Trans-Atlantic Days, ss Great Britain,  1845-46

40 x 50 cm,  oil on canvas,  2011        

Painted especially for the charity auction at the British Antarctic Survey Club Reunion, held on board the ss Great Britain, in Bristol on 18th June 2011.  Proceeds will now go towards the placement of a second memorial for the British Antarctic Monument Trust in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands to commemorate all those who did not return home from their time in Antarctic regions.

British Antarctic Monument Trust,  Registered Charity  No 1123064

The image has been inspired by the marine paintings of Cornelis de Vries, and is based on images in the public domain found on the internet and on help provided by members of the ss Great Britain Trust, particularly the technical services manager Paul Harrison.  A brief history of the vessel has been downloaded from the ss Great Britain Trust website

1845 - 46 Luxury Transatlantic Passenger Liner

Technological innovation, inspirational design and some truly revolutionary features lay behind the development of the ss Great Britain, the world's first iron-hulled, steam-powered ocean going ship.

Originally conceived as a paddle steamer, the ss Great Britain's builders quickly recognised the advantages that the new technology of screw propulsion could give the vessel, and converted the ship and her engines to power a 16 foot iron propeller. At the time of her launch in 1843 she was by far the largest ship in the world, over 100 feet longer than her rivals, and the first screw-propelled, ocean-going, wrought iron ship. Designed initially for the transatlantic luxury passenger trade, she could carry 252 first and second class passengers and 130 crew.

While her first few voyages successfully demonstrated her potential, they were not great financial successes, with far fewer passengers than anticipated. And her career as a passenger liner was cut short when she ran aground on the sands of Dundrum Bay in Northern Ireland in 1846. Although her hull was not badly damaged, her engines were ruined, and the expense of re-floating her drained the financial resources of her owners.

1852 - 1876 Emigrant Clipper

Under new owners Gibbs Bright and Co, the ship prospered, and her reputation was re-established. It was the height of the Australian gold rush and the company took full advantage of the increase in emigration to that country by rebuilding the ship for use as a fast and luxurious emigrant carrier, circumnavigating the globe.

A 300 foot-long deck house was added to the ship's upper deck and a new 500 h.p. Penn engine was fitted. The internal accommodation was rebuilt to accommodate 750 passengers in three classes and the ship now had a radically different external appearance, sitting lower in the water and featuring a much larger superstructure and twin funnels.

For her initial voyage, the ss Great Britain carried four masts, two fore and aft and two square sails but she was then re-masted, to carry three masts and all square sails. Over the next 24 years and 32 voyages she was a frequent sight in Australian waters, as well as making stops in Cape Town, St Helena, and the occasional trip to New York. The ship averaged 60 days out and 60 days home & an extremely fast time for the 19th century and carried over 15,000 emigrants. In 1861 she carried the first ever English cricket team to tour Australia. Two years later, she again transported the English side, which by then included E.M. Grace, brother of Dr. W.G. Grace.

1855 Troop Ship

Between 1855 and 1856 the vessel was chartered by the British Government to carry troops to and from the Crimean War. Over the course of the conflict, she carried over 44,000 troops. She was then rebuilt, with her hurricane deck expanded breadthways to her bulwarks. This was later referred to as the spar deck. Her masts were repositioned, and a new, wider funnel replaced the earlier twin funnels. She was then chartered again by the British Government for a further trooping voyage, carrying the 17th Lancers and 8th Hussars to the Indian Mutiny.

1882 - 1886 Windjammer

By the late 1870's the ss Great Britain was showing her age and her owners were unable to maintain their full registration as a passenger vessel. The ship was still serviceable however and her sleek-hulled profile ensured her easy conversion into a fast three-masted sailing ship. Her engines were removed, as was her upper spar deck, and the hull was clad with pitch pine.

1886 - 1970 Coal Hulk

Barely recognisable as the same vessel launched in 1843, she transported Welsh coal to San Francisco around Cape Horn. On her third trip, she ran into trouble around the Cape, and was forced to run for shelter in Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. The cost of repairs were not economic and she was sold as a coal and wool storage hulk in Port Stanley.

Here she remained through the First World War, with coal from her hold helping to replenish the battle cruisers HMS Inflexible and HMS Invincible before the decisive battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, in which the armoured German cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and light cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk. By 1937 the Great Britain's hull was no longer watertight, and after being towed a short distance from Port Stanley, she was beached. Holes were driven in her sides, and she was abandoned to the elements.

It was a particularly sad fate for the ship. But even in this condition, her historical significance was recognised, as witnessed by attempts to rescue her in the late 1930's and 1960's, and by the raffle of souvenirs from her during the Second World War to raise funds for the purchase of Spitfires.

Salvage and Conservation

Finally, in 1970, an epic salvage effort re-floated the ship, and she was towed back home across the Atlantic to Bristol. Her new life had begun, but it took 35 years to complete the painstaking conservation and restoration we can all now enjoy. Brunel's 160-year-old ship has suffered serious damage since she was scuttled and abandoned in the Falklands in 1935. Recent conservation work focused on all original, pre-1970 material as it is this original fabric which provides the most tangible and important link with the ss Great Britain's past. But iron corrosion was as at advanced stage.

Construction of a glass sea at the ship's water line provides the roof of a giant airtight chamber surrounding the ship's lower hull. Beneath the glass plate moisture is removed from the air using special dehumidification equipment. In this dry environment, the hull will no longer corrode. Never tried before, this groundbreaking method is akin to placing an historic artefact in a glass case but on a vast scale.

The glass sea is covered with a thin layer of water, so the ship appears to be floating. Visitors can descend beneath the glass plate into the dry dock, to see the ship's vast, curved flanks and her all-important propeller.

Although she will never sail again, Brunel's ss Great Britain is an invaluable educational resource and an international monument to British invention.


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