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SS Great Eastern
Burrell's Wharf Square, Millwall, London, UK
SS <i>Great Eastern</i>
associated engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  keel laid 1st May 1854, launch 3rd November 1857 - 31st January 1858
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Ship  |  reference  TQ373784
photo  National Maritime Museum, Flickr photostream
The ill-fated SS Great Eastern was the last ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59). At the time, she was the largest ship ever built and she incorporated both a propeller and paddle wheels, driven by steam. She was also the first to have a double-skin iron hull — double-skin construction is now a common feature of marine design.
In the second half of the 19th century, the distance a steam ship could travel depended on how much coal it could carry or the availability of coal at ports of call. Brunel decided to build an enormous ship, carrying enough coal for a non-stop return journey to India or even Australia. At the time, ships had to go the long way round Africa — the Suez Canal didn’t open until 1869 — so voyages to India were some 8,200km longer than now.
Brunel reasoned that a ship large enough to reach Australia would also be able to carry a great many passengers — 4,000 of them in this case. If she was also fast enough to beat the clipper ships, then the venture would be profitable. The Eastern Steam Navigation Company agreed, and the tender to build the ship was won by John Scott Russell (1808-82).
Scott Russell signed the contract on 22nd December 1853. His tender was £377,200 — considerably lower than Brunel’s initial estimate of £500,000 (more than £37m at 2010 rates). Work began in February 1854 at Scott Russell’s yard (TQ376784) at Burrell’s Wharf beside the River Thames on London's Isle of Dogs. Her keel was laid in May that year.
No dry dock was large enough for the Great Eastern (originally named SS Leviathan), so she had to be constructed on dry land. Scott Russell purchased the yard next door (north side), which was owned by Scottish marine engineer David Napier (1790-1869), to provide enough room.
The SS Great Eastern was 211m long and 25.3m wide, increasing to 36.5m wide over the paddle boxes, with a gross weight of 19,220 tonnes and a displacement of 27,820 tonnes. Her bunkers could carry 12,200 tonnes of coal.
The ship’s 30,000 iron plates were standardised to 3m by 840mm each. Plates on the bottom were 25mm thick, on the sides 19mm, and on the deck and bulkheads 13mm. Each plate was fixed in place with 100 rivets, 22mm in diameter. The two watertight iron skins of her 17.7m deep hull had a gap of 860mm between them. Brunel intended her to be unsinkable, extending the double plating 1.5m above the ship’s deepest load line and dividing the hull into 10 compartments.
She had three methods of propulsion — a rear propeller or screw, two paddle wheels amidship and six masts for sails. The screw and paddles were powered by steam engines, venting through five funnels, each 30.5m high and 1.8m in diameter.
The paddle engine was built on site. It was an oscillating engine with four boilers, four cylinders 1.9m in diameter and a 4.3m stroke. Its 41-tonne steel crankshaft had to be cast three times before it was judged satisfactory. The twin paddles each had 30 floats measuring 4m by 910mm. The paddle wheels were 17.7m in diameter, later reduced to 15.2m.
The screw engines had six boilers and four 2.1m diameter cylinders with a 1.2m stroke — each pair worked one crankshaft. They were made at Soho Foundry in Birmingham. The propeller shaft was 610mm in diameter and consisted of four coupled shafts of 9.1m and a tail shaft of 12.2m. Four wrought iron blocks, 2.4m by 410mm, supported the tail shaft. The four-blade cast iron propeller weighed 37 tonnes and was 7.3m in diameter.
The six masts were named from bow to stern after the days of the week — Monday to Saturday. Saturday was a timber mast because it was positioned near the ship’s compass. The other five masts were of iron. They ranged in height from 50m to 68.6m and carried 5,435 sq m of sail, providing auxiliary power (and saving on coal consumption).
Poor financial control by Scott Russell led to soaring construction costs and he was declared bankrupt on 4th February 1856. Brunel's health suffered as he tried to limit overspending by supervising all aspects of the contract himself. By autumn 1857, costs had reached £732,000, almost twice Scott Russell's original estimate, and the project had consumed much of Brunel's personal fortune.
The launch date was set for 3rd November 1857, with the ship supported by two cradles and pushed by hydraulic rams. She moved about one metre and then stuck fast. A second attempt on 19th November failed. More launch attempts were made during November and December, with the ship moving a few metres each time. In January 1858, new abutments were built and more powerful rams installed.
The Great Eastern was finally floated on 31st January 1858 and taken to Deptford for fitting out. In November 1858, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company was dissolved and the Great Ship Company was incorporated to complete the work on the ship.
Sea trials began when she left the River Thames on 7th September 1859, mooring at Purfleet in Essex overnight. She was without her designer — Brunel was bedridden after suffering a stroke two days earlier on the ship's deck. He died on 15th September.
On 8th September 1859, she set off for Weymouth in Dorset but disaster struck near Hastings. The stopcock on the water jacket around the forward funnel had been closed in error. Pressure built up and the funnel exploded, scalding the men working in the boiler room. Five men died from their injuries, another jumped overboard and died after becoming entangled with the paddles.
Part of the damaged funnel was salvaged and re-used as a water filter by Weymouth Water Company until 2002. It is now on display at the SS Great Britain museum in Bristol.
After repairs, the Great Eastern left Portland Harbour on 15th October 1859, arriving at Holyhead on 17th October. Holyhead was intended to be her home port for journeys to America but the harbour breakwater was damaged in a storm a few days later and it was thought safer to operate from Southampton. She left Holyhead on 2nd November and arrived in Southampton on 4th November 1859.
Worsening finances meant the company could not afford to send the Great Eastern to Australia. Instead she departed Southampton on 17th June 1860 for her maiden voyage to America, arriving 11 days later. She had covered 5,130km and used 2,923 tonnes of coal.
Satisfied passenger George Wilkes (1817-85), editor of weekly American newspaper Wilkes' Spirit of the Times, observed "… I could not make it certain to my senses that she had not stopped, until, looking out of my port-hole, I saw the ocean passing by, and our vast mass moving gradually through it like a floating castle". He noted later that the ship did roll more in severe weather, though not enough to spill his breakfast cup of tea.
On her return to England, the ship was chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Canada and the necessary modifications were carried out at Birkenhead Iron Works. On 25th June 1861, 2,144 officers and men, 473 women and children, 40 paying passengers and 200 horses embarked at Liverpool and arrived in Quebec eight days later.
Unfortunately, the troop charter wasn't an ongoing commitment and the Great Eastern returned to Liverpool in July 1861 with only 357 paying passengers aboard. Further return voyages to New York followed in 1861, 1862 and 1863. In 1865, the Great Ship Company was declared bankrupt.
The SS Great Eastern was sold to a syndicate headed by Brunel's friend and colleague, Daniel Gooch (1816-89), a director of the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company. He realised she was the only vessel large enough to carry a transatlantic cable. The passenger accommodation was removed and replaced by three vast cable holds.
From July 1865, she was used to lay cables from Europe to America. The first cable link was completed on 1st September 1866. As well as laying transatlantic cables she also laid a cable from Bombay to Aden in 1870. Her last cable-laying voyage took place in August 1874.
In 1885, she spent a year moored at Liverpool as a floating amusement park. She was never used as Brunel had wished — for voyages to Australia. Ironically, the Suez Canal, which would have reduced the length of the journey, was too narrow to allow her through.
On 20th October 1887 in Liverpool, the ship was sold at auction to Mr Craik for £26,000. In 1888, she was taken to Henry Bath & Sons near Birkenhead for breaking up. Dismantling work began in May 1889. It took 200 men, working round the clock, two years.
The SS Great Eastern was unsurpassed in length until the White Star Line's 214.6m long RMS Oceanic was launched in January 1899. She held the record for greatest gross tonnage until April 1901, when White Star's RMS Celtic was launched, and was not exceeded in displacement until the launch of Cunard’s RMS Lusitania in June 1906.
Iron plates: Beale & Company, Parkgate Ironworks, Rotherham
Crankshafts: Fulton & Neilson, Lancefield Forge, Glasgow
Screw engine: Boulton & Watt, Soho, Birmingham
Hydraulic launch rams (1858): Richard Tangye Ltd, Birmingham
Research: ECPK
reference sources   IKBcat

SS Great Eastern