The SS Great Britain was the world’s first steam-powered, iron-hulled passenger liner and she was twice the weight of any other ship when launched in 1843.
Although she looks like a regular sailing ship, the SS Great Britain was revolutionary for being both built from iron and being powered by steam with a large screw propeller under the hull as is still used by ocean liners today. Prior to the launch of the SS Great Britain, steam-powered vessels were comprised mostly of riverboats with a paddlewheel on either side.
The SS Great Britain was built for the trans-Atlantic voyage and in 1845 she was crossing the Atlantic in just 14 days. However, in September 1846, she ran aground in Dundrum Bay off the northeastern coast of Ireland and was refitted before being put back into service in 1852 to carry emigrants to Australia. She made 44 return trips to Australia before being converted for transportation of coal in 1882. In 1886 she was damaged after an onboard fire and sold to the Falkland Islands Company which used the ship for storage.
A salvage operation was undertaken in 1970 and she was mounted on a submersible pontoon and towed from the Falkland Islands to Bristol (with stops in Montevideo, Uruguay and Barry, Wales). The SS Great Britain was then restored and is now on display in Bristol in her original dry dock.
The SS Great Britain is now operated as a museum ship where visitors can explore the ship and learn about how she revolutionised sea travel. However, this is not the first time that the SS Great Britain was used as a museum ship and in 1852, after her first voyage to Australia, more than 4,000 people paid to visit her when she was docked in Melbourne.
What to see on the SS Great Britain
Visitors to SS Great Britain can explore three levels of the ship and they can also go below deck to see her revolutionary propeller and there are also two adjoining museums with one chronicling the ship’s history and the other celebrating the life and work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The displays on board the ship are excellent and they give you a great idea of what life would have been like at sea. The multi-sensory exhibits include the sounds and smells that you would expect onboard the ship and there are wax mannequins in period costume showing what it would have been like on board the ship in the mid-19th century. In addition to the wax models, there are also guides on board in period dress.
Areas of the ship that you are able to visit include the upper deck, the promenade deck (where first-class passengers would socialise), the dining saloon, the steerage (third-class) quarters, the ship’s pantry and kitchen, the forward hold and the ship’s engine.
A glass air seal was installed at water level in the mid-2000s to enable the area below deck to be kept at a lower humidity to prevent corrosion. Visitors to the ship can now walk below the ship to see the rudder and propeller with the air seal providing the illusion of being under the water level.
It is a great attraction for the whole family and there is a lot for children to do from exploring the ship to dressing up in period costume.
The Dockyard Museum chronicles the ship’s history and it also has exhibits about the passengers who travelled on board, which include the first all-England cricket team to tour Australia and author Anthony Trollope, who wrote an entire novel during the course of his voyage.
Being Brunel is a new museum exhibit, which opened on the site in 2018. This museum, which is included in your admission to the SS Great Britain, focuses on the Isambard Kingdom Brunel and contributions to society that don’t just include designing the SS Great Britain but also the development of the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London, his tunnel under the River Thames and building bridges, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
The Being Brunel exhibit is very well put together and it includes a mix of interactive displays alongside historical artefacts.
Go Aloft! is an activity that lets you climb the ship’s rigging for an additional £10 fee. This involved being kitted out in a safety harness and climbing 25m (82 ft) up the rigging and even walking along the ship’s spar.
It is a great experience and the views are amazing but unfortunately, you can’t take a camera up with you.
Visiting the SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain is one of Bristol’s top attractions and many people say that it is one of the best historic ships that you can visit. She appeals to all ages and, although the entry charge is rather pricey, there is enough to keep you busy for half a day making this better value than some cheaper attractions.
The ship is on a dry dock on Spike Island, which is around a half-hour walk from both the city centre and the railway station. The SS Great Britain is also accessible via the hop-on-hop-off river ferry and the cross-harbour ferry connects the ship with the Canon’s Marsh neighbourhood where you can find attractions such as Bristol Aquarium and We the Curious and several hotels including ibis Bristol Centre and Travelodge Bristol Central.
It is a self-guided visitor experience but there are guides on board in period costume who can answer questions and an audio guide is also available in English, French, German, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
The ship has better wheelchair accessibility than you would expect for a museum ship built in the 19th century. There is a wheelchair-accessible lift on board the ship and the two adjoining museums and the cafe are wheelchair accessible. However, the entrances to some of the cabins are too narrow for standard wheelchairs although in these instances there are special wheelchairs available to access these areas.
The Go Aloft! experience costs an additional £10 (tickets are available from the upper deck on the day of your visit) and children can go for free with a paying adult climber. You must be at least 10-years-old and 1.4m (4 ft 7 in) tall to take part in this experience and there is a maximum weight limit of 114kg (18 stone). The Go Aloft! experience does not operate if winds are stronger than 32km/h (20 mph). This experience operates 11.30am–4.30pm during summer and noon–4pm in winter. Unfortunately, for safety reasons you’re not allowed to take cameras on the Go Aloft! experience. This restriction even extends to action cameras such as GoPros.
Your entry ticket is valid for 12 months. This means that if you live locally, or visit Bristol regularly, you can come back and make several more visits over the course of a year.
Admission is free if your name is Isambard, although it is unlikely that there are many people who are able to take advantage of this offer.
The Harbourside Kitchen and the Dockyard Cafe are the museum’s two on-site cafes, which are located adjacent to the SS Great Britain complex. There is also an ice cream parlour that is open during summer. Although there are several other places to eat and drink nearby, the immediate area is certainly not as well stocked with cafes and restaurants in other parts of the city and your best bet for a bite to eat nearby (if you don’t fancy eating at one of the museum cafes) is to take the cross-harbour ferry to the other side of the harbour where you’ll find a much better choice of places to eat and drink.
There is also a gift shop on site where you can buy maritime and Brunel-related souvenirs.
If you enjoyed your visit to the SS Great Britain, you will probably also enjoy visiting the historic ships at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard as well as the Cutty Sark and the Golden Hinde in London. The Brunel Museum in London and STEAM The Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon are also worth visiting for greater insight into the achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.