Maritime Tales - Brunel’s first ships

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Black and white photo of a man in a top hat and waistcoat leaning against a huge wheel of chains

Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is for me, Stephen Guy, one of the world’s greatest engineers who created two remarkable ships before building the legendary Great Eastern.

The first was the 2,340-ton Great Western of 1837, the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship which more than halved the time to cross from Britain to America. Powered by sail and paddlewheels, the timber-built Great Western set new standards of travel. Her first journey to New York took just 15 days, with 14 days to return. This was a great success as a one-way trip under sail took more than a month. The 236-ft long Great Western sailed initially from Bristol but later switched to Liverpool. She was for several years the most popular and successful Atlantic steamer, making a total of 74 crossings to New York. 

There is a detailed model of the Great Western in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. She has one funnel and four masts plus an unusual circular poop deck at the stern.

Great Western was later bought by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company for service on the Southampton – West Indies mail run. She ended her days as a troop carrier in the Crimean War before being broken up on the Thames in 1857.

A more worthy fate awaited Brunel’s next vessel, the 3,676-ton SS Great Britain – the first modern ship because of many innovative features. This time she was built from iron and was the first propeller-powered ship to cross the Atlantic. Great Britain – also featured in the museum’s model collection - was a tremendously strong ship. On an early voyage the 322 ft long vessel was beached off the southern coat of Ireland for nearly a year. She showed no sign of serious structural damage.

This was another very successful ship, staying in service for 30 years. She sailed with emigrants from Liverpool to Australia for more than 20 years and San Francisco was another destination. Great Britain also served as a troopship.

Towards the end of her career she had her engines removed and operated as a sailing ship.  She was badly damaged in a storm off Cape Horn – a notorious ships’ graveyard – in 1886. However, she managed to make her way to the Falkland  Islands. For more than 100 years Great Britain lay in Sparrow Cove, Port Stanley, in a remarkable state of preservation. She was salvaged by a group of enthusiasts and towed back to Bristol in 1970 where she remains a big visitor attraction.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.