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Brunel’s ‘Great Eastern’ was a jinxed Leviathan which became an amusement park

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, Transport, Travel on Thursday, 28 June 2012

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This edited article about the Great Eastern originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.

Great Eastern, picture, image, illustration

The Great Eastern by John S Smith

‘The Crystal Palace of the Sea,’ ‘The Floating City,’ these were two names given to Brunel’s last and biggest ship, Leviathan Years ahead of her time in concept and size, she became a magnificent failure, though it is possible that she might have been a success on her intended service to India.

The vessel came into being because the Eastern Steam Navigation Company had failed to obtain mail contracts to the East, and had therefore cancelled plans to build several 2,000 ton steamers. In their place, Brunel proposed to construct very large ships, to run to Ceylon, where their cargoes could be transferred to smaller vessels and then delivered to Indian and Australian ports.

Brunel, already renowned for his bridges, as an engineer of the Great Western Railway, and as designer of the famous ships, Great Western and Great Britain, decided to give his greatest venture both paddle and screw propulsion as well as sails.

At least 50 years ahead of anything yet thought of, her phenomenal hull became the dominating feature of Millwall on the Thames, during the three years she was being built. Started in 1854 and ready for launching in 1857, the 700 feet (212 metre) long giant was too long for conventional launching, and it was proposed, therefore, to ease her into the water by means of cradles and winches.

On November 3rd, 1857, the ship was ready for the water. But things went wrong from the very start. The jinx that was to dog her throughout her life, reared its head for the first time.

Contrary to Brunel’s wishes, thousands of sightseers were allowed all over the shipyard, thus destroying the steady concentration needed to co-ordinate the teams working the windlasses ashore, and the gangs of workmen operating from barges on the river. Shouted orders became inaudible, and as a result a windlass raced madly and tossed a worker to his death. Panic followed. Bargemen, fearing the hull would crash down on them, abandoned their task. As a result, the ship remained high and dry for three months, mocked by the cynics.

She was eventually launched upon the waters on January 31st, 1858, but by then the unforeseen launching costs had caused the failure of the original company, and for twenty months she rode at anchor in the Thames.

Finally, Brunel and some of the original directors organised a new company known as The Great Ship Company, which purchased her, renamed her Great Eastern, and then proceeded to fit her out for sea.

On a trial trip in 1859, an explosion in her engine room killed six firemen. Her commander, Captain Harrison, was drowned, when a launch taking him ashore overturned. After that, with no trade in prospect, she wintered in Southampton.

She finally set out for New York with a crew of 418, but with passengers numbering a mere 38, with 8 company guests!

Her Atlantic ventures were catastrophic, mainly due to bad weather. She was too strong to be wrecked, but her paddles, screw and sails were not effective enough to make her manageable in heavy seas such as the North Atlantic run generally provided.

She was sold in 1864 to become a cable layer. Sadly, her luxurious interior had never been used to the full.

Between 1865 and 1874, she laid five Atlantic cables, and one between Bombay and Aden. She was then laid up for eleven years! During this time she suffered the indignity of becoming a floating amusement park with great advertisements painted on her sides.

She was finally scrapped in 1888, but she was still so strong that it took three years to demolish her hull. When the breakers reached her double bottom, they discovered the skeleton of a workman, who had apparently been accidentally sealed in during her original construction. Superstition immediately blamed her disastrous career upon this gruesome discovery.

As for Brunel himself, he was so worried by his vessel’s initial mishaps and loss of money that he suffered a stroke and died eight days after her maiden voyage, without ever knowing its outcome.

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