After the initial success of its first liner, SS Great Western of 1838, the Great Western Steamship Company collected materials for a sister ship, tentatively named City of New York. The same engineering team that had collaborated so successfully on Great Western—Isambard Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson—was again assembled. This time however, Brunel, whose reputation was at its height, came to assert overall control over design of the ship. Construction was carried out in a specially adapted dry dock in Bristol. Two chance encounters were to profoundly affect the design of Great Britain. In the autumn of 1838, John Laird's 213-foot (65 m) English Channel packet ship Rainbow—the largest iron-hulled ship then in service—made a stop at Bristol. Brunel dispatched his associates Christopher Claxton and William Patterson to make a return voyage to Antwerp on Rainbow to assess the utility of the new building material. Both men returned as converts to iron-hulled technology, and Brunel scrapped his plans to build a wooden ship and persuaded the company directors to build an iron-hulled ship. Great Britain's builders recognised a number of advantages of iron over the traditional wooden hull. Wood was becoming more expensive, while iron was getting cheaper. Iron hulls were not subject to dry rot or woodworm, and they were also lighter in weight and less bulky. The chief advantage of the iron hull was its much greater structural strength. The practical limit on the length of a wooden-hulled ship is about 300 feet, after which hogging — the flexing of the hull as waves pass beneath it — becomes too great. Iron hulls are far less subject to hogging, so that the potential size of an iron-hulled ship is much greater. The ship's designers were initially cautious in the adaptation of their plans to iron hulled-technology. With each successive draft however, the ship grew ever larger and bolder in conception. By the fifth draft, the vessel had grown to 3,400 tons, over 1,000 tons larger than any ship then in existence
In the spring of 1840, a second chance encounter occurred, the arrival of the revolutionary SS Archimedes at Bristol, the first screw-propelled steamship, completed only a few months before by F. P. Smith's Propeller Steamship Company. Brunel had been looking into methods of improving the performance of Great Britain's paddlewheels, and took an immediate interest in the new technology. Smith, sensing a prestigious new customer for his own company, agreed to lend Archimedes to Brunel for extended tests. Over several months, Smith and Brunel tested a number of different propellers on Archimedes to find the most efficient design, a four-bladed model submitted by Smith. Having satisfied himself as to the advantages of screw propulsion, Brunel wrote to the company directors to persuade them to embark on a second major design change, abandoning the paddlewheel engines—already half constructed—for completely new engines suitable for powering a propeller.
When completed in 1845, Great Britain was a revolutionary vessel—the first ship to combine an iron hull with screw propulsion, and at 322 ft in length and with a 3,400-ton displacement, more than 100 ft longer and 1,000 tons larger than any ship previously built. Her beam was 50 ft 6 in and her height from keel to main deck, 32 ft 6 in. She had four decks, including the spar (upper) deck, a crew of 120, and was fitted to accommodate a total of 360 passengers, along with 1,200 tons of cargo and 1,200 tons of coal for fuel. Great Britain embarked on her maiden voyage, from Liverpool to New York under Captain James Hosken, with 45 passengers. The ship made the passage in 14 days and 21 hours, at an average speed of 9.25 knots – almost 1.5 knots slower than the prevailing record. There were two major refits in the next 6 years and she was sold to Antony Gibbs & Sons, which planned to place her into England-Australia service.They may have intended to employ her only to exploit a temporary demand for passenger service to the Australian gold fields following the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851, but she found long-term employment on this route. For her new role she was given a third refit. Her passenger accommodation was increased from 360 to 730, and her sail-plan altered to a traditional three-masted, square-rigged pattern. She was fitted with a removable propeller, which could be hauled up on deck by chains to reduce drag when under sail power alone.
Alexander Reid, writing in 1862, recorded some statistics of a typical voyage. The ship put out from Liverpool on 21 October 1861, carrying a crew of 143 with 544 passengers (including the English cricket team that was the first to visit Australia), a cow, 36 sheep, 140 pigs, 96 goats and 1,114 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The journey to Melbourne (her ninth) occupied 64 days, during which the best day's run was 354 miles and the worst 108. With favourable winds the ship travelled under sail alone, the screw being withdrawn from the water. Three passengers died en route. The captain was John Gray, a Scot, who had held the post since before the Crimean War. In 1882 Great Britain was converted into a sailing ship to transport bulk coal. She made her final voyage in 1886, after loading up with coal and leaving Penarth Dock for Panama on 8 February. After a fire on board en-route she was found on arrival at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands to be damaged beyond economic repair.
The Dry Dock, Dockyard Museum, Brunel Institute and the ship are fully accessible for wheel chair users. To avoid the uneven cobblestones through the main gate they have an alternative entrance by the Dockyard Café Bar. As some cabins are too narrow for standard wheelchairs they have special wheelchairs available for visitors to use free of charge. They have a hand-held audio companion tour for visually impaired visitors and a tactile model of the ss Great Britain to help you enjoy your visit. As with the other facilities they recommend you pre-book this audio companion before your visit. Guide and assistance dogs are welcome. They recommend a sighted assistant join you when you visit. They will receive free entry, as do all carers. There are toilets in the Dockyard Café Bar, the Visitor Centre (ticket office and shop), the Brunel Institute, on the ground floor in the Dockyard Museum, and on the Saloon Deck on board ship, next to the First Class Dining Saloon. Lifts are available in the Dry Dock, the Dockyard Museum, on board the ship and in the Brunel Institute.
Location : Great Western Dockyard, Gas Ferry Road, Bristol BS1 6TY
Transport: Bristol Temple Meads (National Rail) then bus (506). Ferry: Cross Harbour Ferry. Bus Routes : 506 stops at the dockyard.
Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:30.
Tickets : Adults £14.00; Seniors £13.00; Children (5 - 17) £8.00
Tel: 0117 926 0680