We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

Robert Howlett, 'Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern', 1857. Museum no. 246-1979

Robert Howlett, 'Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern', 1857. Museum no. 246-1979

At the heart of the complex structure of international trade developed by the Victorians and upon which their process of wealth generation depended, were efficient means of communication. It was the successful development by the Victorians of steamships and railways, together with the electric telegraph, that gave them their unique place in history.

The steamship has a long, pre-Victorian ancestry, dating back at least to 1783 when the Marquis de Jouffray d'Abbans steamed his little Pyroscaphe across the Seine. In 1801 the Scottish engineer William Symington developed a steam engine to power a small river boat, the Charlotte Dundas. On board on the maiden voyage was an American engineer, Robert Fulton, a pioneer designer of submersible craft. His steamship, the Clermont, went into service on the Hudson between New York and Albany in 1807. He followed this with the USS Dermologos, the world's first steam-driven warship.

By 1818 steamships were operating in Germany and in the Mediterranean. They were driven by stern or side paddle wheels, and it was the development of this technology, with its suitable steam engine, that absorbed the first generation of steamship engineers.

At this time, sail technology was still dominant, and so the steam engine was regarded as an auxiliary source of power. In May 1819 the Savannah, a sailing packet with an auxiliary engine and collapsible paddle wheels, sailed from Georgia to make the first crossing of the Atlantic. She reached Liverpool 633 hours later, having steamed for only 80 of those hours, but her achievement greatly encouraged support for the steamship. By 1833 the Atlantic crossing time had been reduced to 22 days, and steamships had begun to operate on the major imperial routes to India, South Africa and Australia.

The 1830s also saw the founding of three major shipping lines, the British and American Steam Navigation Company, the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company and the Great Western Steamship Company. The first of these planned to operate a fleet of eight huge vessels specially built for the Atlantic, but in the event, owing to delays in the completion of the first of these, the Royal Victoria, their transatlantic service was started in 1838 by a smaller, chartered ship, the Sirius. With 40 paying passengers on board, and 450 tons of coal, the Sirius sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland on 4 April. Four days later, her rival, the Great Western, sailed from Bristol and arrived in New York only four hours after the Sirius, having completed the crossing in 14 days and 12 hours.

This event marked the start of the modern steamship era, and it established the famous Blue Riband contest for the fastest transatlantic passage by passenger ships. It also launched a period off frenetic competition between the companies, made more intense by the founding of a new shipping line by Samuel Cunard who had won the contract to carry the mails across the Atlantic, on a fleet of four 1000-ton ships under construction in Scotland. Meanwhile, on 10 July 1839 the Royal Victoria, finally completed as the largest steamship in the world and renamed the British Queen, sailed on her maiden voyage from London to New York.

The designer of the successful Great Western was the brilliant young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the dynamic engineer of the Great Western Railway, who had persuaded his directors that the establishment of a transatlantic shipping line was the natural way to expand the services offered by the railway.

Brunel's response to the challenge posed by his rivals was to design a bigger and better ship than all of them and in July 1839 the keel was laid in Bristol for a new iron 3270-ton super-ship, to be called the Mammoth. This was to be the most revolutionary ship of the early Victorian period. Designed for speed and comfort, she was also the first large ship to be screw-driven, Brunel making the radical decision to switch from the conventional paddle wheels at a late stage in the building programme.

When completed this ship, renamed Great Britain, was equipped with cabins and staterooms for 360 passengers and the largest and most lavish dining-room on any vessel afloat. It set the standard for large ocean liners for many decades to come. The steam engine was a massive 1000 horsepower, four-cylinder unit, driving the propeller shaft via a complex arrangement of chains. As the Great Britain was being completed, the first Cunarder, the Britannia, went into service. On 17 July 1840 she docked in Halifax, having crossed the Atlantic in 11 days and 4 hours.

Through the 1840s competition on the Atlantic steadily increased, with the American line operated by Edward Collins joining the battle from 1846. At the same time, the British government was sponsoring the development of other steamship routes.

In 1840 the Peninsular Company became the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, with government contracts to expand services to Egypt, the Cape of Good Hope, India, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, and ultimately to Australia and New Zealand. As the Cunard name was becoming synonymous with the Atlantic, so P&O developed its long-term association with routes east of Suez.

Other shipping lines were developed within the Empire and became crucial to its growth. A Scots agent in India, William (later Sir William) Mackinnon, founded the British India Steam Navigation Co. in 1856. It was to become the largest shipping line in the world, in terms of tonnage, and eventually connected India to South East Asia, the Far East, the Persian Gulf, Britain, East Africa and Australasia.

Mackinnon became closely involved with missionary activities and with British expansion in East Africa, founding the Imperial British East Africa Company. Other lines were created in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They became crucial in the expansion of trade, and of imperial influence, around the coasts of the great territories of the South Pacific, the Pacific islands, the routes to Japan, the Great Lakes of North America and the North Atlantic.

The steam-powered ship was in regular use in many parts of the world before Victoria came to the throne, but the foundations of modern steamship travel date from the first decades of her reign. Improvements in technology and structural systems brought about a new generation of bigger, faster and more efficient ships, making possible the establishment of regular services across the North Atlantic, around the Mediterranean and to India and Australia via the Cape.

In 1843 Brunel's SS Great Britain crossed the Atlantic in two weeks, a journey reduced to under a week by the end of the century. Timings for longer journeys were also steadily reduced, particularly following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Bigger ships also brought about higher standards of comfort, matched by a more luxurious and less maritime style of decor.

Throughout much of the Victorian era British shipbuilders, notably in Scotland and in the north east, and British fleet operators such as Cunard and P&O, dominated the world market, for both passenger and freight transport, a position that reflected the economic power, stability and steady expansion of the British Empire. This, in turn, required an equivalent expansion of British naval power, underlined by the increased use of iron and steel, the gradual replacement of sail by steam, greatly improved gunnery technology and the development of the torpedo, the submarine and the steam turbine.

At the end of the century British naval dominance was increasingly under attack by the new navies emerging from Germany, France and Russia, marking the start of the arms race that would ultimately lead to the First World War. At the same time, Britain had established herself as the primary builder of warships for export to the navies of the world.

Gerald Maurice Burn, 'Launch of the Fuji at Blackwell', 1896. Science and Society Picture Library

Gerald Maurice Burn, 'Launch of the Fuji at Blackwell', 1896. Science and Society Picture Library

To return to the famous Atlantic route, the Cunard ships were fast, reliable and punctual but their fittings were rather basic and passenger comfort was only adequate. In this area, the Great Britain was still unchallenged, even though her time on the Atlantic run was quite short-lived. By 1853, the Great Britain, refitted to accommodate up to 630 passengers, was operating an efficient London to Australia service, which she continued to do for nearly 20 years.

The continuing impact of the Great Britain encouraged Brunel and his backers to create one more ship. In 1854, work started at Millwall on the Thames east of London on the building of the Great Eastern. Designed to carry 4000 passengers and enough coal to sail to Australia without refuelling en route, the ship was 693 feet long, 120 feet wide and weighed over 18,900 tons.

Nothing on this scale had even been considered before, and when she was finally broken up in 1888, the Great Eastern was still the largest ship in the world. The Deutschland of 1900 was the same length but weighed 2000 tons less, and it was not until the next generation of super-liners, the Lusitania of 1907, the Titanic of 1912 and the lmperator of 1913, that the Great Eastern's records were truly broken.

Robert Howlett, 'The Great Eastern', 19th century. Museum no. PH.259-1979

Robert Howlett, 'The Great Eastern', 19th century. Museum no. PH.259-1979

In her construction Brunel pioneered the double-hull system for safety and strength and there was allowance for electric light. Massive steam engines totalling 2600 horsepower drove two 58-foot diameter paddle wheels and a 24-foot propeller. Over 2000 workers were employed on her four-year construction period. Financial and technical problems plagued the ship and on her maiden voyage to New York in June 1860 she carried only 38 paying passengers. This became a pattern and the ship was never to sail with all berths filled, despite its reputation as an astonishing example of technical virtuosity. Her most successful voyage was a government contract to Canada in 1861, when she carried over 3000 passengers and crew and 122 horses, a record for one ship that stood until the First World War.

In 1863 the Great Eastern came out of passenger service and was chartered by the Telegraphic Construction and Maintenance Company to lay telegraph cables across the Atlantic and from India to Aden. She then ended her days as a floating amusement park in various British ports. The more cautious route followed by Samuel Cunard proved to be the right one. In 1856 the first iron Cunarder, the Persia, crossed the Atlantic is just over 9 days, at an average speed of 13.82 knots, winning the Blue Riband in the process. Another Cunarder, the Scotia, the company's last paddle steamer, was to hold the Riband between 1862 and 1867. Great increases in speed and a matching reduction in operating costs were made possible by the development from 1854 of compound expansion engines.

The Cunard ships of this period, famous for their speed and reliability, were built in Glasgow by Robert Napier, one of a number of famous Clyde yards. Equally successful was John Brown's company, founded in 1851. Napier's had an interest in the Cunard company, a trading pattern followed by other yards and shipowners.

Ten years later, Harland & Wolff was founded across the Irish Sea, in Belfast. In the first two years of their existence they built and launched 16 ships. Harland & Wolff backed a new Atlantic challenger, the White Star Line, founded in 1871 and went on to have interests in other shipping companies, including, the Union Castle Line. The first White Star Line ship, the Oceanic, set new standards for comfort and started a period of White Star dominance of the Atlantic. It was not until 1881, when the Servia was launched, a ship of 17 knots fully equipped with electric light, that Cunard could compete again on equal terms.

Over the last decades of the century there was great competition between companies and countries to build the fastest and most comfortable ships, and the Blue Riband regularly changed hands. At the end of the century it was in German hands, held by the Deutschland which could cross the Atlantic in under 5 days.

Other well-known yards on Merseyside and Tyneside flourished, thanks to the apparently insatiable demand for British-built ships, not just for British owners, but also for Italy, Germany, France, Holland and many other countries including Japan.

The British reputation for leading the world in ship design and building technology was not to be seriously challenged until the late 1880s, by which time the commercial competition from Germany was becoming increasingly apparent. At the same time, yards in Britain and other parts of the world were switching increasingly to the construction of warships, laying the foundations for the great international arms race of the Edwardian era.

Britain's final flourish in the field of shipbuilding was the application to maritime engineering of the steam turbine, developed by Charles Parsons from 1884, initially to improve the technology of electricity generation. The first turbine-driven ship, Turbinia, was demonstrated at the great naval review mounted to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of 1897.

Paul Atterbury

Paul Atterbury is a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century art and design, with an interest in the history of technology. He was the curator of the Pugin: A Gothic Passion (V&A, 1994) and co-curator of Inventing New Britain: The Victorian Vision (V&A, 2001). Publications include Victorians at Home and Abroad (V&A Publications, 2001).

Private Group Tours & Talks

We offer a wide range of tours to meet your group requirements. Whether a group has a special area of interest, wishes to explore a particular gallery or just get an overview of the Museum's collection the Groups Team can help.

View our Private Group Tours & Talks