The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe

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The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The Great Western was the first (and now rather forgotten) of the great passenger steamships. This book tells her story and that of the people who travelled on her as crew or passengers, as well as showing her influence on subsequent maritime history after an existence of less than twenty years, and in so doing reveals much on an important period of early travel between Britain and America.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Amberley
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1445667201

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel's most enduring seafaring monuments were the Great Britain and Great Eastern. Their forerunner the Great Western, which paved the way and yet is now largely forgotten, at last merits a full account in this book. Ms Doe admits at the front that she is not an engineer, and as a maritime historian her interests are more social and economic than technical. Her aim is to tell the story of the ship, that of the people who travelled on her as crew or passengers, and her influence on subsequent maritime history after an existence of barely two decades.

In 1836 Brunel, his friend Thomas Guppy and a group of Bristol investors formed the Great Western Steamship Company to build a line of steamships for the Bristol-New York route. The Great Western, an iron-strapped, wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer, was the first of these and she inaugurated a revolution in nineteenth-century travel. Brunel and his colleagues confounded their critics by making her not only the first of the luxury transatlantic liners, but also the largest passenger ship in the world from 1837 to 1839, and the fastest ship to steam continuously across the Atlantic.

It was in part a tale of battling against the odds, not least from critics who claimed that the vessel could never be a success because she was too large. Brunel confounded them by proving that large ships were more fuel efficient, a major consideration where long voyages across the Atlantic were involved. Yet it is not just a story of the shipbuilding committee's determination to prove the doubters wrong, but also of the businessmen and others whom she transported across the ocean. Among them were contemporary celebrities from the entertainment world, including Madame Vestris, a successful leading lady on the stage and manager of the London Olympic Theatre, and her lover, fellow actor Charles Matthews. In order not to offend straitlaced American public opinion, they married immediately before leaving England for New York, but nevertheless still generated unfavourable publicity and cut short their engagement before returning home. Other stage celebrities had more success, in particular the renowned dancer Fanny Elssler, whose timely appearance saved a noted New York theatre from disaster during a period of financial depression that had severely hit the city's entertainment venues.

The author has produced a lively account of life on board, based on reports from the contemporary press and from the diaries of British and American passengers. How revolutionary the vessel was for its time is illustrated by a comment from passenger John Jay Smith, who noted how it would have astonished the navigators of only thirty years previously 'to see 160 persons in a palace in the middle of the Atlantic, pushing their way through every storm and head wind, and dining off fresh provisions and even grouse, with fresh bread, puddings and pies, and ripe plums daily.'

It was a success story which could not last. After completing over forty transatlantic crossings, she was sold, and ended her days as a troopship in the Crimean war, after which she was broken up for scrap. Her story has been somewhat forgotten, overshadowed by Brunel's subsequent ships. Nevertheless she blazed the trail that they would follow.

The narrative is supplemented by several appendices, including extracts from the letters and journals of passengers, a comparison of the ship's menu and that of the best hotels in London and New York, a twelve-page list of passengers in 1838, and a section of plates including various plans of the ship, and maps of harbours and transatlantic routes. Altogether it reveals a good deal on an important period of early travel between Britain and America.

For further reading on early nineteenth-century travel, albeit with a different purpose, we also recommend Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade by Sian Rees.

Buy The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The First Atlantic Liner: Brunel's Great Western Steamship by Helen Doe at Amazon.com.

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