They only missed out on the silver by 0.5sec - breaking the national record they set when striking gold in last summer's European Championships in the process - as the Netherlands reversed the placings from Seville, with Australia taking gold. The United States, the Olympic champions, could only finish fifth. It was Britain's first medal in the event at a World Championships for 23 years.
Paul Palmer and James Salter, on the anchor leg, both performed better than they had in the 200m individual freestyle.
"We needed that medal," Salter said. "The team had been a bit down because we knew that we hadn't swum as well as we could have so far. But this could be the performance to fire us up for the rest of the championships."
China's new swimming dynasty was showing signs of cracking under the strain of the drug controversy that has dogged the championships as their women swimmers - dubbed the "new golden flowers" before they arrived - wilted on the second day of competition.
None of their leading competitors reached a final, most swimming seconds off the times they set at the national championships in Shanghai last October when the latest suspicions about drug abuse resurfaced.
Predicted to repeat their sweep of 12 out of 16 golds from the last World Championships in Rome in 1994, China have won a solitary bronze so far as the controversy surrounding the disgraced Yuan Yuan and her coach, Zhou Zhewen, continues with Fina, the world governing body, still to announce their fate.
Shan Ying - coached by Zhou, who admitted packing the human growth hormones discovered in Yuan's baggage at Sydney airport - was hopelessly off the pace in the 200 metres freestyle heats.
Shan, who had attacked media coverage of her team after winning that bronze in the 100m freestyle yesterday, finished 32nd overall, nearly 10 seconds off her best. As Fina's doping panel failed to deliver its verdict again yesterday, it was revealed that the vials seized from Yuan last week contained unadulterated human growth hormone.
Andrew Thomson, the Australian Sports Minister, said that a sample testing of two of the 13 vials of the drug that were confiscated matched the manufacturers' specifications.Reuse content