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SS Great Eastern: Too Big To Sail

Long before the Titanic, another leviathan emerged from a British shipyard. The name SS Great Eastern might not be as widely known as the doomed monster that sailed across the Atlantic in 1912, but it really should be. 

When it appeared out of the Millwall Iron Works on the River Thames in London in 1859, it was, by a considerable distance, the largest ship in the world – a title it would retain for four decades. But it wasn’t just its size that made it stand out. This was a ship of firsts – a true pioneer – and one laid the foundations for the modern steamships that would come. But was it too ahead of its time? As astonishing as this ship was its ocean life was far from smooth sailing.    

The Great Eastern will forever be associated with one man. A man who, in a 2002 poll to find the 100 Greatest Britons, came in second to Winston Churchill. He was one of the most important figures of the entire Industrial Age, and his name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

If you are scratching your head wondering why you’ve never come across the name of the 2nd most important Briton who has ever lived, you’re probably not alone. While his work was utterly groundbreaking and changed many aspects of Britain, his death over 150 years ago has led to his name dimming somewhat. 

This was a man who designed the first tunnel under the River Thames and countless bridges across Britain, of which the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is perhaps the most iconic. But he is probably best remembered for his work on the Great Western train line which ran west from London to Bristol, and eventually on the Exeter. Brunel’s original plan was for passengers to be able to purchase a ticket at London Paddington that would transport them all the way to New York, first by rail, then by ship. 

While the transatlantic section never completely got off the ground, the railway that was built was a true marvel and included beautiful aqueducts along the way, brand-new purpose-built stations and the world’s longest tunnel at the time, known as Box tunnel which ran for 2.95km (1.83 miles).

His atmospheric railway, a crude early form of railway using air pressure, proved to be unsuccessful and was one of many instances where Brunel was operating quite simply in a different age to those around him. His exploits made him hugely famous and ignited an innovative spark in Britain at the time. And that’s why he’s Britain’s second greatest. 

The Great Western

When the Great Western Steamship Company was formed in 1836 to fulfil Brunel’s London to New York plan. Steam power was becoming more common, but at that time many doubted a ship could make it across the Atlantic on steam alone.

The first ship Brunel designed for the company was the Great Western, which made its maiden voyage in 1838 and at 72 metres (236 ft) in length was the longest ship in the world at the time. Next came the SS Great Britain which became the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1845. 

Great Babe 

The Great Western and Great Britain had both proven to be successful and before long Bunel turned his attention to a journey far more ambitious than simply across the Atlantic. London to Australia – a trip that at the time took in the region of four months. 

On 25th March 1852, Brunel famously made a crude sketch of a steamship in his diary and made the note “Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft” (180 m x 20 m x 9.1 m). That’s slightly longer than the height of St Paul’s Cathedral, as deep as a cricket pitch and as wide as two giraffes. At the time these kinds of measurements for a ship were almost six times bigger than anything that had been put to sea. 

After consulting with John Scott Russell, a shipbuilder and naval architect, the two agreed that in principle the design would work. It would be a ship of monstrous proportions, but it would float. The two pitched the design to the Great Eastern Company, a newly formed organisation that aimed to benefit from the burgeoning trade and emigration routes to and from India, China and Australia. Their proposal was carefully considered by the board of directors before finally being accepted. The ship that Brunel would come to nickname, Great Babe had its green light.  


By 1854, work was set to begin on the SS Great Eastern. Brunel had estimated the cost to be £500,000 (£55.8 million today), but Russel’s tender came out even less at a total of £377,200 (£42 million today) – £275,200 (£30 million today) for the hull, £60,000 (£6.7 million today) for the screw engines and boilers, and £42,000 (£4.6 million today) for the paddle engines and boilers.

With the finances settled, the first real dilemma the project faced was where to build such an enormous ship. The initial contract had called for it to be constructed in a dock, but no such dock currently existed and the estimated £8,000–£10,000 (£900,000 to £1.1 million today) to build one seemed excessive. Instead, the Great Eastern would be built side-on at the Millwall Iron Works on the River Thames, then would be lowered into the water by a mechanical slipway – which Isambard Kingdom Brunel needed to design and build. 

The monstrous vessel began to take shape on 1st May 1854 when its keel was laid down. The first all-iron ship, the Vulcan, had appeared in the 1819 but this was a small scale barge used on Scottish canals. The SS Great Britain was the first ocean-going ship to be both built of iron and have a screw propeller when it launched in 1843, but the Great Eastern would take things even further 

The ship would be the first to come with a double-skinned hull – essentially one hull inside the other, a feature that was entirely radical at the time but has now become compulsory. The inner hull was 19 mm (0.75 in) thick with the outer slightly large at 0.86 metres (2 feet 10 inches). This had support sections, known as ribs, every 1.8 metres (5.9 ft) and the entire hull was divided by two 107 metres (351 ft) long and 18 metres (59 ft) high longitudinal bulkheads. While a series of transverse bulkheads ran across the ship separating it into 19 compartments. Think of these bulkheads as the skeleton below the double hull which divided up the ship, but also provided vital support.    

The Great Eastern came with a variety of forms of propulsion. If they wanted to go old-school the ship came with sails connected to its six masts, supposedly named after the days of the week – Sunday was not included. These all together provided the ship with 1,686 square metres (18,150 sq ft) of sails – a size a little bigger than an ice hockey rink. 

But the Great Eastern was not designed as a traditional sailing ship. Its two other forms of propulsion were the two giant paddle wheels each measuring 17 metres (56 ft) in diameter which were powered by four steam engines and the four-bladed screw-propeller which was 7.3 metres (24 ft) across, powered by an additional steam engine. Altogether this meant the Great Eastern had around 8,000 horsepower and a maximum speed of 13 knots (24 km/h – 14.9 mph). To put that kind of power in perspective, certain modern drag racing cars can achieve 11,000 horsepower.  

Money Worries

The project ran into considerable problems in 1856 when it emerged that John Scott Russel was facing significant financial issues. When it became clear that the creditors were beginning to move in, Brunel advised the Great Eastern Company to take control of its ship being built, in case it was seized.

While this might have been the sensible thing to do, it did speed up Russel’s demise. He was found to have liabilities totalling £122,940 (£13.3 million) and soon after his creditors began to seize his assets, causing Russel to halt all payments to them. It was agreed that he could complete the contracts he was currently working on before his company was liquidated. 

However, he sent a statement to the Great Eastern Company in which he said he would withdraw from the contract and in doing so would hand the skeletal ship to the company, who could do with it as they wished. The company had little choice but to carry on, but this slowed the pace of construction drastically. As 1857 was drawing to a close, with Brunel still not completely satisfied, pressure began to build from the directors of the company. Eventually, he relented, the ship would launch on 3rd November 1857.  


Well, that was the plan at least, but you can’t rush greatness. The much-publicized launch with some 3,000 paying spectators at the shipyard was shambolic as the steam winches that were supposed to haul the ship down into the water failed miserably. 

Other attempts were made on 19th and 28th using hydraulic rams, but once again they proved inadequate. The largest ship in the world was having problems even getting into the water. But at 1:42 pm on 31st January 1858, the Great Eastern inched down into the Thames thanks to a particularly high tide and strong winds. 

The Leviathan

While history remembers the ship as the Great Eastern it had in fact been christened Leviathan but was changed back a year after its launch. She was by far the largest ship ever seen, measuring 211 metres (692 ft) long, 25 metres (82 ft) wide, with an unloaded draught of 6.1 m (20 ft). 

The Great Eastern displaced a mighty 32,000 tons fully loaded, as a comparison, the Great Britain which had launched 14 years prior had a displacement of just 3,674 tons. The entire ship was set over 4 decks and could hold 4,000 passengers, but sadly it wouldn’t get anywhere near that, which I will come to shortly. It also came with a crew complement of 418, but again because of low passenger numbers, it’s likely it never reached this number either.  

A Bad Start

Sailors are a superstitious bunch and the Great Eastern had a rocky start. Firstly, while cruising down the Thames on its maiden voyage a huge explosion on board blew one of its funnels into the air. It was found that the feedwater heater’s steam exhaust valve had been mistakenly closed, and the power had been exacerbated by the ship’s strong bulkheads. The exact number of those who died ranges between 5 and 10 depending on which source you look at. It was about as bad a start as you could imagine. 

A few months later another ominous omen manifested itself when the ship’s captain, William Harrison, drowned in an incident involving a different boat off the English coast. 

Ocean Career

While the Great Eastern had been designed to be able to reach Australia, it never got anywhere near that distance because the demand proved to be far below what Great Eastern had forecasted. Instead, it was almost entirely used for transatlantic voyages but it failed to capture the imagination. 

Its first trip to the U.S in 1860 was delayed by 24 hours because – and you’re really going to like this – the crew were drunk. When it first arrived in the U.S, the country was still in the grip of civil war and no fanfare greeted the Great Eastern as would larger ships in later decades.

The Great Eastern’s run of bad luck continued with two further incidents. The first came on the ship’s third transatlantic crossing which began on 10th September 1861. Just two days in a furious gale began battering the ship. The port paddle wheel completely disappeared, torn off by a combination of wind and water, while the starboard paddle fared slightly better but was still badly damaged when one of the lifeboats broke loose and smashed into it. If things couldn’t get any worse, the crew found that the cast iron rudder post had lost 0.61 metres (2 ft) above its collar. This left the rudder dangling free and constantly smashing into the propeller. The ship had no propulsion and no way to steer. In technical terms, they were absolutely screwed.  

To make matters worse the Captain’s efforts to revive the ship had little to no effect and it wasn’t until the crew themselves began to intervene that Hamilton E. Towle, an American civil engineer who was travelling onboard, was allowed to try an ingenious plan involving plenty of chain, and no doubt a great deal of intellect. And it worked. With its limited movement, the Great Eastern limped back to Ireland for major repairs. 

On 17th August 1862, while creeping through Long Island Sound near New York a lower rumble was heard. The pilot, who had come on board to steer the ship through his native waters, stated they had probably rubbed up against the North East Ripps. A crew member was dispatched below but reported no flooding and the ship eventually made it into New York. 

However, in the cold light of day, as they say, things looked very different. The rocks that the ship had “rubbed up against” had left a gash 2.7 metres (9 feet) wide and 25 m (83 feet) long. It would be months until the ship could be repaired, and those rocks have since been re-named Great Eastern Rocks. 

A New Life

By this point, the Great Eastern Company was facing huge debts and the multitude of problems with the ship proved too much. In 1863, the ship hit and sank a smaller sailing ship, killing two people on board. It signalled the end of the Great Eastern as a passenger ship. 

This great mammoth of a ship hadn’t exactly set the world alight, but it would have a positive ending. After the ship was eventually put up for sale, it was bought by a collection of men who desired to turn it into a telegraph cable-laying ship. And that was exactly what happened. Slight moderations were made to the ship to fit the giant tanks that would give out the cable and the Great Eastern played a vital role in the laying of the 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable, putting down roughly 4,200 kilometres (2,600 mi) worth of cable in the process.

And luckily for you, if you’re interested in the first transatlantic cable we have already done a video of it on Megaprojects, so take a look at that one.    

Between 1866 and 1878 the ship was responsible for laying over 48,000 kilometres (30,000 mi) of submarine telegraph cable, most notably from Brest on the Atlantic coast of France to Saint Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland in Canada and from Aden in Yemen to Bombay, now of course Mumbai.

The End 

After her exploits around the world, there was a brief idea of bringing her back into passenger service, but this idea never went anywhere and she was eventually scrapped at a shipyard in the River Mersey – a process that took a full 18 months to complete, ending in 1890. What had once been the largest ship in the world was reduced to scrap metal. 

If that sounds a little sad, well there is one nice story to end with. At the time, Everton football club, who then played at Anfield stadium, were on the lookout for a flagpole and what they found came directly from the Great Eastern. That flagpole still stands today, nearly 130 years later, above Anfield, which of course is now home to Everton’s hated rivals, Liverpool. 

And there we have it. A ship so forward-thinking it became a bit of a white elephant. It faced so many problems it’s difficult to view it as a great success, but historians tend to put a lot of the issues down to economics at the time, rather than engineering faults. In truth, it was a ship that could never live up to its size and expense. 

Brunel died just before the ship’s maiden voyage and never saw the many catastrophes that would befall the ship he had lovingly nicknamed Great Babe. But he would also never see how his revolutionary designs would be slowly incorporated into modern shipbuilding. 

The Great Eastern wasn’t a success at the time but had it appeared thirty or forty years later, things may have been very different. We love a good megaproject that doesn’t quite work out, not because it isn’t worthy, but because it was simply born in the wrong time. The mid to late 19th century was an extraordinary time for innovation and so much of what we have today stems from ideas that failed at first back then – and in terms of our modern ships – so much of them come from this flawed, yet ground-breaking ship.      

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