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Buildings from harbourside

Glass 'sea' at ship's waterline

View across ship to Cliftonwood

Dry dock


Meeting room Brunel Institute

David MacGregor Library, Brunel Institute

Brunel Institute

Ship by night


Great Western Dockyard, Gasferry Road, Bristol, BS1 6TY


1830s the Dry Dock and drawing office. 2005 Restoration of the ship and creation of new museum. 2010 Rebuilding of the steamship engine works and adjacent sheds housing Brunel Institute.


The Drawing Office and Dry Dock – Great Western Steamship Company – unknown. Restoration of ship, creation of new museum and Brunel Institute – Alec French Architects. Engineers – Dry dock ad glass plate – Arup. Museum and ship – Roughton & Fenton. Mechanical and Electrical – WSP



Listed Status

Drawing Office – Grade II. Dry Dock – Grade II.


Dry dock, Pennant stone.

Rebuilt steamship engine wors – concrete frame and brick (fragment of original stone wall)

Sheds housing the Brunel Institute – steel frame with timber cladding.

Original Function

1839-1905 Drawing Office – work space for the Great Western Steamship Company. 1905-1999 timber merchants. Dry Dock used to build the ss Great Britain (completed in 1843) and other vessels by the Great Western Steamship Company. The dry dock was rented to other shipbuilders and used further into the 20th century. Brunel Institute – Maritime Research Centre and location of the Brunel Archive. Also includes the David MacGregor Library, named after the maritime historian who bequeathed many of the books now on display.

Building type

Commerce 1800s. Tourism 1990s.

Visitor Access

Open every day, except 24 and 25 Dec and the second Monday in January.

Current opening times: 10:00am to 4:30pm.

Spring/Summer: 10:00am to 5:30pm. Check website for latest times.


ss Great Britain official site

Know Your Place

Key Facts

  • A mix of buildings supporting the historic ss Great Britain ship
  • Includes dockside glass ‘sea’ that helps preserve the ship
  • Original 19th century steamship office

Many architecturally interesting buildings surround Brunel’s great ss Great Britain ship, all supporting the work of the ss Great Britain Trust. The Drawing Office (mid 19th century, extended 1930) features a 54-panel oriel window overlooking the harbour – originally designed to light the draughtsmen’s desks well. Brunel is documented as using this office to direct operations when it was built to house the Great Western Steamship Company.


The Dry Dock in which ss Great Britain was built in 1843 is now a permanent display case for Bristol’s historic vessel after it was rescued from the Falkland Islands in 1970. By using pioneering conservation techniques to preserve the ship’s hull the dry dock has become a fascinating science and engineering resource.


Existing ship-building workshops were restored in 2005 and converted into an interactive museum space. Much of the original structure and materials are retained. Brunel’s orginal steamship engine factory was largely destroyed in WW2, but has been rebuilt closely following the orginal design. At ground level it provides the entrance to the site, the shop and part of the Brunel Institute which extends into the adjacent buildings. These follow the historic footprint and forms of 19th century sheds. The Brunel Institute houses the National Brunel Archive, along with other specialist maritime records and conservation materials.

In 2005 a major restoration of the ship included the construction of a glass ‘sea’ at the ship’s water line, which provides a giant airtight chamber to surround the ship’s lower hull. This glass sea is covered with a thin layer of water, which makes the ship appear to be floating. Beneath the glass plate moisture is removed from the air using special dehumidification equipment. This groundbreaking method is essentially like placing an historic artefact in a glass case but on a larger scale.


Photography: ©Liz Eve, Fotohaus/©Paul Riddle Photography


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