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Bow of the SS Great Britain in the Great Western Dockyard, Bristol

Unique Design by Brunel

SS Great Britain was an advanced passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Steamship Company’s transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. While other ships had previously been built of iron or equipped with a screw propeller, Great Britain was the first to combine these features in a large ocean-going ship.

Glass roof covered with water creating an air seal around the hull seen from below

Stranded and Scuttled

When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat. However, her protracted construction and high cost had left her owners in a difficult financial position, and they were forced out of business in 1846 after the ship was stranded by a navigational error.

Sold for salvage and repaired, Great Britain carried thousands of immigrants to Australia until converted to sail in 1881. Three years later, the vessel was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was utilised as a warehouse, quarantine ship and coal hulk until scuttled in 1937.

Hull and glass air seal seen from ground level

Return to Bristol

In 1970, Great Britain was returned to the Bristol dry dock where she was first built. Now listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection, the vessel is an award-winning visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour, with between 150,000-170,000 visitors annually.

After Recovery she then spent two weeks in the Cumberland Basin, until a high enough tide occurred that would get her back through the locks to Bristol’s Floating Harbour, back to her birthplace, the dry dock in the Great Western Dockyard in which she had been built (now a grade II* listed building, it had been disused since bomb damage during World War II).

Public walkway next to the hull in the Great Western Dockyard dry dock

Restoration and design of the glass air seal around the hull

The original intent was to restore her to her 1843 state. However, the philosophy of the project changed in recent years and the conservation of all surviving pre-1970 material became the aim.

By 1998, an extensive survey discovered that the hull was continuing to corrode in the humid atmosphere of the dock and estimates gave her 20 years before she corroded away. Extensive conservation work began which culminated in the installation of a glass plate across the dry dock at the level of her water line, with two dehumidifiers, keeping the space beneath at 22% relative humidity, sufficiently dry to preserve the surviving material of the hull. This was completed, the ship was “re-launched” in July 2005, and visitor access to the dry dock was restored.

Detail of damage on the original riveted plates on the hull

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Photography © Quintin Lake, 2009