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The Three Great Ships Of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

An Introduction To The Great Western, Great Britain, and Great Eastern

Copyright Ciamar Price and Ragged Angel Ltd 2010. Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Table of Contents


SS Great Western

SS Great Britain

SS Great Eastern

Resources and Further Reading


Other e-books

The Docks


During his career, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built three ships. Each was the largest vessel of their time when launched, and each represented a technological leap forward in ship design.

These essays were originally written as part of learning packs about historic engineering. First published seperately, but republished in combined form for ease of use, these pieces are designed as an introduction to the three great ships of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The author would like to thank Ragged Angel Ltd for taking on the task of reformatting these essays for Smashwords.


Chapter 1: SS Great Western - Brunel's First Ship

A brief history of the SS Great Western, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's first ship, and the first of his three Great Ships.

The SS Great Western was the first of Brunel's three great ships. Built in 1838 by the master engineer, the Great Western led a short but productive life on the Atlantic routes, first as a passenger ship and then a mail carrier. Eclipsed in the public eye by his later ships, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern, the Great Western was Brunel's most conventional vessel. She sailed until 1856 when she was decommissioned and scrapped.

The Origin

The Great Western was Isambard Kingdom Brunel's first ship, built in 1838. That the name is so similar to his famous railway is no co-incidence.

The story goes that Brunel revealed his plans for the London to Bristol railway, which would then have been one of the longest stretches in the country, to general disbelief. Brunel retorted:

"Why not make it longer, and have a steamboat go from Bristol to New York and call it the Great Western?" - Isambard Kingdom Brunel

There was uneasy laughter, but Brunel was not joking. In due course he created the Great Western Steamship company and built the SS Great Western.


As his first ship, the Great Western was the most conventional. With a wooden hull reinforced with iron, and driven by two paddle wheels, Brunel pushed the standard ship design to the limit. She even had masts to hold auxilary sails for extra speed - and to save fuel on long voyages. He also made her the largest ship then afloat, believing correctly that larger ships were more fuel-efficient.

One of the few ships to sail before completion, she was built with the sails first and then in 1837 sailed to the engineers who fitted the paddles and completed Brunel's design. Taking to the water, her hull painted in black, relieved by the gilt and white decoration that stood out in stark contrast, she was a magnificent sight.

In Service

The SS Great Western did forty-five Atlantic round trips. The term Blue Riband was not widely used until 1910, long after she had been decommissioned, but she was regularly one of the fastest ships to make the crossing. On her maiden voyage she averaged 8.66 knots, and was only beaten to New York by the Sirius (a rival liner) because the Sirius had a four day head start and on the route burned all their fuel, their furniture, fittings and even a mast! The Great Western arrived in port only one day after their rivals, fixtures and fittings intact.

The Great Western was so popular, and profitable, that the owners requested a sister ship for her. However Brunel had moved on in his ideas for ship design - and in fact had begun designing her replacement before the Great Western had completed her second voyage. Abandoning conventional builds his next ship would be the revolutionary SS Great Britain the first all-iron propellor-driven ocean liner. Her brand new design meant that the SS Great Britain would not enter service until 1845, and in 1846 her owners went bankrupt.

Both ships were sold. The SS Great Western became a mail carrier to the West Indies, bought by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. For the next ten years it continued to give exemplary service.


She served as a troop ship, chartered by the Admiralty in 1856 to do two runs of men and resources to the Crimean War and the Black Sea, but this was her last hurrah. Built of wood and not iron, the strains created by her great size meant that her working days were numbered. She was decommissioned in 1856 and broken up in 1857.

Brunel visited her while she was awaiting decomissioning in the docks at Vauxhall. History does not record his thoughts, but by then the SS Great Britain was successfully plying the waves, and his final and greatest ship, the SS Great Eastern was already taking shape.


Chapter 2: SS Great Britain - the first Atlantic Iron Ship

Brunel's Great Britain set a series of engineering firsts: a fully iron ship, with screw propellers instead of paddles, capable of great speed. After a long life she was scuttled and left derelict in the Falklands after the Second World War. In 1970 she was returned to Bristol and restored in one of the world's most ambitious restoration projects.

The SS Great Britain

The story of the SS Great Britain is one of triumph over the odds, not just in her original unique design but as the subject of one of the most ambitious restoration projects in modern times. From the most complex engineering creation of her time, she become a rusted one hundred and fifty year old hull, that was finally brought halfway round the world to her birthplace and restored as a monument to her creator.

In her lifetime she travelled nearly one million miles of ocean, reaching speeds of twelve knots.

The origin of the SS Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel had already built one vessel, the Great Western, which had been a traditional paddlewheel and sails design. Typically he had made improvements that ensured it set Blue Riband voyages well into its twilight years.

Despite requests that he built a sister ship for the Great Western, for his second vessel Brunel had more ambitious plans. Built in 1843, the SS Great Britain set a number of precedents in engineering design. She was the first ocean-going iron ship, the first with screw propellers, and the forerunner of modern passenger liners. At three hundred and twenty-two feet long, she was also the largest passenger ship then afloat.

Brunel's curved design for the propellers, perhaps aided by his ability to draw a perfect circle freehand, proved so effective that even modern computer-aided design has produced only marginal efficiency improvements. Linked to her one thousand horsepower engine, it was perhaps not surprising that on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic she broke the previous speed record, completing the voyage in only fourteen days.

1846-1881 Australia and beyond

After three successful years on the Britain to America route, in 1846 she ran aground off Ireland. Her salvage cost enough to bankrupt the ship's owners so she was sold on to Gibbs, Bright and Co. In 1851 her new owners had her refitted, including improvements to the engine, and used her to carry immigrants to Australia.

On the Australia run she was in high demand. In an age where sailing the oceans carried high risks, sailing on the SS Great Britain meant you got there safely, and usually you got there fast. She would eventually sail this route thirty-two times, carrying the first British Cricket team among others. During the Crimean War she was in service as a troop carrier, taking 44,000 troops to the war.

In 1882 she was converted to a sailing ship, carrying freight instead of passengers. She would serve in this role for the remainder of her sailing days.


In 1886 the SS Great Britain sought sanctuary in Port Stanley in the Falklands after sustaining damage. Assessed as unseaworthy, she was abandoned in the Falkland Islands, to be used as a floating warehouse and coal store. In 1937 her retirement became less dignified when she was finally scuttled. Left to rust in Sparrow Cove, her glory days past, she was almost entirely forgotten.


In 1970 it was decided that abandoning such a historic vessel was unacceptable and the SS Great Britain project began the ambitious plan to move her from the Falklands to her home port in Bristol. Loaded onto a specially built pontoon, she was sailed halfway round the world back to Britain. The pontoon was unable to sail up the Avon, and so the ancient vessel was carefully patched and floated one last time. She was then towed, floating on her own, up the river to her home dock.

It would be the SS Great Britain's last voyage as the one hundred and fifty year old hull proved too corroded to be repaired. Instead she was installed in a purpose built dry dock while restoration work began. The 1843 engine was recreated with help from Rolls Royce, as her engine upgrade in 1852 and then the conversion to sail had removed the original. Finally, the majority of the restoration complete, she was open to the public and has remained so ever since as a monument to the great engineer who built her.


Today, Brunel's SS Great Britain is housed in style at Bristol Docks. Open throughout the summer, the sole survivor of Brunel's Great Ships provides an insight into the work of an engineering genius, and the dawn of modern sea voyaging.

The unique dry dock, with its glass and water roof, creates the illusion that she is floating. However it allows visitors to walk round "underwater" to see the hull, the propellors and the workings that drove the great ship. It also serves an important purpose for conservation, protecting the iron hull from further corrosion in the damp docks.

Above the false waterline, the ship is protected by corrosion proof paint and dehumidifiers placed within the ship. Visitors can walk round the decks, taking a guided tour or audio tour if they require. Inside, and above the false waterline, the ship itself has been virtually restored to its original condition. If the opulence inside is surprising, what takes a modern visitor aback is the size. The SS Great Britain was the largest ship of her time, but only medium sized by modern standards, and the living quarters are tiny. For passengers on board there would have been little in the way of privacy.

The deck is also open to examine, with the ships bridge and controls. The practice of taking livestock on voyages to ensure a fresh food supply means the coops and pens on deck provide an interesting contrast to the gilt and velvet of the passengers' quarters. With no form of refrigeration or food preservation other than pickles or salt, the only way to get fresh meat or dairy products was to take it with you.

As well as touring the ship itself, the Dockland museum nearby houses additional collections. These include items of historic interest from the SS Great Britain itself, and details the full story of the restoration effort.

A fascinating day out for anyone interested in engineering or history, the SS Great Britain in Bristol is definitely something not to be missed.


Chapter 3: SS Great Eastern – The Leviathon

The SS Great Eastern was the final project of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Dogged throughout with problems, it was also the project that broke him. The last and largest of Brunel's Great Ships, the tragic story of the Great Eastern is the best known.

The last, largest, and shortest lived of Brunel's Great Ships, the SS Great Eastern was in service from 1860 to 1889. Tragically, Brunel himself suffered a stroke and died, shortly after her first voyage. Many blame the stress of building the Great Ship for his early death. He was 53.

Designing the Leviathan

After his SS Great Western and SS Great Britain, Brunel pushed the frontiers of engineering even further. Originally named "Leviathon" (and christened that due to a mistake at her naming) the SS Great Eastern was intended to be larger than any ship previously; to sail to Australia and back without refuelling carrying four thousand passengers. The SS Great Eastern would eventually displace 32,000 tons and measure 682 feet long.

To propel this vast ship required a huge engines, capable of generating 8000 horsepower. Uniquely she had both paddlewheels and screw propellors, making her not only fast (around fourteen knots) but extremely manouverable. Double watertight hulls completed the unique design, making her virtually unsinkable.

With the design complete, work began and almost immediately ran into practical problems. The ship was simply too big for the technology of the time. Even at her launch she jammed on the slipway and hydralic rams had to be employed to move her into the river. (It was later realised it was as well this happened, as the wave from her impact could well have swept away the spectators.)

Problems Afloat

She was built to be unsinkable, unique and the largest ship of her time. When she sailed in 1859, she was all of these things. She was also too far ahead of her time. People were not travelling frequently enough to pay for her ongoing upkeep, and the American Civil War killed US traffic. She bankrupted a series of owners and was unable to draw enough passengers to cover her massive running costs.

Technical issues such as a boiler explosion on an early voyage did not help, and just as she began to turn a profit the captain struck an undersea rock, doing massive damage to the hull and incurring huge repair costs. Rumours began to surface that the ship was cursed.

Underseas cables

It would be another of Brunel's associates who would give her her most successful role. Sir Daniel Gooch, once Chairman of the Great Western Railway, was now responsible for laying the first TransAtlantic telegraph cable. This involved having to pile the cable is short secitons onto the ships to lay it, as the sheer weight and bulk of the cable was too great for the vessels of the time to handle, and the difficult job of dredging for the cable when it broke.

With its combination of manoverability and size, the Great Eastern was the only vessel capable of laying the cable. Purchased and refitted, the luxury steamer became the vital tool for cable laying, joining the US and Great Britain by telegraph for the first time.

After the cables

She proved exceptionally useful for cable laying, but even that brief period of success came to an end. With the transatlantic cable laid and specialist vessels taking over that role, the owners needed to find a new role for the Great Ship.

She spent time as a floating museum, and then another attempt was made to use her as a passenger liner. Her great size counted against her, and she failed to turn a profit in any of her later roles.

The Death of the Great Eastern

All attempts to find a purpose for Brunel's masterpiece failed, and in 1889 the ship was sold for scrap. Ironically it was the only time she was sold for a profit during her existence. A sad end for Brunel's magnum opus and one of the greatest ships of its time.

"Poor old ship: you deserved a better fate." - Sir Daniel Gooch

She was so large, and of such sturdy construction, that it took two years to completely dismantle her. It was said that when she was taken apart two skeletons were found trapped between the hulls - riveters who had been sealed in during the ship's construction. However this is unlikely due to the inspection hatches in the inner hull, and has been said of other ships.

In Memoriam

The shortest lived of Brunel's Great Ships, the Great Eastern was in service for scarcely thirty years (1860 to 1889), but Brunel did not live to see the tragic end of his last vessel. During her first voyage, already in declining health, he had suffered a stroke and died aged 53. Many blame the stress of building the Great Ship for his early death; his struggles throughout with publicity, finances and the huge technical challenge of the vessel had worsened his already poor health.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, finished posthumously, is Brunel's official memorial. Perhaps that first Trans-Atlantic cable, which could only be laid by his huge, beloved, ship and which changed the face of the world's communications forever, is a less visible but equally fitting tribute.



Isambard Kingdom Brunel by L.T.C.Rolt. 1957 Eighth impression 1972.

A visit by the author to the SS Great Britain at Bristol dry docks. - The official site

Further reading:


About the e-Book

These pieces were originally produced for a local school, and are available online for free distribution. Aimed at a younger audience, they are a brief introduction to engineering history which can then be built on and used for ideas for lesson plans and class projects.

With thanks to Ragged Angel for handling the formatting and upload of this e-book.

Ciamar Price (More on Smashwords)


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In This Series

"The Early Railways" is another summary book, covering early railways and notable steam engines.


Ragged Angel also publishes a range of other titles, including games and fiction.


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