The ss Great Britain: the Bristol ship that changed sea travel forever

  • Take a look back at what made the ss Great Britain so great.

The ss Great Britain is the ship which changed sea travel.

For fifty years she has been slowly restored in Bristol’s docks. Restored to look as she would have in her mid-Victorian heyday.

But the ss Great Britain has so many different extraordinary stories. From the ambition of her designer – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to her years in service, to her forgotten years in the South Atlantic, then her daring rescue and return to Bristol.

Before the ss Great Britain, people sailed the oceans in wood-hull sailing ships. Brunel had built a giant paddle-steamer – the ss Great Western. And for his follow-up he wanted something even larger.

During the construction of the ss Great Britain, he saw two innovations. A metal-hulled ship which plied the English Channel and a ship called the Archimedes which was powered by a screw-propeller.

He re-worked his mighty ss Great Britain to feature both of these novelties, delaying its finish by many years.

Prince Albert launched her on July 19 1843. The first bottle of champagne reportedly missed its target, so the quick-thinking Queen’s Consort grabbed a second and scored a hit.

It would be another two years for her to be fitted out for her maiden voyage in 1845.

She was built for the England-USA routes. But the business behind the ss Great Britain was not as magnificent as the ship itself. She ran aground, and her company lost a fortune re-floating her.

She was sold and refitted to take emigrants to the ‘Australian Gold Rush’ in the early 1850s.

There were breaks in this route – to help ferry troops in the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny.

The ss Great Britain was the larges and finest ship on the seven seas.

By the 1870s she was out-of-date and uninsurable to take passengers. She was sold and refitted for cargo and was used to carry coal between England and the West Coast of the Americas.

It was on a stormy trip to Panama, as she rounded Cape Horn, she suffered severe damage and limped to the nearest port – in the Falkland Islands.

She was sold to the Islands. There are no indigenous trees in the archipelago, timber supplies were poor. So they used old ships for storage. And that is what the ss Great Britain became.

Once the largest, finest ship on the seven seas was now a storehouse in Port Stanley.

Before her return teams had to use mattresses to close up the huge crack in her hull.

But Brunel’s innovative metal was corroding, by the 1930s she was too dangerous even as a storeship. So Falklanders towed her away from their capital to Sparrow Cove, where she was scuppered.

A team of enthusiasts heard about her fate in the 1960s, conducted feasibility studies and began a campaign for funds.

They won the backing of Sir Jack Hayward, who said he would underwrite the cost of the return.

She had to be prepared. The ss Great Britain had a huge crack in her hull. The team asked for Falklanders for mattresses to fill in the gap. And there were holes throughout her old metal body, which needed to be patched up. A Falklands carpenter was hired to cut down her masts.

The ss Great Britain was then placed on the pontoon and she was pulled 8,000 miles back to Bristol.

Thousands lined the banks of the Avon to watch the ss Great Britain sail back into Bristol. Credit: ITV West Country

More than 100,000 people lined the banks of the Avon to watch her return in July 1970.

Over the years, millions of pounds has been spent on her restoration. Moisture in the air was her biggest threat, speeding the corrosion of her hull. So in 2005, the ss Great Britain Trust paid for a glass ceiling to be installed at sea-level. Underneath, in the dry dock, conditions were kept as dry as a desert to keep rust at bay.

This year, a series of celebrations was planned to mark the 50th anniversary of her return. Covid-19 has put pay to many of them.

But the ss Great Britain has a history of overcoming adversity and surviving. Her dramatic history of highs and lows, of success and failure, continues to this day.