The SS Great Eastern: A Tale of Ingenuity and Adversity

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel‘s inventiveness ascended new heights when he designed the SS Great Eastern. Originally named Leviathan, she was six times larger than any previous vessel and designing and launching her posed new challenges both to him and to the builder, J Scott Russell of Millwall. Scott Russell was expert in the field, and Brunel and he had met and worked together before.

The necessity for her immense size came from the need to carry sufficient coal for return voyages to India and Australia where she hoped to corner the passenger market with her ability to carry up to 4000 people at record speed. At 18915 gross tons, 692 feet long and with an 82 feet beam it was many years before any vessel exceeded her dimensions.

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The Great Eastern’s means of propulsion were experimental and various, using paddles, a propeller and sails. Lloyd’s Register for 1888-1889 (see above) records the two engine builders which were required to complete work on such a specialised vessel. The engine attached to the screw propeller was made by James Watt & Co and that for the paddle wheels was built by Scott Russell. The launch of the Great Eastern was equally experimental as owing to her enormous size, she couldn’t be launched stern first onto the Thames, so Brunel had to devise a means of launching her sideways onto the busy Thames in safety. In this he was probably a pioneer of a method now commonly used in shipyards.

Building began in 1854 but she was not launched until 1858. The difficulties associated with the project eventually bankrupted Russell and affected Brunel’s health. Fitted out at Deptford, she set off on a trial trip in September 1859, cheered off by large crowds owing to the press attention the project had received. During this voyage an explosion occurred on board killing six of her firemen and badly damaging the Grand Saloon. This seems to have been the last straw for Brunel who died soon after hearing the news. Her maiden voyage to New York began on the 17th June 1860 with only 43 passengers and 418 crew.

Ultimately the original project was a brave and daring failure: she was so large that some docks were unable to cope with her and in 1869 the Suez Canal opened which meant that her planned voyages via the Cape of Good Hope became less viable. Instead she plied the trans-Atlantic Route to America and by 1864 the vessel was sold for far less than she was worth to a cable laying company. However, this marked her place in another moment of history when she was used in laying the first telegraph cable to America (under the management of Brunel’s Great Western Railway protégé and the railway’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer, Daniel Gooch).

The Illustrated London News published numerous articles on her telling the story of her life as a passenger ship and as a cable laying vessel, through to her journey to the Mersey to be broken up. Library users can also follow the various delays and misfortunes which attended her launch and maiden voyage with this source. The issue on Saturday the 7th November 1857 included stunning images of the bow and stern of the ‘Leviathan’ indicating her huge dimensions. By October they stated that “as we peered curiously down the hatchway we could distinguish in the cavernous depths of the hold fitful flashes from the numerous riveting-forges, making the vast abyss resemble the crater of a volcano, whence a horrid clangour of what seemed titanic hammers battering against iron gates fell on the ear in thundering reverberations.”

Guildhall Library also holds an interesting pamphlet (Pam 3837) The Great Eastern Steam Ship: A Description of Mr Scott Russell’s Great Ship, Now Building at Millwall, for the Eastern Steam Navigation Company. It was illustrated and priced at one penny. It is undated but likely to have been published in 1854 when the ship was laid down. One page offers a series of line drawings demonstrating the immense size of the Great Eastern compared to the Great Western and the Great Britain for example.

Among the other printed material on the ship which the Library holds is The Big Ship by Patrick Beaver (387.243) a volume packed with illustrations in the form of photographs covering the whole of the vessel’s biography.

In 1888 this ground breaking vessel with a chequered history ended her days in a Mersey scrapyard, literally being knocked to pieces. She was so solidly built that it took two years to dismantle her. Guildhall Library’s copies of Lloyd’s Register are ‘posted’ which means that they were updated between issues by Lloyds. The extract below illustrates the simple but sad amendment made to their records in the 1888-1889 Register…‘Broken up’.

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Jeanie Smith, Assistant Librarian

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