Brunel’s ss Great Britain is one of the most important historic ships in the world.

When she was launched in 1843, she was called ‘the greatest experiment since the Creation’.

No one had ever designed so vast a ship, nor had the vision to build it of iron. Brunel fitted her with a 1000 hp steam engine, the most powerful yet used at sea. Perhaps most daring of all, Brunel rejected using conventional paddle wheels to drive his ship. Instead, he gave the ss Great Britain a screw propeller. This was the newest invention in maritime technology. By seeing how to combine these key innovations, Brunel created a ship that changed history.

Brunel in top hat, stood in front of large chains
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Champagne bottle label, depecting the SS Great Britain
Champagne was served so regularly, a special brand was created

Prince Albert launches Brunel’s iron ship into Floating Harbour at Bristol – the start of her amazing journey history.

The ss Great Britain sets sail to Australia for the first time, carrying hundreds of emigrants and gold-seekers

In 1852 Gibbs, Bright & Co. purchased the ss Great Britain to use for carrying emigrants to Australia.

They adapted the ship by replacing the original engine with a more efficient one. They added a second funnel, and replaced the ship’s rudder and propeller with new ones.

On the Australia run the ship was to rely more on sail power than on her steam engine – this would save money. The engine and propeller would be usedmostly as a back-up, when the wind was light or blowing from the wrong direction. An extra upper deck was built, so that the ship could carry up to 700 passengers.

A Third class ticket
Ticket from Liverpool to Melbourne
Poster advertising voyage to Melbourne

The ss Great Britain was a remarkably adaptable ship. After 30 years as a passenger ship, she was converted to carry cargo

Between 1882 and 1886 the ss Great Britain carried a variety of exports such as coal and wheat between England and the west coast of America.

Due to the extraordinary distance, the ship was confronted by the wildest sea conditions in the world. In 1886, storms off Cape Horn badly damaged the ss Great Britain and forced her Capitan, Henry Stap, to seek shelter in the Falkland Islands, the first port of refuge. The ship’s owners decided the cost of repairs was far too high and eventually, their insurers sold the ss Great Britain to the Falkand Islands Company.

Formal photograph of crew members stood on deck
Crew of ship at San Francisco, 1883

The ss Great Britain’s extraordinarily long working life ended in 1933.

A rescue attempt failed and she was then abandoned, and left to rust away.

However, Ewan Corlett, a naval architect, had long recognised the importance of the ss Great Britain. Many months of research and planning gave him the confidence to attempt a second rescue operation which would return the ship to the U.K. Despite ferocious gales, an expert salvage team managed to refloat the ss Great Britain on 13th April 1970.

The ss Great Britain crossed the Atlantic sitting on a huge floating pontoon pulled by tugs. This amazing salvage brought her 8,000 miles home to her birth place in Bristol.

Hull of SS Great Britain under tow from tug on River Avon leading into Bristol
Hours from arrival