The SS Great Western was the first steamship successfully built for and engaged in regular Transatlantic trade, so can be seen as the ancestor of the glamourous giant liners of the 20th century. Launched at Bristol in July 1837, she was taken round to the Thames to have her machinery fitted and to run trials. This booklet does not mention it, but she was still running trials on the Thames, when a potential rival. The Thames built Columbus, fitted with Howard’s patent vapourising boilers reached Falmouth, en route to her planned starting point, Liverpool. (See G. Gibbard Jackson “The Story of the Liner” which is also available on this site). Great Western Left Bristol on 8 April 1838, while Columbus was delayed in the Mersey due to severe technical problems with her innovative steam plant.
The genesis of the SS Great Western was almost a joke. At an early board meeting of the Great Western Railway, in September 1835, newly sanctioned by Parliament, I.K. Brunel, the railway company’s engineer said “Why not extend the line from Bristol to new York?” General laughter all round! But the idea took hold with Bristol merchant Thomas Guppy and in January 1836, he and other Bristol merchants issued a prospectus to raise funds for the Great Western Steamship Co. This, while having some directors in common with the railway company was always a separate concern. Brunel was appointed engineer, and William Patterson was selected as the builder. Now with his own yard in Bristol, Patterson was one of the most experienced steamship builders in the country. In the 1820s, he had been foreman to William Elias Evans of Rotherhithe, when Evans was contracted to build the first Post Office Steam packets for the Holyhead station, then two more for Dover. The Holyhead packets were the first steamships which proved capable of operating on the open sea all the year round. For reasons which are obscure, Evans left Patterson in charge of the yard after the Holyhead vessels were completed, and Patterson contracted in his own right to build the second Dover packet. In this he was successful, but lost money on the job. He seems to have had financial assistance from friends, to move to Bristol and make a start on his own. There is an early photograph of Patterson in the booklet, but no biographical information is given.
There is a description of the building and fitting out of the ship, and her luxurious decoration and furnishing. A passenger’s log of the maiden voyage makes interesting reading. Heavy port dues at Bristol forced the company to remove to Liverpool, the dominant British port for the Atlantic trade to New York and Boston, until overtaken by Southampton.
For a variety of reasons explored in the booklet, Great Western never achieved the objective for which she was built – a regular fortnightly service in each direction to and from New York, but during eight years of service, she did achieve 45 round trips.
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