The invention of the steam engine in the 1830s had a big influence on travel on land and sea. Samuel Cunard’s paddle steamer gained the Royal Mail contract for carriage to America.  A rival company, based in Bristol, the Great Western Steamship Company appointed Isambard Kingdom Brunel as their Chief Consulting Engineer, to build their own steamship.  Although he had never built a ship he got the job because of his railway experience.

Great Western wanted four wooden paddle steamers.  The first, the Great Western was launched in 1837.  With the second ship, the Great Britain, Brunel worked out that with the use of wrought iron for the hull instead of wood, the ship could be built bigger and lighter.  It would still be a paddle steamer but with one paddle lifted out of the water on the ocean.  Brunel then proposed to the Directors the installation of a propeller.

The ss Great Britain was launched in the summer of 1843 with Prince Albert as Guest of Honour.  Unfortunately the wife of a Director of the Steamship Company missed the ship with the champagne bottle, so Prince Albert grabbed another and threw it at the ship.

The first voyage was from Liverpool to New York and took 15 days. There was accommodation for 250 first and second-class passengers but only 45 people purchased tickets, as they were wary about travelling on an iron ship.

Sadly the ship only completed four crossings.  On the fifth, the turn to the north out of Liverpool was missed and the ship ran aground off Ireland.  Brunel designed a breakwater around the ship to give her protection during the winter and the following spring she was righted, using wooden crates of sand and gravel to weight one side of the ship.  After returning to Liverpool the Great Western Steamship Company went bankrupt and the Great Western and Great Britain were sold to cover the debts.

In 1850/51 gold was discovered in Australia, which led to a massive demand for emigration.  Gibbs Bright bought the ss Great Britain and converted it to a square rig sailing ship with auxiliary engines.  She sailed from Liverpool to Melbourne from 1852 with room for 700 passengers and 140 crew.  It was a two month trip costing the equivalent today of £5,000 first class and £1,500 steerage.  Livestock were kept on the top deck and included 38 pigs, 2 bullocks, 1 cow, 30 turkeys, 133 sheep, 400 geese, 420 chickens and 300 ducks.

Apart from the segregation by class there was a segregation by gender, with single men and single women separated.  First Class passengers were fed incredibly well, with breakfast at 9am, lunch at 12 noon, tea at 4pm and dinner at 7.30pm.  Rats were everywhere, including first class, they were even known to bite toenails.  In all 16,000 emigrants were transported to Australia.

Later in the 1850s the ship was requisitioned to carry troops to the Crimea.  In 1861 she took a cricket team to Australia. 1882 saw a new beginning.  The Americans were importing high-grade coal from South Wales, so the ss Great Britain was converted to a cargo ship, to carry 3,000 tons of coal to California. The top was clad in wooden planking.  The ship completed two round trips before being caught in a storm in 1886 at Cape Horn.  She went in to Port Stanley for repairs but the cost was more than the ship was worth so she was sold to the Falkland Islands for £2,000 and used as storage until 1937 when it was decided to scuttle her at Sparrow Cove.  Some of her iron plates were used to patch up HMS Exeter following damage in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939.  After that local children used the ship as an adventure playground and picked mussels off her hull.

In the late 1960s Dr Ewan Corlett, a distinguished naval architect wrote to The Times about the ship being left to rot.  A Project Committee was subsequently established and Sir Jack Heywood sponsored a German English salvage team, who left for the Falklands with a pontoon in 1970.  There was an 18 inch wide split in the hull of the ss Great Britain, so an appeal was put out to the islanders for mattresses, which were jammed in to the crack to make it watertight.  The ship was then towed into the area above the submerged pontoon, which was pumped up with air to raise it into position to support the ship.  Within 2 months she was back at Avonmouth, the cracks in her hull were repaired with steel plates and she was floated off the pontoon.  For the final leg of the journey, on July 5th 1970 she was brought up the River Avon on her own hull, with a diving team on hand to patch up leaks.  She was finally welcomed home to the dock in which she was built on 19th July 1970, exactly 127 years after her launch.

All that was left was an empty shell and the mammoth task was to restore the ship to reflect the different periods in her life.  Below the water line the hull was corroding quickly with a forecasted life of just 15 years.  A team from Cardiff University developed a dehumidification system and with the aid of a Heritage Lottery grant the system was installed.  By keeping the air as dry as possible corrosion can be prevented.  The ship’s bespoke dehumidification machine sucks in air and dries it by forcing it through a water- absorbent chemical powder.  It then blows dehumidified air onto the ship’s hull.  Ducts below the glass waterline plate collect the blown air and recycle it.  This keeps the air at a corrosion-busting 20% relative humidity.  A glass plate surrounding the ship acts as the roof of the giant dehumidification chamber.  A layer of water gives the impression that the ship is afloat and acts as an insulating blanket.