SS Great Britain (1)

During the summer of 2010, being still narrowboaters, we cruised up and down the UK’s Kennet & Avon Canal, including large parts of both rivers, inevitably visiting the lovely city of Bath as well as Bristol’s floating harbour. One of the harbour’s attractions is without any doubt a visit to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s (see SS Great Britain. As our grandsons were to arrive within days we waited for them and, after arriving, let them make a choice about where to go. They preferred a visit to Weston-super-Mare, its aquarium, a donkey ride on the beach and other attractions. Of course we have let them have it their way. So that year all we saw of the ship was the view of its front from where we were moored, across the harbour – as the picture shows. The wooden ship in front is named ‘The Matthew’, by the way. Would we ever have the opportunity to put things right…??

Four-and-a-half years later we unexpectedly found ourselves back in Bristol, this time travelling by car and visiting dear friends. A visit to the SS Great Britain (see was included, this time decided by common consent. When walking towards the ship the first sight is its impressive rear end (‘kont’ in Dutch, also used for a person’s buttocks).

Though being at the end of December (2014) the weather was gorgeous, albeit a cold wind made one prefer to look for a more comfortable environment. (Say a pub, we’re in the UK.)

Before going inside the ship a closer inspection of the hull is, of course, a ‘must do’. Doesn’t it still look fantastic, given the fact that the ship made its maiden voyage in 1845?

Under the waterline the hull shows some signs of ageing. That process has been stopped now. More about this with the next picture.

As is already visible with the second picture, the ship seems to float in the water. That’s only for the sake of appearances though. It’s a thin layer of water and the under-water-part of the ship is in reality confined in an open, dry, space equipped with dehumidifiers. The ‘under-water-space’ is kept ‘at 20% relative humidity, sufficiently dry to preserve the surviving material’ (Wikipedia).

Here’s a picture that gives a good impression of the normally submerged part of the vast hull. Also visible is the ‘ceiling’. Again: as seen from the outside with the second picture. ‘Ironworkers formed the ship’s hull from wrought iron (‘smeedijzer’) plates approximately 6’ (1.8 m) long and 2’ (0,6 m) wide. They placed the thickest plates near the keel, where they are 7/8” (2 cm) thick, because this is where greatest strength is needed. Higher up the hull they used thinner 3/8” (1 cm) plates.’

A clear difference is noticeable between the iron plates above and below a rim around the hull. Explanation? Well, ‘the ship was covered with wooden cladding in 1882 when the SS Great Britain was converted to a cargo-carrying sailing ship. It may have been fitted to protect the ship’s hull from damage caused by boats alongside. The cladding protected the upper iron plates from the worst of the elements for 90 years, which is why they appear better preserved today.’

Initially it was the plan to propel the ship by means of paddlewheels. In 1840, during the process of building the ship, Brunel got to know about the SS Archimedes, the first screw-propelled steamship. He, Brunel, took an immediate interest and persuaded the (building-)company directors ‘to embark on a ... major design change, abandoning the paddlewheel engines —already half constructed— for completely new engines suitable for powering a propeller’. ‘The decision became a costly one, setting the ship's completion back by nine months’. The (replica-)propeller as visible here was later on replaced by a more common type; we seem to remember a 3-blade(?) one.

‘In 1857, this giant lifting frame and two-bladed propeller were built into the stern of the SS Great Britain. This was cutting edge technology at the time. The crew could use the lifting frame to raise the propeller out of the water and into a chamber within the ship’s hull. This allowed the ship to sail, when the wind was favourable, without the propeller dragging in the water and slowing her down. (….) had modified the ship to make her an ‘auxiliary steamer’. 'This meant that her engine and propeller were used as a back-up to her sails. They were not needed when the ship had a good following wind. Sailing instead of steaming helped to save coal, and therefore money’. Amazing!

Imagine this bow (stem? prow?) of the SS Great Britain separating the water of the oceans! Once again: one’s under water. And then again: one’s not. Note the walls and bottom of the dry-dock. It appears to be in its original, old, condition.

A tragedy to end with this time. ‘(John) Gray was a dedicated Captain, and his passengers admired him. He chose his crew carefully and earned their respect. His unexpected death, seemingly a suicide, on the way home from Melbourne in 1872 traumatised the whole ship. National newspaper obituaries reported his death as a tragedy – a sign of how highly Gray’s contemporaries regarded a good commander. In an age before radio, news of the Captain’s death could not travel ahead of such a fast ship. On Christmas Day the ship arrived in Liverpool, where Gray’s wife and daughters, unaware of the calamity, were waiting for him on the quayside’. Pitiful women! Next time: SS Great Britain’s interior.