Researching Brunel’s first Atlantic liner, the Great Western, has raised some intriguing images. Her launch was quite a spectacle. Built in Bristol and mostly fitted out in Bristol, it carried great hopes of a new era in transatlantic commerce. This extract from the book describes the launch and the generous quantities of Madeira with which she was baptised by Mrs Miles and by Lieutenant Claxton, the secretary of the Great Western Steamship Company.

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Launch of the Great Western. (Denis Griffiths, The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship, Amberley Publishing)

A ship launch was always a big celebration and attracted large crowds, some curious, some supportive and some just hoping for excitement and the possibility of a mishap and this was a hotly anticipated day. As usual the Bristol Mercury was there and devoted many column inches to the ship they nicknamed ‘The great leviathan of the deep’, a name later used at the launch of the Great Eastern.  By eight o’clock crowds had already congregated, every spot, every ship, every rooftop, that could command a view was occupied. On the water were the ships the Saint George and Clifton, both East Indiamen, the Stedfast and other West Indiamen, the Benladi and Torridge steamers.  The ship began launching at 10:00 and as she moved Mrs Miles, the wife of the local MP, ‘dashed a decanter of Madeira and named it the Great Western, at the same time Claxton broke a six-gallon bottle, also of Madeira, on the figurehead of Neptune repeating the name. The ship launched fully without incident and the crowds took in its magnificence as it floated on the waters looming over all other vessels. It was 236 feet long and 58 feet wide and its registered tonnage was 1,340 tons. Apart from her size, she looked much like any other wooden ship at this stage, as the funnel and paddlewheels would be fitted in London. It was well decorated and the figurehead against which Claxton had dashed so much Madeira, was a demi figure of Neptune, with a gilded trident, and on each side were imitation bronze dolphins and other mouldings were also gilded.

The ship went on to cross the Atlantic for 18 years and cut the journey time from an unpredictable period of months at sea to a reliable two week passage. The book looks at the experience from the crew and the passenger perspective. While the ship was fitted out with every possible luxury for the time and was aimed at superior class passengers, lady travellers were challenged.

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Saloon of the Great Western. (Brunel Institute, SS Great Britain Trust, The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship, Amberley Publishing)

Cabins were small and passages narrow while the prevailing ladies fashion was forever wider and voluminous skirts supported by an extensive number of petticoats. In 1829 a Liverpool newspaper complained about the trend, but the accession of the young clothes loving Queen Victoria continued the fashion. An estimate is that the average dress in 1855 required some of thirty yards of material while the petticoats brought the total to 100 yards. Queen Victoria was very fond of voluminous skirts as they accentuated a narrow waist. For those who were also larger than average getting dressed was a trial. Mrs. Figg, who was clearly a stout party, complained about the difficulty of getting in and out of the berths, as she had to have the upper one in sharing with Mrs Brown. ‘I’m obligated to dress in bed, afore I leave it and nobody that hasn’t tried to put on their clothes lying down can tell what a task it is’ Lacing her stays behind her back and pulling on her stockings were all great trials and to do so ‘While you are rolling about from side to side is no laughing matter. Yesterday I fastened the pillow to my bustler by mistake.’

Modern travellers can sympathise with Mrs Figg.


Helen Doe's book The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel’s Great Western Steamship is available for purchase now.