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Regrettably Ciao did not place a picture of the s.s. Great Britain at the head of this review, which may have left you all wondering just what it is you are about to read about. Well, the Great Britain is the first iron hulled steam ship, that being the "S.S" or "ss" prefix!
This is a review written from the standpoint of an S.S. Great Britain Trust member of some 12 years standing. The bulk of this will go rather beyond the standard "visitor attraction" review which is so familiar to us all on Ciao. I am therefore taking the unusual step of writing this in two parts, for the casual visitor looking for an interesting day out and, part 2, for a marine enthusiast, or indeed if part 1 has wetted your appetite sufficiently to find out a little more about the history and building of the dock and ship itself.
Do not worry, I will let you know when to skip part 2 and go to the pictures at the bottom!
As a visitor attraction in 2005, the Great Britain is a superb venue for old and young, able and now less able bodied visitors alike. If you have previously visited, even as recently as 12 months ago, the changes here have been staggering, this site really is now a world class visitor attraction, even for those of you totally disinterested in ships.
My wife, her 11 year old sister Klaudia and I visited the S.S. GB last Sunday (17th July 2005) and saw people of all ages really enjoying a fascinating day out. My wife and sister in law are Polish, my wife is fluent in English whilst Klaudia understands a good amount of it, so we chose for her the audio commentary by the ship's cat, which she thoroughly enjoyed and understood. Grown ups have the choice of listening to first, second or steerage class passengers as they tour the ship. Cleverly, rather than pressing buttons numbered, the audio guide is automatic, triggered by sensors around the ship.
The whole site, thanks to very carefully and cleverly installed lifts has been made totally wheelchair accessible. One lift takes you to each deck of the ship itself, brilliantly it has been installed within the funnel space and is therefore not so much "low profile" as totally concealed! The other two lifts, one in the museum, the second taking you down to the dock floor ensure access to everything on display here - of all the places recently visited this one has been the most carefully planned from this point of view.
There is sufficient history, colour and fashion displayed here to interest all family members, if like me you are fascinated in marine history then it will certainly satisfy you too. The latest developments have made a simply stunning improvement to the whole visitor experience of the S.S. GB (as I will henceforth refer to it).
The new interior fittings in the old ship have been superbly done. The children in particular love all the tiny (how small were people in the mid 19th Century?) cabins and lifelike mannequins that have been placed in many of them. I would single out the galleys (there are two fully fitted out to see) and first class dining saloon as highlights of the below deck spaces.
I even got to shake hands and have my photograph taken with my hero; Isambard Kingdom Brunel He sits, modestly on a sofa at the rear of the ship on the promenade deck.
Klaudia particularly liked the upper (promenade) deck as here in the open was situated a cow shed (a life size - plastic(!) - cow and pig now in situ) and chicken coup. Children (and adults!) can also play pilot at the ship's wheel, there are photographic opportunities too many to mention really. Majestically not only was this ship powered by steam, but in a very necessary, at the time, belt and braces way, the S.S. GB was equipped with no fewer than six masts.
This is a large ship, and there is plenty to see both in the excellent new museum and in the dry dock underneath the ship. There is an "access all areas" policy here now and I would advise allowing at least two and a half hours for a fairly informative visit, more if you wish to take in everything in one hit.
I am privileged to have witnessed, year by year, the last 12 years restoration and now transformation of this whole site and would earnestly advise anyone who has the opportunity to visit Bristol to spend some time at the S.S. GB. There is more of England's history tied up in the story of this ship than at first sight you would think!
The S.S. Great Britain is situated in the Great Western dock on the southern side of the Floating Harbour in Bristol. Whilst it is a notoriously difficult city to find your way around in the car, there are brown sign posts directing you from most areas outside of the city to the S.S. GB. Wherever you come from, my favourite and recommended route is down the A4 from the north west (M5), through the spectacular Clifton Gorge and under Brunel's breathtaking Clifton Suspension bridge. This route in itself is historic as you are tracing the river on which the S.S. GB made its way to the sea never, until 1970, to return.
The S.S. Great Britain is open every day of the year except 24th & 25th December.
Opening times: April - Oct: 10.00 - 17.30. Nov - Mar: 10.00 - 16.30.
Prices: Adults: £7.50. Children £4.50. Family (2+2) £19.50. Seniors: £6.50.
Now is the time to save your eyes - here comes Part 2, feel free to skip it!
Please zoom down the page to the pictures though, hopefully they are worth avoiding the next couple of thousand words for!
1. Long range Introduction
As a self confessed "car nut", my interest in large merchant ships is both surprising and perhaps almost accidental. As a family we have no maritime connections, my nearest relative to have served at sea was an uncle by marriage who some years ago completed his career as a senior officer aboard the P&O flagship Canberra. Indeed, so much of a land lover am I that, I never successfully managed to learn to swim!
I remember, as a child, having romantic dreams about the giant Cunard liners; the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The style and proportions of these ships, the power, the glamour, ghosts of an era now past. Overtaken, inevitably, as indeed all of their forebears had been, by increasingly modern technology, not in this case by bigger faster ships, but by a totally different form of transatlantic travel, the much faster air-liners.
That was of course not the end of the great liners, in 1967 the QE2 was launched as a replacement for the now
sadly neglected and later positively abused original Queens. In fact since the 1990's we have seen a resurgence in popularity of the cruise type holiday. Regrettably this has not been reflected in the style of the newest ships to ply this trade which now LOOK floating hotels rather than graceful ships.
There are legions of fascinating maritime stories, many of which always seem to remain fresh in the mind of the public. Dare I mention it, but the most famous of them all was also one of the shortest lived, by sinking in 1912 on its maiden voyage with the loss of 1503 souls, the RMS Titanic became a household name, whilst other far more successful ships did not. This is the story not of just one such ship, but the very mother of all modern ships. Brunel's Screw Steamship Great Britain.
2. First Sighting
It was on my very first visit to Bristol in May 1988, on a glorious sunny summers' day, that I first came face to bow with this most handsome vessel. Having driven up from Brighton, the purpose of this visit was to take photographs of two bridges, Brunel's picturesque Clifton Suspension Bridge and its rather larger modern ancestor which bridges the River Severn a few miles to the North. (Since that time of course a second motorway bridge has been built, spanning the River Severn) This mission accomplished, I was now quite unknowingly facing another Brunel masterpiece across a stretch of water, since discovered to be the Floating Harbour. The relationship between this ship and the modern liners was years later, to strike me as amazingly similar to that which exists between those two bridges. At the time I knew nothing whatsoever about the s.s. Great Britain and resolved to visit it another day.
3. Six Years Later......
…….Quite by chance I borrowed a copy of Richard Goold-Adams book "Return of the Great Britain" from Brighton Library, not only did this prove to be an excellent read, but also the ideal way of 'discovering' this fascinating ship. As one of the prime instigators of the rescue (from the Falkland Islands) and of the subsequent restoration of the ship, his account was the ideal one to read first. Three days later, having arrived at the last page, I put the book down and couldn't wait to head for Bristol once more.
4. Back to Bristol
The modern and excellent Maritime Museum adjacent to the Great Western Dock does little to spoil the initial sensation of first setting foot there. The short walk along Wapping Wharf bounding the Floating Harbour was by far the most appropriate way to approach the dock. It is lined with buildings of the early Victorian era which suitably roll back the years as you approach the entrance, call it a year per yard and you'll be back to 1843 by the time you get there!
Now, thanks to the full force of the National Lottery funding and complete regeneration of this site you enter the Great Western Dock via the original dock gate, thus stepping from 2005 to July 1843 in one pace, more dramatic but less atmospheric than on my previous visits. The Maritime Museum is also now closed, the majority of its exhibits having been moved to the new museum adjacent to the ship.
5. The Great Western Dock
Entry to the dock, finds you facing the dramatic and highly ornamented stern of the ship, however we're not going to look at that yet, chronologically it was the dock that came first. Here enters the classic "chicken and egg" analogy. In 1838, no slipway or dry dock existed that was large enough to build the ship which Brunel had quite deliberately designed to be twice the size of ANY OTHER ship then afloat. If it wasn't for Brunels' "Mammoth" as she was then known, this dock would not be here, and if the dock had not been built........
I know that this is going to be difficult, but I'm going to ask you to imagine for a moment this dock empty. Its' history, although inextricably linked with the great ship, is worthy of separate consideration. The original dry dock here was aligned at 90 degrees to the Floating Harbour, by today's standard it was tiny, about 20% of its current size. Its original purpose remains something of a mystery, although purchased by The Great Western Steamship Company, it wasn't actually registered as either a dry dock or ship yard. However Bristol was in the mid Nineteenth Century Britain's premier port, coinciding with the Great Railway Co.'s Western terminus, it was the logical place for Brunel to build the ship, apart from which, he now had considerable fondness for the City of Bristol itself.
Here we can see part of the rear wall of the original dock, it widens towards the harbour due to the essential re-alignment that had to take place to allow the ship to be floated out upon launch. Due to the latest, space age developments here, this "widening space" has allowed enough space for the placement of a huge dehumidification plant within the dry dock itself. It has also allowed room for a lift and staircase to take you down, under the water and glass plates now surrounding the ship, to fully view the magnificent hull - under the water line.
If the dock had been extended on the original alignment the Great Britain would have ended up wedged broadsides across the Float, bow wedged on the Gas Ferry steps at Hotwells, stern stuck fast in the dock!
Walking around the top of the Great Western Dock, it is quite obvious that it was indeed custom built for this very ship. This for me, proves to be the magic beneath this whole display, it is unique, here sits the largest ship afloat in 1843, right here in its original birth place. Anyone, and there have been some over the years, who has any doubts about this ships authenticity need spend barely a moment here to have them totally dispelled. I have yet to see a more genuine and convincing display anywhere, museum or otherwise.
Climbing down onto the floor of the dock, one can well understand Brunel needing, in early 1839, to pacify Captain Claxton, the man charged with undertaking this huge excavation. Claxton was worried about the unstable floor of the dock, Brunel assured him that this was quite normal, although how he knew this to be the case when presumably no dock this size had been built is unsure! As in many other things the great engineer turned out to be correct, over 150 years later the original stone lining is still here to prove it. Contemporary observers were impressed with working conditions in the completed dock which possessed the most modern conveniences, gas lighting throughout for instance. Of equal curiosity to me, is the sheer manpower that must have been involved in the excavation of such a site all those years ago.
The cost of building this dock at £53,081 12s. 9d must have given the G.W.S directors some sleepless nights too!
6. Laying "Mammoth's" Keel Plates
Now with the completion of the dock, it's time at last to take a look at the ship. It all started here, down in the bottom of the dock, with the keel blocks, yes those three lines of wooden blocks you see under the ship today are the very ones on which the hull was laid down. The first keel plate was laid on July19th,1839, thought to be an auspicious date, being two years to the day since the successful s.s. Great Western was launched. (The Great Britain was finally re-docked here on July19th,1970). Looking along the underside of the hull, it is clear that the ship was designed with additional much smaller outboard keels. These are the docking, or bilge, keels. Standing here underneath the giant hull their purpose is self explanatory, they were designed to ease dry docking. What at the time was less understood is the effect they have on a ship's behaviour in the water, modern ships are fitted with roll stabilisers a 20th Century development of the very feature we are looking at here.
The ship would, and indeed did when first returned here in 1970, sit quite comfortably on these wooden keel blocks, the ironwork seen above is merely for added security and lends additional strength to the hull itself, reducing the tendency for it to distort. It should be borne in mind that that the stresses placed upon even an iron hull in dry dock are completely different to those placed upon it when afloat. In the water the weight is distributed evenly across the surface of the hull, here in dry dock all the weight must be passed down through the keel to the floor of the dock itself.
7. Hull Design
Down here under the ship is probably the best place from which to appreciate the unusual cross sectional shape of the hull. It is in this one vital design element that this ship bears more in relation to its' famous wooden hulled predecessors, notably H.M.S. Victory of the previous century, than it does to either its iron or steel descendants. Indeed the Great Western pre-dating it by two years with her wooden hull and paddle boxes had a more modern "flat sided" hull profile.
Consummate engineer that he was, Isambard Kingdom Brunel had to design his iron ship around parameters laid down by geographical constraints imposed by the location of this dock. Remember, that to allow the launch at all, he had already re-aligned the dock itself. As he had previously been the engineer in charge of improvements to the whole Bristol Dock system he had intimate knowledge of these constraints. The width of the locks giving access to the River Avon determined the width and shape in cross section of the hull. In a similar way the length was limited by two factors. The width of the Floating Harbour, that is the maximum length of ship that could be launched across it, even at the shallower angle now allowed by the dock re-alignment, and the notorious Horseshoe bend in the Avon to the North of the city. So there we have it, local geography is largely to thank for the wonderful shape you see before you now!
8. The Single Screw and Balanced Rudder
Before returning to the dockside, a few minutes to admire the size and form of the propeller and steering gear. The replicas on the ship are a result of the Projects' in my opinion, wise decision to restore the ship to as close as possible her 'Brunel' 1845 original specification.
This design of propeller was to very quickly become the cause of some controversy. Thomas Guppy, liked and respected by Brunel, celebrated marine engineer and largely responsible for installing the engine, felt the propeller to be too small. Others of the day considered likewise, the ships' first Captain, Hosken amongst them. In retrospect he turned out to be a questionable judge anyway, his general seamanship proving unworthy of the ship on several occasions. Before the third Atlantic crossing two inch extensions were riveted to the six arms of the propeller. Inevitably the now over-stressed propeller disintegrated. There is good evidence to suggest that this event may well have been hastened by the ship bottoming on shallows off New York, due to Hosken's faulty navigation. Fortunately, by necessity in those days, the Great Britain had been designed as an auxiliary sailing ship, a role which it played admirably well.
Apart from the shape of the hull itself, fundamental to its handling under steam was Brunel's balanced rudder design. The forward shaft is the tapered rudder post which passes through a large bearing mounted in the stern frame. The rear one is the rudder stock which passes up through the ship, this terminated with a tiller arm situated at the rear of the Promenade Saloon. Attached to the tiller was a rope and pulley system connecting to the ship's wheel on the weather deck above.
9. The 1857 Stern Frame
The huge stern frame, complete with wooden rudder, now a "woking" exhibit in the adjacent museum building dates from the first re-fit in 1857. This major modification to the ship was part of the conversion from steamship with auxiliary sail, to sailing ship with auxiliary steam. The large U shaped frame you see here was mounted behind the original stern frame and was designed to allow the fitment of a lifting or "sailing" propeller. To explain as simply as possible, this was a propeller which could be de-coupled, by a clutch, from the driving shaft, and then cranked up through the stern into a housing specially built to take it. Thanks to all that Lottery cash you can now actually perform this task in the museum yourself! The theory behind this being that under sail the drag through the water caused by the propeller would be avoided.
The 1857 Stern Frame survived on the ship until it was removed in 1981 to allow the Brunel replicas to be fitted.
10. Iron Frames, Plates and Rivets!
We are about to leave the bottom of the dock, but before doing so and as we climb back up to the dockside I'm going to ask that once again you place yourself in the past.
It is the summer of 1838, I am a director of the Great Western Steamship Company and am desperate to obtain the mail contract to the rapidly expanding United States. The wooden paddle steamer Great Western is proving so successful that
Pictures of Ss Great Britain Maritime Heritage Centre, Bristol
Mr Brunel! I am SO pleased to make your aquaintence!
we need a sister ship to maintain a regular unbroken service. Our renowned resident engineer Brunel is trying to convince the board that he can design and build a ship of twice this size making use of the latest technology, an iron ship if you please!My colleagues and I are having a job to understand what an iron ship is, let alone sanction the cost of building such a vessel with this new largely untested material.
Put extremely simply this is a ship constructed of an iron, framework, onto which iron plates are riveted to form a solid watertight hull. Nothing revolutionary in 2005, but all untested technology in the 1830's. The whole idea is giving myself and the other board members palpitations, we have already paid for a bottomless pit to be dug, now Mr Brunel wants to fill it with our money!
Somehow he talks us unto supporting his ideas and reluctantly we agree to fund his revolutionary iron hulled steam ship.
11. The Great Ship Takes Shape…..
…….but what shape?
Having come to terms with the iron construction Mr Brunel now informs the board that this ship would be much faster and more economical if, rather than being fitted with side paddle wheels like its forerunner the Great Western, it was powered by a single screw propeller at the rear of the ship. This was indeed a truly radical concept, one which theoretically could indeed be justified by the savings in internal hold and passenger capacity. Brunel managed to demonstrate that a ship propelled in such a manner would be much faster and more manoeuvrable due to the propeller acting directly upon the rudder - a historical equivalent to power steering on a car I suppose.
Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, with the project years behind schedule and thousands over budget (nothing in the engineering world changes!) the ship and engine builders created this huge and revolutionary ship.
As they did so theorists came up with all sorts of hair brained reasons as to why Brunel's design simply would not work. A man by the wonderful name of Dianousius Lardner repeatedly wrote to the national press lampooning the size of the ship, claiming that it would split in the middle, being so long that it would crest two waves at once and simply collapse into the trough in the middle. Others stated that such a ship would need to carry more than its own weight in coal to propel it from one side of the Atlantic to the other. They obviously had failed to notice the six huge masts - it had never been Brunel's intention that the s.s. Great Britain would rely on horsepower (about 1000hp from the primitive twin cylinder 'triangle' patented by Brunel's father Sir Marc in 1822) alone, he was a realist and knew how unreliable the power plant was likely to be.
12. The Launch
On Wednesday 19th July, 1843, the ship, externally very much as it now looks today was launched with great ceremony into the Floating Harbour in Bristol, to be tied up alongside the opposite wharf (where the A4 now runs along Hotwells Road) to be fitted out.
13. The unluckiest number so far for Mr Brunel….
…..we are nearing the end of the beginning for Mr Brunel's Iron Ship, but she's not going to leave Bristol to take up her long and illustrious career without giving he and the board members another almighty headache.
Here we have, floating comfortably at last, a ship of 322ft (100 metres) in length and 50ft 6in (15.4 metres) in breadth. She weighed an incredible 3,675 tons unladen. Her total cost to build was reported by The Great Western steam Ship Company as £117,295 6s 7d. That figure did not include the aforementioned works on the dry dock.
The ship remained here for almost 18 months until 12th December 1844……Brunel had that headache to cure - his ship was too big to fit through the outer lock system from the Floating Harbour into the Cumberland Basin and thence the River Avon and to the sea.
His detractors were at it again, no doubt disappointed that the ship had not sunk under its own weight:
(The ship is) "in the predicament of a fattened weasel that, while feeding and fattening in the farmer's granary, grew too big for the hole by which it gained admission" - so said the "Mechanics Magazine" of the day!
Brunel, practical and ingenious to the last, quite literally took hammer and chisel to the lock gates until they were wide enough to take the Great Britain's girth.
14. Goodbye to Bristol for 126 years!
After a very long and glorious history on the seven seas, ending with the hulk of the Great Britain being used as a grain store (pity the "Mechanics Magazine" had no comment!) in the Falkland Islands, on 19th July 1970 after a mammoth rescue operation (the ship rode on the back of a barge all the way from the South Atlantic!) the s.s. Great Britain was re-docked in the place of her creation.
15. Back to 2005.
Comparing pictures of the weather-beaten wreck that was docked there in 1970 and the appearance of the ship that you see now is a true tribute to the thousands who have worked, mostly volunteers, on the scrupulous restoration job during those intervening 35 years.
This is a truly historic vessel, one whose story is long and fascinating. This ship is well worth visiting, its history is well told in the superb new museum alongside the ship. As a board member I would, all over again, be having palpitations at the idea of enclosing the dry dock and dehumidifying everything below, but it will ensure that the fabric of the hull, the now fragile ironwork, will last hopefully for centuries into the future.
The outward appearance of the ship is now breathtaking. The glass plates have 50mm of water pumped over the top of them from the harbour. You are able from most angles to see the joins in the glass, but the illusion of the ship being afloat is a good one. The area beneath the ship is now much more accessible, the view standing against the dock gate looking up at the bow under water is one that I will not forget. The only downside as far as we could tell was that after a long, hot and dry period of weather, the harbour water pumped over the top of the glass plates smelled appallingly!
Thank you to:
1. Mr Brunel for designing and ensuring that this extraordinary ship was built.
2. The hard work and dedication of the original trustees of the charity who rescued the ship from certain destruction.
3. The many hard working volunteers who until a few years ago restored the ship on a shoestring.
4. To the National Lottery Commission who, due to their grant, turned this into a truly world beating visitor attraction.
5. You the reader for having the patience to read all this! I hope that it was of interest and that you may be sufficiently curious to one day spend a few hours admiring and learning more about this wonderful ship.