Brunel’s S S Great Britain


Probably the most popular attraction in Bristol, and deservedly so, is the S S Great Britain, the restored iron steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s history is nicely summed up on Wikipedia

(built for) …… service between Bristol and New York. While other ships had been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship. She was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, which she did in 1845, in the time of 14 days.

When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat. However, her protracted construction and high cost had left her owners in a difficult financial position, and they were forced out of business in 1846 after the ship was stranded by a navigational error.

Sold for salvage and repaired, Great Britain carried thousands of immigrants to Australia until converted to sail in 1881. Three years later, she was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was used as a warehouse, quarantine ship and coal hulk until scuttled in 1937.

In 1970, Great Britain was returned to the Bristol dry dock where she was built. Now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection, she is an award-winning visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour, with 150,000–170,000 visitors annually.

I can remember watching the ship being towed down the Avon in 1970 on its way back from the Falklands on the TV.



The hull, which remains substantially complete from the time of her construction in Bristol, is of wrought iron riveted plates on wrought iron frames ……….. The interior of the ship has been reconstructed and replicated to the highest research standards using primary sources to interpret different parts of the ship at particular times in the vessel’s long life. The promenade deck, adjacent cabins, and dining saloon have been replicated to represent what was there in 1843. The original steam engine and chain drive have been replicated and, along with the ship’s galley, are from that period too. (National Historic Ships website)

On a nice sunny day we had a pleasant walk along the waterside from the city centre to take a look at the ship berthed in the very same dry dock where it was built..

Visitors are brought in at the rear of the ship.


and then walk along the starboard side


and then descend down some steps to inspect the hull. There’s a specially constructed air tight chamber formed by a glass plate fitted around the ship at the waterline. The air inside is conditioned, maintaining a relative humidity  of 20% by special dehumidification units to minimise corrosion. Jets direct the dehumidified air along the hull.


The hull was already quite badly corroded when it was brought back to Bristol


but the dehumidification should minimise further damage.

Once inside the chamber visitors can walk right round the hull. It was particularly interesting to look at the reconstructions of the porpellor and rudder.


Here’s a copy of the original anchor


Looking at the bow


After climbing back up to ground level we were taken through an exhibition about the history of the ship, working backwards in time, until we arrived on the deck.


There were free audio guides available – four different ones providing different perspectives and viewpoints. I decided I’d take the one focussing on Steerage class passengers. So I wouldn’t really have been allowed past here


although I did sneak past to have a look at the ship’s wheel.


Descending below deck we were able to see the Steerage passengers’ accommodation


and their mess


the engine


First Class cabins (which were still very small – the bunks were tiny)


the Saloon deck


where Mr Brunel himself was taking a rest


and the First Class Dining Room


2013-05-07 16.35.28

Here’s the ship’s surgeon


and barber


somebody feeling sea-sick


and here;s the Captain giving one of the crew his orders.


Fancy taking a bath?


All mod cons available!


Cargo and passengers’ belongings are all ready for loading on the ship on the port side


Our visit lasted just over two hours and we could probably have spent a little longer looking round, but time was against us as the attraction closed at 5:30.

Feeling tired after a long day, we took the ferry back down the Floating Harbour to the city centre


7 thoughts on “Brunel’s S S Great Britain

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for taking so many pics. Felt like I was onboard! The one with the sea sick lady gives a great sense of just how cramped and uncomfortable sea travel was, especially for those in steerage.

    • Many thanks for your kind words. And you’re right about the cramped conditions. If I lived in those times and was emigrating to the US or Australia I’d definitely been in Steerage! But even the first class cabins and accommodation was very cramped. And I’d have needed the bucket too!

      • I have followed the course of my ancestors`journeys to the US and New Zealand. I too would have been in steerage and so, seeing your pictures makes me very aware of what they would have endured.Bet it all stunk to high heaven too!

      • I think you’re right about the smell – although I guess the passengers would have stopped noticing after a while.

        As for your ancestors emigrating, I once visited the Jeanie Jones in Dublin and that gives a good idea of what it was like for emigrants just after the great famine – minus the smell!!

  2. Pingback: Cutty Sark–the last of the tea clippers | Down by the Dougie

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