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S S Great Britain

When completed in 1845, Great Britain was a revolutionary vessel-the first ship to combine an iron hull with screw propulsion, and at 322ft (98 m) in length and with a 3,400-ton displacement, more than 100 ft (30 m) longer and 1,000 tons larger than any ship previously built.

She was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company's transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. There were initially some design problems and difficulties during the passages to New York. Embarking on her third passage of the season to New York, her captain made a series of navigational errors that resulted in her being run hard aground in Dundrum Bay on the northeast coast of Ireland.

She remained aground for almost a year, protected by temporary measures organized by Brunel. In August 1847, she was floated free at a cost of 34,000 pounds and taken back to Liverpool, but this expense exhausted the company's remaining reserves. After languishing at the North Dock for some time, she was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co., former agents of the Great Western Steamship Company, for a mere 25,000 pounds.

The new owners decided not merely to give the vessel a total refit. The keel, badly damaged during the grounding, was completely renewed and the owners took the opportunity to further strengthen the hull. With the refit complete, Great Britain went back into service on the New York run. After only one further round trip she was sold again, to Antony Gibbs & Sons, which planned to place her into the England-Australia service.

Antony Gibbs & Sons may have intended to employ Great Britain only to exploit a temporary demand for passenger service to the Australian gold fields following the discovery of gold in Victoria in 185l, but she found long-term employment on this route. The S S Great Britain ended up making more trips to the colonies than any other vessel in the nineteenth century.

The story of the Great Britain and many other vessels that transported emigrants to the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century is told in my book: Farewell to Old England Forever.

Photo taken by myself on a list to see the Great Britain in Bristol where she is now on display.

One of many images of vessels contained in my book.


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