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ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL AND HIS "GREATS"

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Sailing ship men considered that the Great Britain's rig was too dumpy because the masts were too low. Brunel had designed the ship so that the sails could be handled by no more than 30 men. Back in Liverpool the ship was dry-docked and a spare four bladed propeller was fitted. At the same time alterations were made to the masts and sails. The No.3 mast abaft the funnel was removed and the wire rigging replaced by then then traditional hemp. The No.4 mast was altered to take square sails and the 2nd and 4th masts were fitted with top-gallants all, supposedly, to improve the sailing performance.

On 22nd September,1846, the Great Britain sailed from Liverpool on her fifth voyage with 180 passengers, the most that she had ever carried. Later that night while passing the coast of County Down, Ireland, she ran aground in Dundrum Bay. It was a squally night with rain and Chicken Rock Light on the Isle of Man had not been sighted and the ship ran too far before turning up the Irish coast. There were no casualties and the passengers were embarked next day but the Great Britain was stuck fast and holed. It was nearly twelve months before the ship was towed back to Liverpool at the end of August 1847. The cost of repairs were estimated at £22,000 but the ship was under insured and the company did not have the resources to cover the difference. Consequently, the company was forced to sell its two famous ships the Great Western and the Great Britain.

Gibbs, Bright & Company of Liverpool were looking for a ship to carry gold prospectors and emigrants to Australia and purchased the Great Britain. Further alterations were made before she re-entered service. A fourth mast was added with two being square rigged and the other two fore and aft rigged. Two smaller funnels, installed side by side, replaced the single funnel and a deck house was fitted to increase the passenger capacity. The engines, damaged when the ship ran aground, were replaced by twin-cylinder oscillators which turned a three-bladed propeller which was fitted with a clutch to allow it to freely rotate when the ship was under sail.

Re-entering service the Great Britain made one crossing to New York before, in 1852, departing for Melbourne, Australia with 630 passengers. The length of the voyage to Australia meant that the ship had to depend a lot on sail to conserve fuel. But the new rig proved to be unsatisfactory and there was still excessive drag of the propeller. In an attempt to improve the ship's performance she was, in 1853, virtually rebuilt. The twin funnels, which may have interfered with sail handling, were replaced with a single small funnel and a three-masted ship rig with a long bowsprit provided the auxiliary sail power. A two-bladed propeller was fitted and a lifting frame enabled it to be lifted clear of the water when the ship was under sail.


A painting by Keith A. Griffin of the s.s. Great Britain in 1843
(s.s. Great Britain Project)

Without any further alterations the Great Britain made more than 30 voyages to Australia and also carried troops to the Crimea and India. In 1855, when Florence Nightingale required emergency hospitals to be sent to the Crimea Brunel designed sectional buildings which were transported in 23 ships within 10 months of the commencement of the operation, with the Great Britain playing a major role. The standard of living on board was far superior to that found on the majority of other ships sailing at the time. The accommodation was more lavish and the first-class menu listed a choice of twelve dishes. On the long voyages passengers on sailing ships were expected to help in the working of the ship which, in many cases, was a welcomed break to the monotony. When she was carrying troops the ship carried up to 1650 men and 30 horses.

In 1876, as she was beginning to show her age, the Great Britain was taken out of service and put up for sail. Antony Gibbs & Company bought her in 1862, converted her to sail only and removed the engines, deck housing and all of the passenger accommodation. The propeller aperture was sealed, hatches were cut into the deck to facilitate the loading of cargo and wooden cladding was fixed to the hull between the high and low load lines. She had been modified so that she could be loaded to 25 feet - 50 percent deeper than Brunel's original design draught.

When the modifications were completed she undertook two voyages to San Francisco carrying coal on the outward passage and wheat on the return. Her third voyage commenced at Penarth in South Wales on 6th February, 1886 and proved to be her last under her own power. As the Great Britain was negotiating Cape Horn a hurricane was blowing causing her cargo to shift. At the same time parts of her masts were carried away and she was forced to put into the Falkland Islands for repairs. A survey of the damage caused by the hurricane revealed that repairs were not viable and, consequently, she was condemned. From that time until 1933 she was used as a hulk for storing bales of wool.

The ship lay idle for four years until, on 14th April, 1937, she was towed round to Sparrow Cove, a few miles from Port Stanley, and scuttled. Holes were punched into her bottom and she slowly settled on the sea bed. For most ships this would been the end. Left to the elements she would have eventually broken up and rusted away. But the Great Britain was to live to see another day.

Next - The "Great Britain" (continued)
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