SS Great Western & Bristol Docks

Map: Ordnance Survey County Series 1:2500 – 1886
SS Great Western
SS Great Western – the largest vessel in the world.

19th July 1837 – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 236 ft steamship, the Great Western, was launched at Bristol. She was the largest vessel in the world. On the same day in 1843, his ‘Great Britain’, the first Atlantic liner built of iron, was launched at Wapping Dock.The Great Western was an iron-strapped, wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer, with four masts to hoist the auxiliary sails. The sails were not just to provide auxiliary propulsion, but also were used in rough seas to keep the ship on an even keel and ensure that both paddle wheels remained in the water, driving the ship in a straight line. The first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic, and the initial unit of the Great Western Steamship Company. She was the largest passenger ship in the world from 1837 to 1839.

In 1838 after sailing to London, where she was fitted with two side-lever steam engines. the Great Western set sail for Avonmouth to start her maiden voyage to New York. The ship hadn’t gone far when a fire broke out in the engine room. During the confusion Brunel fell 20 feet, and was injured. The fire was extinguished, and the damages to the ship were minimal, but Brunel had to be put ashore at Canvey Island. As a result of the accident, more than 50 passengers cancelled their bookings for the Bristol-New York voyage and when the Great Western finally departed Avonmouth, only 7 passengers were aboard.

The Great western’s first voyage in April 1838 was set to be a race with the British and American Steam Navigation Company’s rival ship the SS Sirius but the fire delayed the Great western’s start. Even with a four-day head start, Sirius only narrowly beat Great Western, arriving in New York on 22 April. When coal ran low, the crew of the Sirius burned 5 drums of resin. The Great Western arrived the following day, with 200 tons of coal still on board. Sirius is often credited as the first winner of the Blue Riband (even though the term Blue Riband was not coined until years later) at 8.03 knots. However, Sirius only held the record for a day because Great Western’s voyage was faster at 8.66 knots.

Still capable of making record Blue Riband voyages as late as 1843. Great Western worked to New York for 8 years until her owners went out of business. She was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and was scrapped in 1856 after serving as a troop ship during the Crimean War.

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One thought on “SS Great Western & Bristol Docks

  1. This is wonderful article about Great Western. I like your image with Great Western so much. I already gather many knowledge about paddle steamer from article. I had some knowledge about paddle steamer.

    We have a fleet of century old paddle steamers in Bangladesh which are still in operation. They were built in the colonial period and still serving as a passenger boat. An overnight journey on those boats is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can check it here if you are interested: Paddle steamers in Bangladesh

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