurbished her. John Penn and Sons installed geared-oscillating engines capable of up to 800 h.p. which gave the vessel substantial capacity for speed.

1852 First voyage after refurbishment was from Liverpool to New York and then she was turned into an emigration ship. She made most of her working voyages from the United Kingdom to Australia. In 1852, she made her first voyage to Melbourne, Australia, carrying 630 emigrants. She excited great interest in Melbourne, with 4,000 people paying a shilling each to see over her. During her time, she was considered the most reliable of the emigrant ships between Britain and Australia.

Between 1854 and 1856, she was also used as a troop ship, during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.

1856 A meeting was held in Liverpool to discuss refitting the ship for the Australia trade - this involved Mr. Bright, Sen., one of the principal owners, Mr. Paterson, the builder of the ship, Captain Gray, her commander, Captain Martin the chief engineer of the vessel, Mr John Vernon, civil engineer and iron shipbuilder[5]

In 1882, she was turned into a sailing ship, to transport bulk coal but, after a fire on board, in 1886, she was found on arrival at the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond repair. She was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used there as a storage hulk (coal bunker).

In her role as coal bunker, she served to refuel the South Atlantic fleet that defeated Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee's fleet, in the First World War Battle of the Falkland Islands.

In 1933, after a failed rescue, she was scuttled and abandoned

WWII some of her steel was scavenged to repair HMS Exeter, one of the Royal Navy ships that fought the Graf Von Spee and was badly damaged, in the Battle of the River Plate.

Retrieved from the Falklands

1970 A second rescue was attempted and was successful; despite ferocious gales, the salvage team managed to refloat the SS Great Britain on 13th April 1970. She crossed the Atlantic sitting on a huge floating pontoon pulled by tugs and returned to her birth place in Bristol.

Visit the Ship

At Great Western Dockyard, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol. Museum website.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Brunel's Three Ships by Dumpleton, Muriel Miller [1]
  2. The Engineer 1897/11/26
  3. SS Great Britain [2]
  4. History of Caithness [3]
  5. The Engineer 1857/02/06