Engines of Empire
Steamships and the Victorian Imagination
Douglas R. Burgess Jr.



The Bristol Crowd, 1843

I saw the S.S. Great Britain at Bristol in the fall of 2013. Set in a Plexiglass firmament with an inch of chlorinated water sloshing about to resemble waves, she is certainly a spectacle. Her engine churns slow revolutions under a glass skylight, with a recorded tape of huffing and chuffing to add verisimilitude. Steamer trunks pile up convincingly in the passageways; waxwork children play on the floor of a reconstructed cabin. In the gilt-edged dining room, a trick of audio technology filters ghostly conversation through hidden speakers: “A trifle more gammon, Lady Weatherall?” “Oh, oh, I feel I may be ill!” “What say you to a game of whist later, doctor?” At the far end a string quartet plays Mendelssohn from empty chairs.1

There is irony in the fact that this ship—derided as a freak and shunted off the Atlantic run for a hardscrabble life in the Antipodes—should be the sole surviving 19th-century example of that quintessential Victorian innovation: the steam ocean liner. All the others are gone. A ship is a mortal structure that begins to corrode the moment it touches water; like ourselves, it is born, lives, and dies in the span of a few decades.

Yet the Great Britain achieved immortality, of a kind. Her persistence owes less to preservation than neglect: Abandoned and forgotten in her own time, she was allowed to rust away on a sandbar in a remote corner of the globe for nearly a hundred years. Had she been the success her creator envisioned, it is almost certain she would have been retired and scrapped long hence. Still, I cannot help but feel that Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be pleased to see her as she is today. She rests in the city he called home, which is still accessed through a system of railway lines and trestles he laid down. The elegant neo-Gothic terminus, only a few short blocks from the Great Britain’s berth, was designed by him as well. On the one hand, the ship’s presence in our century is testament to the innovations she (and he) pioneered: iron hull, screw propeller, and dimensions that dwarfed all other craft. Whatever the Great Britain’s failings as a commercial liner, these advances are incontrovertible; it is right that they should be preserved and honored. On the other hand, like her ill-fated successor the Great Eastern, the Great Britain was more show than ship. Both vessels were at their best tied to the pier, massive and puissant. On the open seas they were miserable failures. Indeed, the only profit either ever turned was in harbor, welcoming crowds of gawkers for tuppence a head.

FIGURE 1. The Great Britain today. Permanently resting in the same Bristol cradle where she was built, the ship looks much as she did at the time of her launch in 1843.
SOURCE: Author’s collection.

Hence her afterlife is doubly appropriate: stuffed and mounted, a spectacle of 19th-century engineering for multitudes of day-trippers in shorts and baseball caps. If the experience onboard seems a trifle unreal, well, that too is as it should be. The ship herself is unreal, a phantasmagoria of science and showmanship. She exists between the tangible realm of technology and the monstrous imaginings of Jules Verne; in other words, at the limit of imagination. This was heady stuff for designers, engineers, owners, and the public at large. They loved the implied challenge, the ever-moving horizon between the possible and the absurd. Like most mirages it shimmers at the corners, always just beyond reach. But that does not discredit its lure. Some of the greatest minds of the century sought it with the same fervor as any intrepid explorer would an unknown continent—and built ships like the Great Britain to carry them there.

To visit her now is to experience a moment of awe that is profoundly Victorian. Not in the sense of the “eminent” Victorians that Lytton Strachey famously lampooned, but rather the common herd. In an instant we become part of the crowd in 1843, gazing upon this technological wonder for the first time. Our consciousness and theirs are joined in approbation. This democratic leveling was the very object of a spectacle, whether it was a ship’s launch or a World’s Fair: Every participant, regardless of race or sex or status, enjoyed the same experience and thus felt kinship with one another. But now, having joined the throng at Bristol, let us take a moment to consider our neighbors. The Victorian crowd is all too often rendered as a faceless, sepia-toned multitude, but we know a great deal about this one. It is heterogeneous. Special excursion trains have been running from London since dawn, and the prohibitive price of a ticket plus the availability of a day’s leisure suggest that many of those around us possess at least middle-class means. The presence of the Prince Consort (arriving on a locomotive driven by Isambard Brunel himself) is surely as much a draw as the Great Britain. Ladies wear their best bonnets. It is a Wednesday morning in July, freshened with a bout of English summer rain, so umbrellas and parasols are held aloft. The crowd is genteel and—given the hour and the closure of the public houses—relatively sober.2

Despite the presence of the London interlopers, the majority of these freshly scrubbed faces are locals. First and foremost are the shipyard workers, the men who built the Great Britain, whose presence at the launch is not only traditional but essential. A canny public relations campaign swells their numbers; a holiday has been declared in Bristol. Shopkeepers, snuff mill workers, and schoolchildren line the parade route as the prince and his entourage pass by. Local charities wait to present him with honors, and clergymen clasp prepared remarks. The formal welcome will be given by the town clerk, whose name is recorded in the Bristol Times and Mirror as “D. Burgess.”3

Thus, by accident and design, by train and public holiday, a great panoply of the British public is gathered: lords, gentry, engineers, clergy, fishmongers and their wives, maidservants, fitters, mill workers from W. D. and H. O. Wills, stevedores, Mary Carpenter’s “ragged” girls, George Muller’s orphaned boys, day-tripping Londoners. What are they thinking about? What does this ship represent to them? We see their faces upturned towards the looming hull, and impute wonder and pride. Without doubt those were prominent emotions. But was that all?

With pride comes proprietorship, a sense that this is “our” vessel. Yet the one thing that this crowd shares in common is that almost none of them will actually sail on the Great Britain. They have not come to dedicate some public convenience, not even a monument, but rather a pleasure craft for the very wealthy. Politicians and journalists will speak grandly of joining two continents, of amicable exchanges among people, but the audience might be skeptical of such claims. The number of American visitors carried by the Great Britain and her confreres is miniscule; the number of Britons even smaller. Properly considered, the Great Britain symbolizes nothing so much as the growing disparity between those who might actually afford a steamship ticket and the rest, the multitudes, who will only much later come to be known as the working class. Moreover, contained within its iron walls is a machine—the largest of its kind yet manufactured—that is already wreaking radical transformations on many of their lives. Even in maritime Bristol, tobacco mills have begun to supplant the more traditional industries of sail making, cooperage, and carpentry.4

It is a process that the iron-hulled, steam-driven Great Britain will accelerate. Do many in the crowd know that the technology enshrined by this ship will render their livelihoods obsolete? If they did, we might expect them to do something about it. Bristol is no stranger to political agitation. Just eleven years before, after a reform bill to increase local representation failed at Parliament, Bristolians rioted for three days. Local estates were looted and destroyed, the chief magistrate chased through town, and the cavalry was called out. Isambard Brunel reluctantly suspended construction of his Clifton suspension bridge to act as a temporary special constable.5

Yet there is no hint of outrage in the crowd gathered today. Are they swept up by patriotic puffery, by the “mass of color” of the uniforms and martial music played by the Life Guards Band? Are they bewitched by the pageantry of royalty arriving in its own private locomotive with a cadre of lords and ladies following behind? Or are they simply overawed by the ship herself? If indeed this crowd can be persuaded to feel some pride of ownership in a vessel they do not own, whose wonders are beyond their means, and whose technology may yet mean the ruin of many of their lives, what does this connote for the Victorian public’s fascination with steam?

These are familiar questions. It has been over seventy years since Walter Benjamin blamed the postponement sine die of the socialist revolution on the “phantasmagoria” of the shopping arcade.6 The launching of the S. S. Great Britain shares much with the Paris arcades: Here is the machine commodified, put on display, made into spectacle. It delights merely by its size and potency; one does not have to book passage in order to be impressed (indeed, as passengers would attest, there was no swifter disillusionment than actually traveling on one of these ships). Yet the fact that such a gigantic object could move added even greater mystique. The phantasmagoria of steam was thus a combination of ipsum, the thing itself, and de potentia rei, the potential of the thing. Like a great cathedral or work of art, there was inherent wonder in the fact that this shapely mass was created by human hand. Can we say, then, that the Bristol crowd exerts some proprietary claim over the ship because it is a work of human innovation and they, too, are human? Or British? Or even Bristolian? Perhaps, but that can hardly account for the enthusiasm that these great machines engendered even in those with the least to benefit from them.

Something more complex and interesting is going on here. To maintain that the crowd has been bamboozled gives them too little agency, and others too much. There is no deception: The designers, engineers, and owners are genuinely proud of their ship, as is the Prince of Wales. The emotion of the crowd is likewise genuine, if contradictory. Even to refer to “the crowd” as an entity is questionable; E. P. Thompson’s warning about condescension to the “working classes” seems particularly relevant in this context.7 The crowd is not a crowd, but a collection of women and men with differing backgrounds and perspectives, opinions, and ambitions. They will not all respond to the phantasmagoria of steam in the same way, yet their response will have consequences. Just as steam travel transformed the landscape of the modern world, it remapped the landscape of the modern mind by creating new communities: spectators at a launch, bettors on a race, tourists encountering one another on the Atlantic, empire builders en route to their posts, and many others. These communities fostered a shared identity among their members, and between each member and the machine. Each community was tailored to the class and rank of its participants, but membership was open to all. That was the critical point: Whoever you were, whatever your sex or race or social status, there was a club for you. The cult of technology, the allegory of a ship as national symbol, the rise of leisure tourism, even the all-pervasive and all-destructive imperialism contained in Kipling’s remark, “transportation is civilization”8—invariably trace themselves back to these imagined communities.9

It all began with spectacles like this one on the wharfs at Bristol. Yet if we are to try and understand what motivated these men and women, we cannot look down at them as though from the prince’s dais.

We must get down amongst the crowd, and look around.


1. Recently the ship’s conservators published a wonderful “owner’s manual” for the Great Britain, detailing in full her construction, career, and restoration. See Brian Lavery, SS Great Britain, Owner’s Workshop Manual: An Insight into the Design, Construction and Operation of Brunel’s Famous Passenger Ship (London: Haynes Publishing, 2012).

2. An eyewitness depiction of the event may be found in the Bristol Times and Mirror (Bristol: July 20, 1843). See also Christopher Claxton, History and Description of the S.S. Great Britain, Built at Bristol, with Remarks on the Comparative Merits of Iron and Wood as Materials for Shipbuilding (New York: J. S. Homans, 1845).

3. Bristol Times and Mirror, July 20, 1843.

4. A revealing depiction of the city’s transformation midcentury may be found in William Clark Russell, North-East Ports and the Bristol Channel (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: A. Reid, 1883), 73–83. See also Great Western Railway Guide (London: James Wyld, 1839), 212–220.

5. See Jeremy Caple, The Bristol Riots of 1831 and Social Reform in Britain (London: Edwin Mellen, 1990).

6. Walter Benjamin & Rolf Tiedemann, The Arcades Project (New York: Belknap Press, 2002).

7. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Random House, 1964).

8. Rudyard Kipling, With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D (New York: Doubleday, 1905), 47. Ironically it is the motto assigned to the Aerial Board of Control, or A.B.C., which rules the fictional future world of the year 2000. Further discussion to follow in the Conclusion.

9. The reference is not accidental. Nationalism and imperialism were deeply interwoven into steam culture, as we shall explore. See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (revised ed., New York: Verso, 2006).