Once again, the ship attracted thousands more visitors in Liverpool while she was made ready for her first transatlantic voyage and was not finally able to leave for the United States until the afternoon of the 25th July 1845. Given the attention the ship had attracted, the directors and shareholders of the Great Western Steamship Company would have been disappointed to see that she only carried 45 passengers and 360 tons of cargo on this auspicious journey. Despite the wonder of Brunel’s innovative ocean liner – combining an iron hull and screw propulsion for the first time, people were still understandably nervous about travelling across the Atlantic in this new and relatively untried vessel.
The SS Great Britain’s 45 first class passengers were outnumbered by the 77 crew, but both must have had an opportunity to regret their decision to make the journey at times as the ship battled against strong westerly gales for much of the voyage, and heavy fog when she neared the United States. The passenger complement included businessmen and military officers; there were only two women passengers and more American than British citizens. More information about the passengers and the voyage can be discovered on our Global Stories database.
The SS Great Britain was already demonstrating an alarming tendency to roll in heavy seas, so life for the stokers and fireman below deck would have been particularly unpleasant. It is not a surprise to learn that a good number of them deserted before the ship’s return trip!
Despite the rough seas, the ship generally performed well, and shortly before the arrival of the ship at South Street docks in New York, the captain, James Hosken, was presented with a letter signed by all the passengers, praising the lack of noise and vibration from the engine and congratulating him on the ‘luxuriant supply of the table’ which suggests that some of them at least were not too seasick to enjoy the delights of the dining saloon!
The arrival of the ship in the United States created the same kind of excitement that had been experienced in Britain; thousands lined the harbour to watch what the New York Herald called a ‘magnificent steamer’ and a ’monster of the deep’. In the 21 days the SS Great Britain was in dock more than 21,000 people visited her, paying 25 cents admission with an additional 12 ½ cents charged for a view of the engine room! Press coverage was largely fulsome in praise of Brunel’s great ship, although the Times reported that some Americans were disappointed that ‘it was not as large as they expected’!
Author: Tim Bryan, Director of the Brunel Institute