The SS Great Britain On Its Way To Australia, 1852

Use the links below to explore the collection

The Picture

  • In this painting, the SS Great Britain is passing Cape Town, South Africa, on its way to Australia. The famous Table Mountain is visible in the background.
  • The ship is using sail and steam power. If you look closely you can see the coal smoke coming from the ship’s two funnels. Coal was burned to heat water boilers, creating enough steam to power the ship’s engine and turn her screw propeller.
  • The SS Great Britain often carried more than 600 passengers and crew between Liverpool and Melbourne, Australia. The ship made this journey 32 times between 1852 and 1875.
  • Each journey lasted around 60 days, with the ship often battling rough seas and storms on the way.
  • The SS Great Britain only ever stopped once on this route when it made an unexpected stop in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1852. This painting shows the ship making its way into Cape Town Harbour. After 1852, the ship never stopped on the routes to and from Australia.

The Story

Transformation into an Emigrant Steam Clipper Ship

In 1852, the SS Great Britain was converted to a steam clipper ship to travel to and from Australia. Square sails were used on the ship so it could travel more efficiently in the different wind conditions present in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ship’s steam engine and steam-driven propeller worked alongside the sails but were mainly used if it was not windy enough or if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. By using sail power efficiently, the ship’s owners could save money on fuel.

As more people wanted to travel to and from Australia, cheaper ‘Steerage’ accommodation was created. An extra deck was added in 1857 to allow space to carry up to 700 passengers.

It was a difficult and often dangerous journey through rough seas. However, the ship’s efficient combination of steam and sail power, and strong iron hull, meant this journey could be made safely in only 60 days; the fastest way to make this journey at the time.

An Unexpected Stop

During its first voyage to Australia in 1852, the SS Great Britain stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, to get more coal supplies. In this painting, you can see South Africa’s famous Table Mountain in the distance. When the ship reached the Harbour, many passengers went ashore to climb the mountain!

With careful use of the coal supply, the SS Great Britain could carry enough coal to get all the way to Australia without stopping. On the first voyage, the coal stores appear to have been badly managed and were used up faster than expected. After 1852, the ship no longer needed to make stops during voyage until it reached its destination.

Continue The Story

A New Life

For many passengers, their journey on the ship was the start of an exciting new life. Passengers travelled to Australia for many different reasons. While some people never returned to Britain, others came back and even repeated their journey several times. After gold was first discovered near Melbourne in the 1850s and started a ‘gold rush’, many people travelled to Australia with hopes of wealth and a better life.

A Revolutionary Ship

Originally designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a luxury passenger liner to transport people from Bristol to New York City, the SS Great Britain’s purpose and physical appearance changed over its lifetime.

In 1843, the SS Great Britain was the world’s largest, longest and first iron-hulled, screw-propelled ship; weighing 1930 tons and measuring 98 metres in length. It was constructed in Bristol’s Great Western Dockyard over four years.

The ship embarked on its first transatlantic voyage from Liverpool to New York City in 1845. Over its 88 year working life, it completed 47 voyages to destinations across the world, including New York City and San Francisco in North America; the Crimea in Russia; Bombay (Mumbai) in India; and Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in Australia. The SS Great Britain completed the voyage between Liverpool and Australia 32 times over a 23-year period (1852–1875).

Extra Resources

Watch this short film and find out about the diaries that some passengers wrote on board the SS Great Britain

  • Find out more about this object and others like it in our online Collection.

Painting by John A. Wilson, painted in 1852. Painting held at the SS Great Britain Trust.