First Atlantic Steamship Great Western
By James Donahue
While the Savannah holds the distinction of being the first steamship to cross the Atlantic from the
United States to Europe and back again, the fact that it only used its engine for a small portion of the trip, and relied
mostly on sail power took some of that glory away.
The first steamship to successfully make the trip across the Atlantic under steam power was the Great
Western, designed by famed railroad engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and built by William Bristol for the Great Western Steamship
Co. in 1837.
Like the Savannah, the Great Westen was built on a clipper ship hull measuring 212 feet in length.
She had a steam engine but also was fully rigged for sail, with four masts. It was powered by side-mounted paddle wheels and
capable of traveling at a speed of nine knots.
The steamer offered accommodation for 128 passengers aft and another 20 passengers in cabins located
forward. The ship was designed to offer passengers a degree of comfort at sea that was unknown until this ship went into service.
She had a grand saloon with Gothic-revival arches and elegant wall-panel paintings. It was said passengers could summon a
steward by pulling on a bell-rope from their cabins.
In researching the history of the Great Western we find conflicting reports. One story said the ship
made its maiden voyage from Bristol to New York with only seven passengers. It said fifty passengers cancelled after the ship
caught fire and grounded during a trial run. It said that engineer George Pearne was scalded to death in an accident in the
engine room as the steamer was arriving at New York on April 23, 1838.
The New York papers on April 24 failed to mention the accident and fire. It referred to this historic
event with a somewhat droll record:
"The British Steam Packet Ship Great Western, James Hosken, R.N., Commander, having arrived yesterday
from Bristol, with place she left on eighth inst. At noon, will sail from New York for Bristol on Monday, May seventh, at
2 p.m. She takes no steerage passengers. Rates in the cabin, including wines and provisions of every kind, 30 quineas (sic),
a while stateroom for one person, 50 guineas. Steward’s fee for each passenger 1.10 pounds sterling. Children under
thirteen years of age, half price."
The report went on to say that the ship also offered room for up to 200 tons of cargo at "lowest current
The Great Western went on to enjoy a career of nine seasons for the Great Western Steamship Co., making
a total of 64 round trips between Bristol and New York. One historian said that the owners eventually lost out to Cunard,
which also built a line of successful steamships. "Had (the Great Western’s) owners been able to build equally reliable
sisters quickly, they could have given Cunard a run for his money. But not until 1845 did the Great Western get a companion,
the Great Britain.
And that ship will be yet another story.
The steamer was sold to the Royal Mail Company and ran successfully for yet another 10 years between
Southampton and the West Indes. In 1855 the Great Western performed her final duty as a transport ship during the Crimean
War. Then in 1856 she was sold and scrapped at Vauxhall, London.