Brunel’s Great Britain

July 19th, 1843, saw the launch of a ship that dwarfed all others. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to combine an iron hull with a screw propeller. She displaced 3,400 tons, and was over 100 foot longer and 1,000 tons heavier than any previous ship. Her 4 decks could accommodate a crew of 120 and 360 passengers, plus 1,200 tons of cargo and 1,200 tons of coal for fuel.

She was built for the Great Western Steamship Company's transatlantic service between Bristol and New York. When she first crossed the Atlantic in 1845, the first iron steamer to do so, the crossing took 14 days. In addition to the passenger cabins, there were promenade decks and dining saloons.

Brunel’s choice of screw propellers instead paddle wheels marked a turning point in maritime history because their superior efficiency and lighter weight reduced the costs of long-haul transport.

The SS Great Britain was not a commercial success, however, because her high costs and construction delays were compounded by the costs of refitting her after she ran aground off Northern Ireland. Her later career saw thousands of immigrants taken to Australia, and she was converted from auxiliary sail to all-sail. She finished her working days in the Falkland Islands, used as a warehouse, coal store and quarantine ship until she was scuttled and sunk in 1937.

Her happy ending came in 1970 after 33 years under water, when philanthropist Sir Jack Hayward paid for the ship to be raised, restored, and towed back to Bristol, where she is now part of the National Historic Fleet, serving as a visitor attraction and museum ship in Bristol Harbour, attracting 150,000 - 200,000 visitors per year.

Brunel himself, a second-generation son of an immigrant French father, was himself educated in France, and was a larger than life figure of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, leaving a legacy of great iron-hulled ships, suspension bridges, tunnels under rivers, and the Great Western Railway. He is a prime example of the role that immigrant families have played in entrepreneurial ventures.

As The Entrepreneurs Network has pointed out, while only 14% of UK residents are foreign born, 49% of the UK’s fastest-growing businesses have at least one foreign-born co-founder. The US tells a similar story, where 55% of billion-dollar start-ups have an immigrant founder. People who have the drive and initiative to seek to make good in a new country can make a massive contribution to the wealth and vitality of their new abode, and enrich the lives of their new neighbour citizens with the choices and opportunities that new ventures so often bring. 

There is a high chance that the UK will move in future to a points-based system of immigration, instead of imposing random quotas, or having an immigration policy forced on them from abroad. It could happen that this might bring increased immigration, but with numbers that are within our control; and if some of these reflect the qualities of the Brunel family, it will undoubtedly add to the nation’s vitality and competitiveness.