A story of the SS Great Britain, now an award winning museum in Bristol, England

From Slaves to Sleepers
The dark saga behind the Steamship Great Britain

1969 - a card arrived from Bristol's time honoured Society of Merchant Venturers
The Board of Directors of the Great Western Steam-Ship Company and those concerned with the building and planning the SS Great Britain
Peter Maze, Chairman, Thomas Kington, Deputy Chairman, Captain Claxton RN, Managing Director, Henry Bush, Robert Scott, T.B.Ware, Thomas Pyecroft, T.R.Guppy - IK Brunel, consulting engineer, W. Patterson, shipbuilder , Osborne & Ward, solicitors. Both Peter Maze and Henry Bush were at one time appointed Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers

The man of vision

The brilliant shipbuilder

The firebrand fixer

The engineer and inventor

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The consulting engineer and visionary who persuaded wealthy men to back his schemes. Less than six years after beginning projects in Bristol he totted up his financial success in his diary. The total amounted to £5,320.000 which today would be about (234, 612,000GBP) and he wrote " A pretty considerable capital likely to pass through my hands - and this at the age of 29". While today Brunel is hailed as a great engineer, the 19th century Press was not so kind.

William Patterson

Born in poverty in Scotland in 1795 Patterson grew up with shipbuilding in London, first as apprentice then foreman. He moved to Bristol where he became a shipbuilder with his own yard and quickly gained a reputation. One of his friends was Christopher Claxton an ex-Royal Navy lieutenant who held the position of Quay Warden [Harbour Master]. Patterson built the Great Western Steamship Company's first vessel - the Great Western and he designed the hull of the Steam-Ship Great Britain. In 1851 he completed the Demerara that had the misfortune to hit rocks in Bristol's Avon gorge.

Christopher Claxton

The Managing Director was often seen in the Press as the Hon. Secretary. Claxton was a robust political speaker from one of Bristol's slaving families. He railed at the slaves - Black Africans, the Quakers who supported the abolition of slavery and Jews. In the 1830 Bristol election for parliamentary representatives Claxton offered to fight a pistol duel with John Hare the agent of the young Edward Protheroe who was running on an anti-slavery ticket. The Protheroe and Claxton familes were related and their names live on in the old Caribbean plantation islands of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Thomas Richard Guppy

A very wealthy Bristolian. from a family whose fortune was based on copper and sugar, both spin-offs from the 18th Century slave trade. Guppy took after his mother who was an inventor with numerous patents to her credit. Guppy's design features for the Steam-Ship Great Britain were patented in 1843 and his drawings are the only detailed engineering plans for the ship. He arranged for them to be published and at the last minute never completed the book. The publisher had to issue an apology to subscribers

Great names indeed.... but now it is time for another story

The first published account of the Steam-Ship Great Britain was in 1842. It was written and presumably illustrated by J.R. Hill whose address was in Chancery Lane, London,England. Hill made his measurements using a measuring stick. Similar drawings were published two years later in Christopher Claxton's book The Steam-ship Great Britain. [Bristol and New York] and will be available here in this Nonesuch book

This digital version of the magazine is searchable and the only reference to ' Brunel 'is to Sir Marc Brunel, I K Brunel's father whose patented engine design was the basis for the Great Britain's engines. Thomas Guppy is also mentioned but there are no references to Christopher Claxton or William Patterson.

The Annals of Bristol were published as s of five books. Today the originals are expensive but Print on Demand and e-versions are available. John Latimer the author is widely regarded as the great historian of Bristol though some of his comments may be contested. Latimer was Editor of the Liberal leaning Bristol Mercury from 1858-1883. Both the Annals and newspaper are searchable online.

The Annals of the 19th Century e-book is taken from the original contains over 500 pages so the extracts here are limited to places where the names Brunel, Patterson, Claxton and Guppy appear. When searching for Brunel we suggest use Brunei as some 19th century fonts for 'l' are not picked up - use 'i' and it works. You will find a similar problem on the full e-book if you go to the Internet Archive.

Who paid the bills and who lost money?

1844 and at anchor ready for work the Steam-Ship Great Britain had cost the Great Western Steam-Ship Company [GWSC] £117,295, six shillings and seven pence - to this had to be added a further £53,081, 12 shillings and ninepence for the buiding works and dock plus another £1,330, four shillings and ninepence for the alteration to locks in Bristol's floating harbour. A grand total of approximately 7,572,278 GBP today. When the ship was sold as a wreck to the Falkland Islands Company in 1886 the value had dropped to £3000 or 179,670 GBP [2010]

Between the two figures lay 42 years of life, countless thousands of Pounds spent on modifications, at least one company, the Great Western Steam-ship Company wound up and all assets sold, a suspected suicide of one captain the walk-out of another.

Money conversion by the Currency Converter -The National Archives, Kew, Richmond,England
The extraordinary financing of the Steam-ship Great Britain

Leigh Court is a grand mansion set in wooded parkland on the Somerset side of the river Avon 6 kms from the dock in Bristol.

A tudor house in the park was demolished in 1812 and 1814 Miles built the present very imposing house. The Miles family fortunes came from West Indian sugar, shipping and banking. At one time the house contained a fine collection of paintings by 'old masters'.

Bristol Money backed the project and no better example of its power could be seen than on Wednesday July 19th 1843 the day of 'The Floating' or launch of the ship. Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, consort of Queen Victoria, the reigning monarch of Great Britain and Ireland consented to attend the event. It was a wonderfully festive occasion for the city and the Prince arrived from London by a train on the newly completed Great Western Railway. The steam locomotive Damon was conducted by IK Brunel and his friend Daniel Gooch.

Several descriptions of The Floating have been passed down. The most amusing version suggests the traditional bottle of champagne was dropped and a second bottle was needed. But on Saturday July 22nd 1843 just three days after the ' Floating' the Bristol Mercury published a special supplement reporting the momentous occasion. The report may have been 'massaged' to avoid embarrasssing Prince Albert but according the the Mercury the bottle was passed by the Prince to a 'Mrs Miles' who smashed it against the ship while saying 'The Great Britain'.

Mrs Miles - Bristolians of the 1800s would have known her by name as she was the wife of a director of a major Bristol bank usually known as Miles Bank. Her full name was Clarissa Miles and she was the second wife of Philip John Miles from what was reputedly Bristol's wealthiest family and also, reputedly, Philip was Bristol's first millionaire - which bearing in mind the value of money in those times was a very healthy stash of cash. No wonder that Clarissa and Philip were seated at the top table alongside the Prince and hosted by their close friend Thomas Kington.

Forty eight year old Thomas Kington was the deputy director of the GWSC, a Somerset landowner, Bristol ship-owner, merchant and trading partner of Philip Miles. Prince Albert was sitting on his right while the likes of Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and his wife, IK Brunel and his father Sir Marc were at a lesser table. IK Brunel who is so well known today was not even involved when the Prince was taken on a tour of the ship - that honour was in the hands of Guppy and Claxton. Was it a snub or simply a reflection of his part in the construction of the ship?

The Bristol Mercury - Saturday July 22nd 1843 covers the 'floating' or launch.

 The story of the money will continue... Bristol was awash with cash as the British Government in London had just paid twenty million pounds to slave owners as compensation for their loss when slavery was outlawed in 1807 and in 1833 abolished across most of the British Empire. Bristol slave owners received £500,000 of the pay-out and as one writer has said ' they had a broad willigness to replace slaves by sleepers' and invest in the new 19th century industry.[the sleepers of railway tracks or 'railroad-ties']. Philip Miles and Thomas Kington were among the winners to the tune of around £36,000.00 - or £1.6 million GBP [2012]. There's little wonder that they were at the top table.
Bristol and the Abolition of Slavery, Professor Peter [James] Marshall, 1975, University of Bristol
AND MORE AND MORE ... in the book.........

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