The SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going, iron-hulled, screw-driven vessel, and was the world’s largest ship when she was launched from the dockyard in which she now reposes in 1843. She was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) who originally conceived her as a paddle steamer but, at a late stage in her construction, decided to use screw propulsion. She was constructed from wrought-iron plates of which some, if not all were rolled by the Coalbrookdale Co at Horsehay, Shropshire.
She began her maiden voyage on 26 July 1845, crossing to New York from Liverpool in 14 days, but her career as an Atlantic passenger line was cut short in 1846 when she ran aground at Dundrum Bay in Ireland. While her hull suffered relatively little damage her engines were ruined, and her owners became bankrupt. From 1852 until 1876 she was successfully employed by Gibbs, Bright and Co, conveying emigrants, 750 on each voyage, to Australia, although in the mid-1850s she was used by the government for several years taking troops, first to the Crimea and then to India for the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. In 1882 her engines were removed and she was adapted as a windjammer for taking Welsh coal round Cape Horn to California. It was on a voyage round the Cape that the Great Britain suffered damage in 1886. She took shelter in the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, and was subsequently used as a storage hulk at Port Stanley.
She was beached when she ceased to be waterproof in 1937, but in 1970 a consortium arranged for her to be towed back to Bristol. She has since been extensively restored, and visitors are now able to see the first class dining room, the steerage quarters and the engine room as they would have been when she was new. After the latest phase of restoration work she appears to be floating, but the ‘water’ is a sheet of glass which creates an airtight area that is constantly dehumidified, in which her hull now rests.