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SS Great Western
built at Wapping Wharf, now Prince's Wharf, Bristol, UK
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  keel laid 28th July 1836, launched 19th July 1837, scrapped 1857
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Ship  |  reference  ST584723
The SS Great Western was the first ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59). She was a timber-hulled paddle steamer, built for luxury ocean travel and held the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing twice in each direction. She was broken up the year as the first attempt to launch Brunel's last ship, the SS Great Eastern, took place (1857).
Brunel planned that the SS Great Western would be an extension of his Great Western Railway. He looked into the future and saw passengers travelling from London to Bristol by train and on to New York by steam ship. The Great Western Steamship Company was founded for the venture, facilitated by Brunel's friend Thomas Guppy (1797-1882), a Bristol engineer and a director of the Great Western Railway.
The Great Western had an iron-bound oak hull, two decks, four masts, a single steam funnel and a figurehead in the shape of Neptune. She was the largest steam ship then built 72m long and 10.7m wide, with a displacement of 1,360 tonnes. Below deck, she accommoded 128 first class passengers and at least 60 crew members. The passenger saloon alone was 22.9m long and ran the full width of the ship.
The ship was built by William Patterson (1795-1869) at the Patterson & Mercer Shipyard, at Wapping Wharf (now Prince's Wharf) in Bristol. Her keel was laid down on 28th July 1836. When the structure of the vessel was completed, she was launched on 19th July 1837 and sailed round the coast to the River Thames in London.
At Maudslay Sons & Field (TQ308779) of Lambeth Marsh the company founded by Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) the Great Western was fitted with two side-lever steam engines and four flue-type boilers. The engine room was 24.5m long and the engines generated 560kW between them. They drove the two paddle wheels mounted halfway along the sides of the hull, increasing the ship's overall width to 18m. She was provided with sails for her masts and these were used for auxiliary power, and in rough seas to steady the ship
On the 31st March 1838, with fitting out complete, the Great Western set off for her home port of Bristol. Unfortunately, fire broke out in the engine room. Though it was extinguished, and minimal damage caused, Brunel fell 6m from a burning ladder and was badly injured. He was put ashore at Canvey Island in the Thames estuary. The ship arrived in Bristol on 2nd April.
News of the fire spread and nervous travellers cancelled their bookings for the maiden crossing to New York. When the ship steamed out of Bristol on 8th April 1838, only seven passengers were aboard. The SS Great Western arrived on 23rd April, after 15 days at sea and with 203 tonnes of unburned coal. A standard sailing ship would have taken a month to complete the same voyage.
Meanwhile, another company was competing in the lucrative race to provide the first regular steam-powered transatlantic service. The British & American Steam Navigation Company had chartered the much smaller SS Sirius 54.3m long, 7.9m wide and with a displacement of 710 tonnes and replaced some of the passenger accommodation with coal bunkers. She departed Cork in Ireland on 4th April 1838 carrying 97 passengers and arrived in New York the day before Brunel's ship, having run out of coal and burned furniture, yardarms and a mast.
The Great Western had made the crossing at an average of 8.66 knots (16kph), against the Sirius at 8.03 knots (14.9kph). Brunel's ship won the Blue Riband westbound, taking it from the Sirius. The Great Western departed New York for her return voyage on 7th May 1838 and arrived in Bristol on 22nd May, winning the Blue Riband eastbound, again besting the Sirius. She made faster transatlantic crossings in June and July 1838 and May 1839, holding the Blue Riband eastbound until 14th August 1840 and westbound until 15th June 1841.
Between 1839-40 she was rebuilt to accommodate more passengers, which increased her size to 76.8m in length and 1,730 tonnes displacement. She regained the Blue Riband and held it between 11th May 1842 and 14th April 1843 eastbound, and between 11th May 1843 and 29th July 1845 westbound.
The SS Great Western completed 45 transatlantic crossings in eight years, and in December 1846 was taken out of service and laid up in Liverpool. She was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company for 25,000 on 24th April 1847 (apparently to pay for refloating Brunel's new ship, the SS Great Britain) from Dundrum Bay in Ireland where she had run aground on a New York run.
The Great Western then plied between Southampton and the West Indies for the British Royal Mail. During 1854-55 she was occasionally used for troop transport in the Crimean War (1853-56).
The Great Western was scrapped in October 1856. Castle's Shipbreaking Company, founded by Henry Castle (1808-65), broke her up in 1857 at their yard (TQ301784) on Baltic Wharf by the Thames at Vauxhall, London.
Shipbuilder: Patterson & Mercer, Bristol
Engines: Maudslay, Sons & Field, Lambeth
Research: ECPK
"Records of Bristol Ships, 1800-1838 (vessels over 150 tons)"
by Grahame E. Farr, Bristol Record Society, 1950
reference sources   IKBCat

SS Great Western