Size matters – the longest museum object in the UK

01 August 2019


01 August 2019


Discover how as part of our collection the SS Great Britain is the longest museum object in the United Kingdom.

When the SS Great Britain was launched in Bristol on 19 July 1843, she was famously the largest (and fastest) ship in the entire world. Spanning a length of over 322ft, she was over 70ft longer than her nearest rival, and was the first screw-propelled, iron-hulled ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Brunel’s ship was so revolutionary it would take nine years for her to be bested in size – the HMS Himalaya squeaked over the line at 340ft. Not to be outdone, Brunel’s third ship, the SS Great Eastern, floated at a colossal 692 feet! This record stood undefeated for the rest of Brunel’s life, until RMS Oceanic was launched at the turn of the 20th century.

As the centrepiece item of our museum, Brunel’s ship is recorded as the first ever ‘object’ catalogued in our Collection. Still standing at 322ft, she is the longest object too. This raises an interesting discussion: is she perhaps, also the longest ‘object’ catalogued in any heritage collection in the UK? We decided to browse a few of the collections of our fellow museums, to investigate – you know, in the spirit of research, not just because we share Brunel’s competitive edge!

The first stop was the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Museum, who are home to the longest colouring pencil in the world. Lying at an impressive 26ft long, the yellow-nibbed colouring pencil was completed in 2001. But its length doesn’t even approach the beam (width) of our ship, which is 50ft 6in. Perhaps let’s think a little bigger…

Maybe the Tank Museum, located at Bovington Camp in Dorset, with their long calibre guns? One that caught our eye is the Sd Kfz 186 Jagdtiger. Manufactured during 1944, the Jagditger is the heaviest and possibly the most powerful armoured fighting vehicle to see action in the Second World War, stretching a startling 34ft 5in. Fearsome, but still not close.

What about Aerospace Bristol? Their Concorde – Alpha Foxtrot, the last to be built and flown – was an engineering revolution too. Capable of crossing the Atlantic in under three hours, it eclipsed the SS Great Britain’s average of 14 days. Breathtakingly elegant and capable of supersonic speeds, sure… but at (an admittedly staggering) 203ft 9in, it’s still not as vast as the ship.

It appears only one type of ‘object’ can compete – museum ships in the National Historic Fleet. Now we’re getting competitive. Running a finger down the distinguished list of names, they draw closer and closer to our record. HMS Trincomalee, a Royal Navy Leda-class sailing frigate launched in 1817, rests as the oldest British warship still afloat, and sits as the highlight of National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. But at a respectable 180ft length, the Great Britain still hangs on.

The Cutty Sark, the world’s only surviving extreme clipper ship, constructed in 1869, and one of the fastest ships of her day, sits at 212ft 6in inside her dry dock in Greenwich, London, under the care of Royal Museums Greenwich. Still a hundred feet off, though. Can the Great Britain really claim this record?

OK, so here’s the thing… there are some ships which are longer. Our hopes were dashed on the metaphorical rocks at the discovery that the HMS Warrior – the name-ship of the warrior-class ironclad frigates, launched in 1860 and now berthed at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – measures 420ft. Then comes the HMS Belfast, the Town-class light cruiser built for the Royal Navy and launched in 1938, achieving what looks like the record at an incredible 613ft. Heart-breaking.

However, the question remains if these awesome ships are listed as ‘museum objects’ and catalogued into their museums’ respective collections, or rather listed as ‘historic vessels’. Again, this is all purely in the name of accuracy, not competition… (cough) but does this mean that the SS Great Britain can claim the crown of the longest ‘object’ catalogued in any heritage collection in the UK?

We invite challengers! (you know, for research…)


Author: Tyler Mills, Museums Assistant

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