SS Great Britain - History and Facts | History Hit

SS Great Britain

Bristol, England, United Kingdom

Image Credit: SS Great Britain

About SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain was a passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel: she was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic. Today, she is a museum ship residing on the harbourside in Bristol, United Kingdom.

History of the SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain was launched in 1843: designed by the pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the ship was the biggest of her kind, with a new screw propeller, 1000 horsepower steam engine and made of iron. Prince Albert officially ‘launched’ the ship, boarding the ship and inspecting it on a tour. The ship was described by contemporaries as ‘revolutionary’ in its design.

In 1852, she was purchased by Gibbs, Bright & Co for use as a passenger ship, transporting those who wished to emigrate to Australia. They added in an extra deck, bringing the ship’s capacity up to 700 passengers, and decided to primarily use wind power rather than the engine to save money.

After 30 years as a passenger ship, she was retired to cargo, primarily carrying exports between the UK and the west coast of America. On one such voyage, which went round Cape Horn, off the bottom of South America, the ship was badly damaged and sought refuge in the Falklands. Repairs would have been astronomical, and so the ship was sold to the Falkland Islands Company, who kept her working until 1933.

A salvage operation managed to refloat the SS Great Britain to tow her ‘home’ to Bristol in 1970 – a whopping 8000 miles.

Corrosion was the biggest threat facing the iron ship: conservators spent three years cleaning, repairing and restoring the ship, ensuring its preservation and preventing further corrosion or deterioration.

SS Great Britain today

The SS Great Britain is one of Bristol’s most popular attractions. The complex includes the Dockyard Museum (which charts the ship’s history from her conception to the modern day, featuring some helpful historical context to steamships and personal effects from those associated with the ship), the ‘Being Brunel’ exhibition which explores Bristol’s most famous resident in greater depth, and the ship itself, which has been lovingly restored.

The ship in particular is fantastic to wander around: from the first class dining saloons to the engine rooms, you get a real feel for what the ship would have felt like, and how impressive it would have been to contemporaries (as well as how cramped it would have felt with 700 passengers).

Make sure to spend time out on the deck to soak up the views of Bristol.

Getting to the SS Great Britain

The SS Great Britain is on a dry dock on Bristol’s harbourside. It’s easily accessible on foot from anywhere else in the city centre, and close to Wapping Wharf if you need refreshments.

Buses to and from the airport stop approximately a 5 minute walk away from the SS Great Britain, and it’s approximately a 30 minute walk (or a 10 minute taxi) from Bristol Temple Meads station (trains to/from London twice hourly, frequent connections within the south-west and midlands).

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