On the 19th July 1843 crowds thronged the slipway at Bristol’s Great Western Dock to watch Prince Albert launch the ‘world’s first great ocean liner’, and on the 19th July 1970, exactly 127 years later, crowds once again lined the banks of the Avon to see the grand old lady brought back home to her birthplace.
Those 127 years had taken their toll, and she had been left to see out her final days 8,000 miles away down in the South Atlantic: That was, until a rescue operation was organized to make sure that the old girl had the dignified end to her life that she deserved – and what a life it was.
When the SS Great Britain was launched, she was the most advanced ship in the world using revolutionary new techniques to transport passengers in luxury to the other side of the Atlantic – and that was just the beginning. In total, she travelled over a million miles around the world before being scuttled at Sparrow Cove in the Falkland Islands in 1937, but why was she built in Bristol?
The reason behind it was that at the beginning of the 19th century Bristol was the second port in the country after London, but as ships got bigger and the River Avon began silting up, the city was in danger of losing out to stiff competition from the port of Liverpool. With the decision to build a railway line between Liverpool and London, the situation became even more acute, and so it was decided, with the help of interested parties in the capital, to build a railway from Bristol to London, and in 1833 the Great Western Railway was set up, with the 21 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel as chief engineer.
The young engineer also suggested that perhaps the line could be extended from Bristol across the Atlantic to New York by building ships. It may not have been a serious suggestion to begin with but the idea gained credibility and in 1836, two years before the completion of the railway line, the Great Western Steamship Company was formed. The same year Brunel set about designing his first ship, the wooden-hulled Paddle Steamer (PS) Great Western, which was built at William Patterson’s shipyard at Bristol’s Wapping Wharf. The ship entered service in 1838 and became a great success making a total of 67 crossings over the Atlantic.
The success of the Great Western encouraged the company and Brunel to build a sister ship. Initially called the City of New York, it was intended to be another paddle steamer, but Brunel realised there was an opportunity to build the biggest and best ship afloat by using an iron hull instead of a wooden one and a screw propeller instead of paddles, and so the new ship not only adopted this new technology, but also a new name as well – the SS Great Britain.
To facilitate the building of this new ship, a purpose-built new Dry Dock was built further along the Floating Harbour from Wapping Wharf. The Great Western Dockyard, as it was called, enabled all the ship’s components to be built and assembled on the one site including the ship’s engine.
Building a ship combining these new technologies was sailing into uncharted waters so to speak, but it didn’t deter Brunel from fitting the ship out in a way that was more luxurious than any ship that had gone before. Even so, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the ship, the company, or the Port of Bristol.
Several mishaps to the ship, economic setbacks to the company, and the shallow water at the port all added up to the Great Western Steamship company firstly, transferring operations from Bristol to its arch-rival, Liverpool, and then selling the company altogether.
The new owners (Gibbs, Bright and Co), modified the ship in order to use it for transporting settlers down to Australia.
The Great Britain had been designed to use, not just steam power, but also sails when it was more economical to do so, but the journey down to Australia needed the opposite approach to luxury travel across the Atlantic, and so the new company added more sails, thus turning the ship into a Clipper, with the engines used as a backup.
From 1852 until 1875 the ship carried hundreds of thousands of people to the other side of the world to start a new life.
In 1882 Anthony Gibbs bought the ship and converted her into a Windjammer, purely for the use of carrying cargo. He removed the engine and funnel to make room for more cargo and added more sails. For 4 years she carried coal from Penarth to San Francisco, returning back home with wheat from the prairies, but in 1886 a storm off Cape Horn badly damaged the ship and the captain had to take refuge in the Falklands Islands.
The ship’s owners decided that it wasn’t worth repairing and the insurers sold her to the Falkland Islands Company who used it as a floating warehouse until it had outlived its usefulness altogether. In 1937 it was towed into the remote Sparrow Cove and left to rest in peace along with the local wildlife.
Fortunately, there were enough people who realised that this once great ship shouldn’t end her days in a watery grave so far from home, and in 1970 a rescue project began.
An Anglo-German salvage team re-floated it onto the only pontoon in the world large enough to carry her. The Mulus II, as the pontoon was called, was transported by tugs 8,000 miles back across the Atlantic, and at Avonmouth she was taken off of the pontoon and towed up the river under another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great achievements, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and back home to the Great Western Dock where she was born – and where she still lives.
In 2020 the SS Great Britain will have been back in Bristol for 50 years and has become one of the city’s most visited attractions. The restoration has been meticulous and a credit to those who have given the ship a new lease of life. It has been restored in a way that shows what life would have been like onboard, whether they be crew, first-class, or steerage passengers.
Brunel’s Dock Office has also been restored, and includes a museum about the man himself and his achievements.
There’s no excuse not to visit this must-see attraction while you’re in Bristol because a ferry runs from Brunel’s Temple Meads railway station via the city centre to the Great Western Dock. If an army of people thought that this old lady was worth bringing back from the South Atlantic and spending 50 years and an enormous amount of time and money to restore her back to the fine ship she once was, then the least you can do is take a look at a slice of Bristol’s (and the country’s) heritage for yourself, and in so doing, helping to preserve her memory for years to come.