ss Great Britain

ss Great Britain at Bristol

The historic heart of Stanley

​​​The ss Great Britain is undoubtedly the most famous of the many ships which ended their sea-going days in the Falkland Islands, and the salvage of this celebrated vessel is a remarkable tale of ingenuity and commitment.

At the time of her launch in 1843 the ss Great Britain was by far the largest ship in the world, over 100 feet longer than her rivals. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had already built the world’s largest steam ship in the Great Western, but he was not content. He first planned a wooden paddle ship, but in 1838 came across a little iron paddle-wheeler, Rainbow, loading in Bristol. He was so impressed that he decided to build his next trans-Atlantic ship in iron. The ship would be called the Mammoth.

No firm would tender for the building of such an unusual and large vessel so the Great Western Steamship Company itself took the job. A new dry dock was built in Bristol and special construction machinery installed on the quayside.

After seeing another experimental vessel - Archimedes – driven by a new form of screw propeller, Brunel again changed his plans. He discarded the paddle-wheel, swung the engines around by 90 degrees and set about building the first ocean-going propeller-driven ship. The name was changed to Great Britain.

The ship was designed to be a steamer with auxiliary sail, which was only to be used to save coal when the wind was favourable. This meant that her sailing arrangements were unique, with six relatively short masts, only one of which was metal.

Ground-breaking design
The design of the Great Britain was ground-breaking – she was the first ocean-going screw-propelled ship, and first iron ship to cross any ocean. She was also the first ship fitted with: a six-bladed propeller, a semi-balanced rudder, wire rigging, an electric log, a double bottom, transverse water-tight bulkheads, golding masts and a hollow wrought-iron propeller shaft.

First Voyage
The Great Britain’s first voyage was from Liverpool to New York. The 3,300 miles were covered in 14 days and 21 hours, at an average speed of 9.4 knots – easily breaking the previous speed record for this journey.

Fares for a stateroom ranged from 20 to 35 guineas but she carried only 50 passengers on this trip – many people were still a little afraid of her.

Disaster at Dundrum Bay
On her fifth voyage to New York with 180 passengers and a substantial cargo, disaster struck and – due to “the most egregiouis blundering” of the Captain - the ship ran aground in Dundrum Bay, County Down, Ireland.

Some two months later Brunel went to inspect the ship and was satisfied that the ship was “almost as sound as the day she was launched, and ten times stronger in character”. However he was furious to find her abandoned to the elements and wrote “… the finest ship in the world… has been left and is lying like a useless saucepan kicking about on the most exposed shore that you can imagine…”

The next Spring the ship was lifted clear enough of the sand for repairs to be made and by August 1847 she was towed off by two naval vessels.

They saved the ship but she had been badly under-insured and the £22,000 cost was the last straw for the Great Western Steamship Company, which was wound up. Three years later the ss Great Britain was sold for £18,000 to a consortium of Bristol and Lancashire merchants.

The Great Britain is widely recognised as one of the technological forerunners of much modern shipping and certainly the grandmother of modern passenger liners - in many ways the ship symbolised the birth of international passenger travel and world communications.

Designing the ss ““Great Britain”

The Launch
The ss Great Britain was launched on 19th July 1843, four years to the day after the first plates of the iron keel were laid.

The launch took place in the presence of the Prince Consort, Prince Albert who travelled down from London on Brunel’s Great Western Railway.

Tens of thousands had turned out to witness the launch and the day was treated as a holiday in Bristol with the papers reporting that “…All the shops are shut, and business entirely suspended. Every church has been dressed out in a variety of colours; peals have rung, and cannon fired; indeed every demonstration has been made that loyalty and rejoicing could inspire.”

The wife of one of the company’s directors was to carry out the naming ceremony but as she swung the bottle the ship moved and the bottle missed entirely, falling into the water. Prince Albert came to the rescue, grabbing a replacement bottle and hurling it at the bows.

The Great Britain was drawn across the harbour where she was temporarily secured and was later hauled back to float in her building dock for fitting out.

To the Sea
Late the following year the ship was ready to be moved out of the Floating Harbour, through the locks into the River Avon and down to the open sea. Now a further problem had to be faced - the locks into and out of Cumberland Basin needed to be widened to allow the ship to pass and this had not been done. Only after she had indeed stuck for a moment did the work take place, allowing the ship to pass through the following day:

“Far into the night by the light of blazing tar barrels, an army of workmen tore up coping stones and removed a road bridge to widen the locks – Brunel was there to urge them on – and she just got through…”

After being purchased by Gibbs, Bright & Company of Liverpool in 1850, the ss Great Britain was fitted out for runs to Australia, where gold had been discovered.

The ship was fitted with a new engine and propeller, her masts were reduced to four and twin funnels were installed. Part of her regular cargo would be gold and she was given six eight-pounder guns to protect it.

Accommodation was altered to allow for more cargo space below, but balanced by adding the number of bunks in some cabins and building an extra upper deckhouse running almost the whole length of the ship. Capacity was now 730 passengers, of whom 50 would be in first class.

The ss Great Britain’s first run to Melbourne began in August 1852 and despite some coaling trouble the voyage was completed in 83 days.
Upon return to Liverpool more modifications were carried out - the two funnels were replaced with a single small one, and the ship was fitted with three square-rigged masts and a large bowsprit. These masts were all replaced in a refit in 1857 and a new stern frame was installed.

In this form the Great Britain settled down to nearly 20 years of steady passages between Liverpool and Melbourne in a career that made her the most celebrated ship on the Australia run.

On these journeys the ship always continued eastwards for the return passage, circumnavigating the globe on each completed trip and averaging 60 days out and the same back.

Notable Voyages
The ss Great Britain was twice requisitioned for trooping – first in 1855-56 for the Crimean War, and then again in 1857 to go to Bombay during the Indian Mutiny.  In 1861 she carried the first-ever all-England cricket team to visit Australia.

The Cargo Ship
When her usefulness as a passenger ship came to an end in 1876, the ss Great Britain was laid up and offered for sale. In 1882 she was purchased by Antony Gibbs, Sons & Co. of Liverpool, for use as a cargo ship.

The passenger accommodation and engines were removed and three cargo loading hatches were installed. For extra strength thick pitch pine cladding was bolted around the iron hull between low and high loading marks.

In this form the ship carrying Welsh coal to San Francisco, and returned with wheat. These voyages around Cape Horn were long and slow, taking over a year to complete. 

The Final Voyage
On 6th February 1886, the Great Britain sailed from Cardiff for Panama on Voyage No. 47.

On 18th April, as she neared Cape Horn, the ship began to get into serious difficulties in high winds and massive seas - her decks were leaking and the hull was under tremendous strain.

The crew asked Captain Stap to put back to the Falklands but he refused. The cargo had shifted and the ship was listing to port (which had to be corrected by shovelling the coal back), and on 10th May the fore and main topgallant masts were both lost overboard. Three days later the crew again asked the captain to turn back and this time he agreed.

Having battled for three weeks without making any progress, the Great Britain finally turned and ran before the gale, reaching shelter in Stanley on 26th May 1886.

AStorage Hulk
Having reached Stanley, it was decided that repairs would be too costly and the Great Britain was sold to the Falkland Islands Company for use as a storage hulk.

The ship floated in Stanley harbour for some 50 years, holding coal and wool for the FIC. By 1937 it was no longer economical to use the Great Britain as a hulk and she was replaced with another condemned sailing ship, the Fennia.

On 12th April the hulk was towed to Sparrow Cove and the following day holes were knocked in her sides to ensure that she would never float again.

Rescue Plans
In the 1950s, the Director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum, Karl Kortum, began campaigning for the salvage of the Great Britain. Around the same time a renowned naval architect, Ewan Corlett, also became interested in the ship and began researching her history.

Independently of each other, both men took action in 1966 – Kortum visited the Islands to examine the ship and found a potential backer to bring it to San Francisco, and Corlett wrote to The Times urging that the ship be fully documented or that something of her should be saved.

In 1968 meetings were held in the UK to decide if a British salvage attempt was practicable. Led by the millionaire, William Swigert, the American group gallantly stood back – saying that the British claim to the ship was greater.

Shortly after, the British group, calling itself "The ss Great Britain Project” was formed and Corlett visited the Falklands to survey the hulk with help from the crew of the British Ice Patrol ship, HMS Endurance. He came to the conclusion that she could be refloated.

Amid much scepticism, fund-raising began. This was bolstered by a message of encouragement from Prince Philip and financial problems were finally solved by a pledge of £150,000 from British philanthropist, Jack Hayward.

The Salvage in Brief
The pontoon Mulus III was lashed end-on to the port side of the Great Britain, sheerlegs were erected on the pontoon deck, and work began on the removal of the masts and the patching of holes below the waterline.

A large crack had opened up below the forward entry hatch on the starboard side and this was dealt with by bolting steel strip plates across it and stuffing the crack with old mattresses gathered from Stanley.

The hulk was then pumped out and, once afloat, it was towed and pushed onto the submerged pontoon where it was secured to steel dolphins. The following day the hulk was towed on her pontoon into Stanley harbour.

Ten days were spent wedging and welding the ship onto the pontoon alongside the jetty. On Friday, 24th April, at 9.15am Brunel’s great ship left Stanley on her final voyage home to Bristol.

More detail follows:-

Preparing for the Salvage
In January 1970 Leslie “Spike” O’Neil, salvage officer with Risdon Beazely Ulrich Harms Ltd of Southampton, visited the Great Britain. Through this company The ss Great Britain Project chartered a submersible pontoon, Mulus III, and O’Neil judged that there was an 80% chance of successfully towing the hulk back to Bristol - the use of a submersible pontoon in salvage work had only been developed two years earlier in Germany by Ulrich Harms.

The German tug, Varius II, left West Africa with the Mulus III on 4th February 1970 and rendezvoused in Montevideo with a British party of six. They arrived in Stanley on 25th March and dropped anchor in Sparrow Cove the following day.

The Masts
Removing the masts was a massive and complex operation. Sheerlegs had been built on the side of the pontoon, but the longest steel tubes available in Montevideo were 48ft long, so could only reach a maximum height of 40ft – well short of the point of balance of the two larger masts. Even the mizzen mast was so long that it could not be pulled clear of the deck as it was lifted.

Local carpenter, Willie Bowles, was tasked with cutting the foot of the mast – a long and difficult job because of the massive iron spikes that had to be cut around. Also, the timbers were “hard and fresh under the water-softened outside skin” making cutting hard work.

As the mast was lifted and rose slowly out of the deck, the foot of the mast broke about 6ft above the deck, making the top swing down and crash into the old deck-house.

Lord Strathcona later wrote that this was “unfortunate… we had that very morning finished patching up the deck-house to use as a store and traditional British workman’s tea shed.”

Raising the Ship
With the ship safely onto the pontoon, the divers reconnected the air hoses and began the delicate process of raising the Great Britain. Because the pontoon had no stability when completely submerged, the stern had to be kept on the bottom until the bow was above water.

This process began on a Sunday morning, continued throughout Monday and by Tuesday morning the pontoon had reached its proper freeboard. All the while, the salvage team were securing the ship on the blocks under the docking keel by driving in wedges.

The Journey Home

On 24th April the ss Great Britain left Stanley, arriving in Montevideo on 2nd May. After a four day break the journey resumed. 47 days later the Varius II handed over to Bristol tugs and the following day, on 23rd June, Brunel’s ship was towed into Avonmouth Docks. Here, the ship was taken off the pontoon and then – on 5th July and before an estimated crowd of 100,000 - the ss Great Britain was towed up the River Avon to Bristol.

After waiting for two weeks for a high enough spring tide to allow her to get through the shallow and narrow entrance, the ship returned to the Great Western drydock on 19th July – 131 years to the day since her first plates were laid there, and 127 years since her launch.

Dimensions and Statistics (at time of launch)
Length (excluding bowsprit):   322 feet
Breadth overall:   51 feet
Tonnage:   3443 burthen, 1010 net registered
Accommodation:  After saloon 110’ long; forward saloon 61’ long; after dining saloon 98’6” long; forward dining saloon 61’ long.
Capacity:   252 passengers with berths (360 could be carried if necessary, but not all with berths); 26 single cabins. 130 Crew.
Cargo: 1200 tons. Coal bunkers fore and aft and alongside the engines – 1,000-1,200 tons.

Cost (1843):   Construction £117,295 6s. 7d.
Building facilities at her dock: £53,081 12s. 9d.
Widening the Bristol locks:  £1,330 4s. 9d.