SS Great Britain Logbook, 1845

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The Object

  • This is the logbook from the SS Great Britain’s first voyage from Liverpool to New York. It left England on 25 July and arrived in America 15 days later, on 7 August 1845.
  • The logbook was an official record of the journey, the ship’s officers, including Captain James Hosken, filled the log in throughout the day. In dedicated columns they recorded the time, wind speed, weather conditions, location, and speed of the ship.
  • The final column on each page was for recording other things that were happening on the voyage; this included crew illness, religious services taking place, and other ships the SS Great Britain passed at sea.
  • From the logbook we know that the ship encountered Force 9 winds (a strong gale), spent a day surrounded by fog, and at one point reached speeds of 11 knots (roughly 12.6 mph).
  • The logbook was originally created for when the ship was planned to sail between Bristol and New York; on the page for the first full day of the voyage someone crossed out the word Bristol and wrote Liverpool instead!

The Story

The First Transatlantic Voyage

Following its launch in Bristol Harbour on 19 July 1843 the SS Great Britain travelled to London where cabins were finished, the furniture was added, and the final decorations were completed. It then did two test voyages to make sure everything was working properly.

By the summer of 1845 the ship was finally ready and travelled to Liverpool in the north of England to pick up its passengers ahead of the first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to New York in America.

Despite being able to carry over 300 passengers, all in first-class luxury, when the SS Great Britain left Liverpool on the 25 July 1845, it only had 46 passengers onboard. Concerns over the safety of a ship made from iron meant they had struggled to sell tickets for the voyage.

The ship used its powerful steam engine and six-blade screw propellor for the whole journey. This allowed it to travel at an average speed of 9.4 knots (roughly 10.8 mph) and make the crossing in a respectable 15 days.

From what we can tell from the logbook the voyage to New York was generally uneventful. There are references in the comments column to various crew members being unwell and other ships that they signalled as they passed. On the 31 July the ship encountered a strong gale, which would have led to high waves and spray reducing visibility, and it reached its highest speed of 11 knots. We also know that the weather was good when the ship arrived into New York on the 7 August 1845.

We can’t currently read everything that was recorded in the ship’s log on that first Atlantic crossing. Written while at sea, in traditional joined up handwriting, the ship’s log is difficult to read. At the SS Great Britain, we have people who are experts at reading Victorian handwriting who read documents and type them up to make them accessible for everyone (a process known as transcribing), but the ship’s log has yet to be transcribed. Once the log has been transcribed, we will be able to share more information about the voyage.

Continue The Story

Recording the weather

As part of the ship’s log the weather and wind were recorded. The wind was assessed using a standardised scale known as the Beaufort Wind Force Scale. It recorded the force of the wind from 0 (Calm – sea is like a mirror) to 12 (Hurricane – devastation). The scale had been invented by Francis Beaufort in 1805 and was initially used by the British Navy before becoming more widespread. It allowed people to judge the wind speed by the state of the sea, e.g., the size of waves, and how the wind affected the ship’s sails. The Beaufort Scale is still used today to describe the wind by organisations including The Met Office.

A separate system was used to record the other weather conditions in a ship’s log, this consisted of 17 letters that each corresponds to a different type of weather. These included B – blue sky, F – foggy, P – passing shower, and S – snow. The letters could be used together to provide a more detailed picture, for example TLR would mean thunder, lightning and rain.

Extra Resources

One page from the SS Great Britain's logbook. BRSGB-1997.025_a, courtsey of the SS Great Britain Trust