There are two main reasons why so much effort has been put into the salvage and restoration of the SS Great Britain. One is that she was the very first propeller-driven ocean-going vessel ever built. The other is that her salvage in 1970 when she was 127 years old became an epic of the sea. That she should have survived for so long in the circumstances that she did was very remarkable. But what added a whole new dimension was the timing and method of the operation itself. To be brought home on a huge pontoon, she was raised from her lonely beach in the Falkland Islands at very nearly the last possible moment, in view of her accelerating rate of disintegration. Thus, the fact that we have the Great Britain in Bristol today is something of a miracle.
The Great Britain was designed by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built in Bristol between 1839 and 1843 in the very same dock in which she now lies. She was launched by the Prince Consort on 19 July 1843, and she completed her fitting out late in 1844. ………
When Brunel had turned from his railways and bridges to ships, trade on the Atlantic was dominated by the Americans with faster and better sailing ships than the world had ever seen before. So the second ship to be built by him* and his associates in the Great Western Steamship Company, the future Great Britain, was intended to be a big leap forward which would set a new standard for Atlantic travel. And it was conceived metaphorically as another extension from Bristol of the new Great Western Railway line from London. …….
As first planned, when her keel plates were laid down in her present dry dock on 19th July 1839, the big new ship was to be of 2936 gross registered tons, and a paddle steamer. She was expected to be called the City of New York. And it was only during her actual building that Brunel gained enough knowledge about the revolutionary new technique of screw propulsion to make the tremendous decision to adopt it for his great ship. Plans were switched, the existing engines were to be swung round at right angles to drive a propeller shaft – another piece of pioneering machinery – and the name was changed to that of the country itself: Great Britain.
Other features to make history included the first watertight bulkheads, first virtual double bottom, and first balanced rudder. This was in fact to be among the dozen most significant ships ever built by man, even to this day.
The Return of the Great Britain. Richard Goold-Adams** (1916-1995). Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1976.
*Brunel’s first ship was the wooden paddle steamer Great Western.
** Goold-Adams was the founder chairman of the s.s. Great Britain recovery project.
If your travels take you within 100 miles of Bristol, this is an attraction that should not be missed. Find a used copy of Goold-Adams’ book before you go and you’ll appreciate it that much more. It’s an incredible story of salvage and restoration.