S.S. Great Eastern,16th February 1867 – The world’s biggest ship under refit on the Mersey

Introducing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s S.S. Great Eastern

The Great Eastern under repair, refit and restoration on the shore of the Mersey, at a cost of £80,000. Illustrated London News ,16th February 1867

On this day, February 16th 1867, 155 years ago, the colossal, and glorious iron steamship S.S. Great Eastern was beached on the Mersey just off shore from Rock Ferry for repairs, a major refit and some much-needed restoration after two years of laying cables across the Atlantic.  The work was undertaken to return her to her status as a luxury passenger liner, ready to embark on a voyage to New York to collect passengers for the 1867 Paris Exposition in France.   She was beautifully captured by an artist for the Illustrated London News, which often featured the vast ship.  I have the same page framed on my kitchen wall.

A sketch by Brunel in his journal, accompanied by the following comment: “”Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft” (180 m x 20 m x 9.1 m).  Source:  S.S. Great Eastern Facebook page

On 25th March 1852, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, perhaps the greatest civil engineer of the Victorian era, and certainly the most ambitious, had sat at his desk and made a sketch, accompanied by the following comment: “Say 600 ft x 65 ft x 30ft” (180 x 20 x 9m).  The title was “East India Steamship.”  As Rolt puts it, “Thereafter the pages of the sketch books are haunted by the apparitions of gigantic ships.”  There had been problems with his other two major shipbuilding projects, Great Western and Great Britain, launched in 1837 and 1843 respectively, but Brunel had a gift for sweeping along hard-nosed investors in his wake, building on the confidence and excitement of a Britain that knew that the world getting smaller everyday, and that it was well placed to reap the commercial rewards of new technologies.  Although just toying with the idea on these pages, Brunel had no reason to believe that he would have difficulty finding an investor.

In the opening lines of a book devoted to  S.S. Great Eastern, George Emerson observes that “By the middle of the nineteenth century the people of Britain were not easily impressed; they thought they had seen everything,” an impression confirmed by the Great Exhibition of 1851.  If there were multiple blind allies in Victorian creativity, there were also splendid successes, and the sense of unstoppable progress was hard to resist, even when some of the ideas were rather more brave and optimistic than they were viable or sustainable. Even in such a creative and ambitious era, where technological ambition had produced innovation after innovation, Great Eastern stood out as a true landmark of engineering excellence and unrestrained ambition.

Building Brunel’s “Great Babe”

Guide to the Great Eastern Steamship. Captain John Vine Hall commander. Source: Library of Congress

Brunel referred to the ship as “Great Babe,” and she was his last project, his last great gift.  Great Eastern was designed for  transporting passengers and cargo to Australia.  The idea came to him whilst working on a much smaller project.  Brunel was asked to design two steamships for the Australian route for the Australian Royal Mail Company.  He had become aware of the “wave-line principle” proposed and researched by shipbuilder and marine engineer John Scott Russell, who had suggested an optimal hull shape for moving a ship through turbulent energy-draining seas.  Brunel, impressed with Russell’s research, invited him to bid for the contract.  The partnership resulted in two iron steamships, the Adelaide and Victoria, launched in 1853.

One of the sturdier sailing ships on the Australian route, the St Vincent, built in 1829, shown here departing with a full load of emigrants in 1844.  She also carried convicts. She was still sailing when Great Eastern was launched. Source: Illustrated London News, via Wikipedia

The passage to and from Australia was still dominated by sail.  Sailing ships serving Australia could take advantage of the trade winds to do the journey in 90-120 days, and although better and faster sailing ships were being built all the time, they were at the mercy of winds and tides.  They were forced to follow routes where the winds were to be found, and were terribly uncomfortable for passengers.  Nothing could compare to an iron-hulled steam-powered ship fitted with masts and sails, whose captains could choose shorter routes by firing up its engines to propel it through becalmed waters, setting sails to save fuel where winds were available.  Even though steamships had to be refuelled en route, the most modern steamships had improved had seen journeys of 70-80 days, and these technologies were were improving all the time.  Timetables were now realistic, and the Australian Royal Mail Company had jumped on the steamship bandwagon to enable it to meet the terms of its mail contract.

Houses behind the shipyard where Great Eastern was built. The river was on the other side of the ship. Great Eastern rises behind them. Source: atlantic-cable.com

Brunel, who had already built two transatlantic ships, now turned his formidable brain to the challenges of sailing to and from Australia.  His key insight was that the ideal ship should be able to carry all the coal she needed to complete the entire round trip without refuelling.  The Australian gold rush of 1851 had supercharged emigration from Britain to Australia, and as Australia became a more economically active part of the global economy, improved communication and transport links were becoming annually more imperative.  But who would finance such a ship?  The obvious customer, the Australian Royal Mail Company, had now been provided with what it needed.  Instead, he looked to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company (ESN Co), which had been formed the previous year, to which he submitted a paper proposing the new ship.  In spite of misgivings of some of its board of directors, the proposal was accepted.  At this stage, two sister ships were envisaged, the first to be used between Britain and Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) off the southeast coast of India, to be used as a distribution network from which smaller cargoes would be sent to Madras, Calcutta, Hong Kong and Sydney.  If that were to prove successful, the two ships would then do regular runs to Calcutta and Australia.  The mind fairly boggles at the idea of two Great Easterns on the oceans.

Working on “Great Eastern” in 1857 at night, preparing the great ship for launch by gas light. Source: atlantic-cable.com

Work began with the laying of the keel plate in May 1854 in John Scott Russell’s Millwall yard on the Thames, almost opposite Henry VIII’s Royal Docks at Deptford.  Although these beginnings went unnoticed by either the public or general media, specialist reports began to emerge, drawing attention to the vast scale of the ship, and even before she was launched, she began to draw attention.  As she went up, slowly materializing in Russell’s yard, the sheer scale of Brunel’s great ship became evident.  The Times waxed lyrical about the build on 5th April 1857:

Where is a man to go for a new sight? We think we can say.  In the mist of that dreary region known as Millwall, where the atmosphere is tarry and everything seems slimy and amphibious, where it is hard to say whether the land has been rescued from the water or the water encroached upon the land . . . a gigantic scheme is in progress, which if not an entire novelty, is as near an approach to it as this generation is ever likely to witness.

Remains of the slipway down which Great Eastern was launched. Source: Wikipedia

Great Eastern was built just behind today’sThames Clipper stop called Masthouse Terrace Pier, captured on the photograph below.  The old slipway is still in situ and can be visited, a very short distance from Masthouse Pier.  When Charles Dickens went to see the work in progress, directed by John Scott Russell, he commented that she rose “above the house-tops, above the tree-tops, standing in impressive calmness like some huge cathedral.”  In fact, the noise associated with the welding and riveting of 30,000 iron plates to form her double hull and watertight bulkheads must have been deafening, an absolute cacophony, but Dickens does manage to convey the majesty of the enterprise.  The build of the ship was fraught with problems, financial and technical, and of course there were accidents and injuries, as well as a fire that destroyed much of the shipyard.  The relationship between Brunel and Scott Russell became increasingly acrimonious towards the date of the proposed launch, and it is something of a miracle that Great Eastern was ever completed.

Superimposition of Great Eastern on the modern Google satellite image by Mick Lemmerman. Source:  Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives blog

When it came to her launch, her very size created a unique situation.  As shown in the photograph and superimposition by Mick Lemmerman, left, she was so long that she had to be built parallel to the Thames, rather than perpendicular to it.  Russell leased part of a neighbouring shipyard to accommodate her, and plans were made for a sideways or broadside launch.  In a lecture that I attended in London a few years ago, Thames archaeologist (and excellent speaker) Elliott Wragg commented that if she had been launched stern-end first, as was usual, she would have plunged into and across the Thames, shattering its southern banks before proceeding to carve her way down Deptford High Street.  Everyone at the lecture, all of us familiar with today’s thriving Deptford High Street, burst out laughing, but he made his point very effectively.  The ship really was immense.

Robert Howlett’s famous photograph on the occasion of the first launch attempt, 2rd November 1857. It is the only photograph that shows Brunel and Russell together. Russell is at far left, and Brunel is third from the left.  Source: Wikimedia

At that time known as Leviathan, Brunel’s dream became a reality when she was launched on the Thames on January 31st 1858, following several, increasingly embarrassing abortive attempts that had begun on 3rd November 1857.  There were few witnesses when, the Great Ship, as she had become known, was eventually launched without ceremony or drama.  The public, initially excited by the prospect of the 1857 launch had lost interest, but as the news of the launch spread, bells rang out across London in celebration.

Great Eastern was now afloat, and an impressive sight.  She had two means of propulsion, consisting of two huge side-mounted paddle-wheels, and a single screw propeller.  When both were used simultaneously she could reach a maximum speed of 15 knots (or 27.7 kilometres per hour), and she carried 6500 yards (5943m) of sail on her six masts.  Each of the ten engines built by James Watt and Co. was the size of a house.  She had four decks, and could carry 4000 passengers and 15,000 tons of coal. 

Infographic comparing ship sizes, in chronological order from left to right. Click to expand. Source: JF Ptak Science Books.

She measured 692ft (211m) long, 83ft (25m) wide, with a draft of 20ft (6m) unloaded and 30 ft (9m) fully laden, and displaced 32,000 tons fully laden. In comparison, S.S. Persia, the next in size launched two years earlier in 1856, was 390ft (119m) long and 45ft (13m) wide.  Not until 1906 was her 22,500 ton displacement exceeded in 1906 by Cunard’s RMS Lusitania;  and her great length surpassed, in 1899, by the White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic of 704ft (215 m).  At the time of her launch in 1858, S.S. Great Eastern was the biggest ship that anyone had dared to imagine.  

One of Robert Howlett’s photographs of Brunel with Great Eastern in 1857 prior to launch. Source: Wikimedia

In spite of the launch, celebration was not on the minds of the ESN’s company directors.  She had already cost an eye-watering amount, and to fit her out, a lot more investment was required, and there was no money left.  Emerson summarizes the situation as follows:

The great ship was in the water but how was she to be completed?  About £640,000 had been expended on an unfinished, partially engined and boilered ship which no one seemed to want, with a debt of £90,000 handing to it like a superfluous anchor. . . . There was growing belief among some of the directors that the ship should be put up for sale or auction.

For a long time, the ship sat on her mooring at Deptford, incomplete.  Eventually Brunel persuaded railway contractor Thomas Brassey to form a new company to raise the money to complete Great Eastern. The “Great Ship Company” was formed, which purchased the ship for £160,000, whilst raising additional capital to fit out the ship and ready her for active duty.  Brunel, sent by his doctors to Egypt for his health, was absent for much of the fitting out, returning in time to oversee final work under preparation for Great Eastern‘s maiden voyage in September 1859.  Checking her over on the 5th September, Brunel suffered a stroke and was carried home, partially paralysed.

Sea Trials in 1859

Great Eastern set off on sea trials under Captain William Harrison and a team of engineers without Brunel, on 17th September 1859, proceeding with the aid of tugs down the Thames, which must have been a remarkable leg of the journey, before turning into the open sea, heading south and then west along the coast.  The Times reported:  “She met the waves rolling high from the Bay of Biscay.  The foaming surge seemed but sportive elements of joy over which the new mistress of the ocean held her undisputed sway.”

Explosion on Great Eastern 1859. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich, PAH0309

On her first sea trials, without the ailing Brunel to supervise, she was proceeding along the English Channel near Hastings when an explosion in the paddle engine room sent one of the funnels flying upwards, destroyed the beautiful grand salon, the fire and pressurised steam tragically killing five stokers and injuring twelve.  Thanks to her double-skinned hull and watertight bulkheads Great Eastern remained intact, and thanks to alternative propulsion, she was able to proceed under her own steam. Brunel was told of the explosion, which must have been an awful blow.  He died six days later, aged 53.  Repairs were soon underway in Weymouth and the ship proceeded to Anglesey in October, where she dragged the two anchors holding her and began to drift in the same gale that sunk the S.S. Royal Charter nearby, with 446 lives lost.  Great Eastern suffered damage, in this storm, and underwent more repairs, but thanks to her captain, crew and the engines used to hold her in position, she survived the night.

Consideration now had to be given to the ports that would be able to handle Great Eastern at home in Britain.  She usually sailed from either Milford Haven in southwest Wales, or Liverpool, on the Mersey.  In both places she could be accommodated with moorings, and laid up on gridirons when she was under repair or out of service.

The career of the S.S. Great Eastern

Great Eastern in New York in 1860. Source: Library of Congress (LOT 14160, no. 10)

Great Eastern had been designed to carry passengers and cargo to Australia, carrying sufficient coal to complete the round trip without refuelling. In an era before the building of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, Great Eastern could have chugged round Africa and back at greater speeds, with greater reliability, than any sail- or steam-powered ships currently operating.  She could have offered far greater comfort and at much less risk with enormously more capacity for passengers and cargo than any sailing ship owner could dream of at that time.  Unfortunately no-one had taken into consideration that she was far too big for nearly all the harbours to which she might have sailed, meaning that passengers, their luggage and the cargo would have to be ferried to shore in smaller vessels.  In addition, her experience anchored off shore at Holyhead in Anglesey in a gale had cast doubt on how well she was equipped to sit at anchor beyond harbour walls.

More to the point, the struggling Great Ship Company was unable or unwilling to raise the funds to send her that far, and the decision was taken to send the ship to America on its maiden voyage, as a transatlantic passenger liner.  To top off a rough few years, in January 1860 Brunel’s chosen Captain, William Harrison, drowned in a freak accident in a small sailing boat on the approach to Southampton harbour.  He was replaced by John Vine Hall, who was in charge of her maiden voyage to New York in the same year.  Although she had several captains, perhaps surprising given how unique she was, and how potentially difficult to manage, most of her captains seemed to have very little trouble handling her.

Interior of the Great Eastern showing the grand saloon. Source: McCord Museum, Quebec

Great Eastern‘s first commercial trip, her maiden voyage as a luxury liner, was from Southampton to New York under Captain Vine.  On board there were only 38  paying passengers and 418 crew.  Great Eastern was greeted as a fabulous spectacle in New York, a shining, magnificent newcomer.  Taking advantage of this, with the intention of milking her for all she was worth between arrival and departure, the decision was made to sell tickets for a two-day excursion, a mortifyingly mismanaged episode that did nothing to shower the ship or her owners in glory.  She returned to Britain via Halifax with 72 passengers and was laid up for winter at Milford Haven in southwest Wales.

Repairs and adjustments were made, at a cost that the slim gains from America were unable cover, and more financial controversies ensued, all reported in the media, and proving a barrier to further bookings.  In May 1861 around 100 passengers embarked at Milford Haven for New York.  Four days in, they hit a gale, and the previously steady ship was tossed around much like her smaller competitors, with furniture crashing around and broken skylights letting in water.  Nothing worse happened, but it frightened the passengers and undermined the storm-proof reputation of the ship.

1958 lithograph of Great Eastern by Charles Parson. Source: Wikipedia

Great Eastern put into New York just after the outbreak of the Civil War and following her return to England she was refitted as a troop ship to carry British soldiers and family members to Canada from Liverpool.  Once the refit was complete, she sailed for Quebec in June 1861 with 2144 officers, 473 women and children and 122 horses, as well as 40  paying passengers and a crew of 400.  This was the first and last time her massive capacity was actually useful for carrying passengers.  After a 10 day voyage from Liverpool to Quebec, she remained for a month, taking on paying sight-seers, and accumulating bookings for the return trip, carrying 357 passengers back to England.  She began to be a regular on the transatlantic route.

The Great Eastern in a gale, 1861. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich

After several incident-free voyages, in September 1862 the ship left Liverpool with 400 passengers and a healthy load of cargo. On the afternoon of the second day out, they hit a gale and in the process of turning into the storm, the rudder was hopelessly damaged and, hanging loose, began to damage the propeller.  One paddle wheel damaged in the storm was shredded, lifeboats were lost, and furniture and fittings were tossed throughout the ship’s interior.  Water entering through smashed skylights and portholes began to overwhelm the pumps.  The day was saved not by captain, officers or crew, but by a passenger, civil engineer Hamilton Towle, who devised a scheme to steer the rudder manually.  Under his direction, the crew managed to wrap chains around the rudder, restart the screw propeller, turn around and limp the ship into Queenstown (today Cobh) in southeast Ireland.  She was subsequently escorted by tug to her mooring at Milford Haven.  It cost some £60,000 to repair the ship, and Towle claimed that as Great Eastern would have foundered without his intervention he could demand a salvage fee.  He was awarded £15,000, and again the management company found itself struggling.

Cross section of the Great Eastern. Source: Original unknown; this was downloaded from Encyclopedia Titanica

Great Eastern returned to the New York run in May of 1862, with only 128 passengers on the way out but 389 and a hold full of cargo on the return journey.  Her July 1862 voyage was also successful.  In spite of this, she was not competitive with the fastest ships against which she was running, all of which, being so much smaller, were running at their full passenger and cargo capacity and burning much less coal.  These were profitable where Great Eastern was struggling.  Her third voyage in 1862 caused more financial worries when, nearly having arrived at New York in late August, she scraped against an uncharted reef.  Although the ship made port without difficulty, thanks to the double-skinned hull, the tear was 80ft long and the cost of a temporary repair was £70,000, partly due to the difficulty of obtaining materials during the American Civil War.  Her return to Liverpool in January 1863, with substantial cargo, and was put on a gridiron on the Mersey for the damage and repairs to be inspected.  The temporary repair had to be made good, and two boilers required work. 

1863 was a much better year and she carried a total of some 2700 passengers to New York and 950 in return over three trips.  Still, she made a substantial loss thanks to a pricing war started between the Cunard and Inman Lines, which pushed fares down to below the 1862 rates.  Combined with mortgage and creditor debts, the Great Eastern was no longer viable, and she was put up for auction in January 1864.  She failed to meet her reserve, and the ship was withdrawn from sale.  Instead, she was sold privately for £25,000 to a new company formed to buy her for cable laying, The Great Eastern Steamship Company.  

The following years were Great Eastern‘s  most productive.  She was ideally suitable for laying telegraph cables along the floor of the Atlantic, the only ship large enough to carry the machinery and the 2,000 nautical miles of cable required to reach from Ireland to America.  She was first engaged on this work from 1865-1866.  Although the first attempt to lay cable failed due to problems with both the cable laying equipment and the cable itself, the value of Great Eastern herself was proved, and the second attempt in July 1866 was a great success, and there were now two telegraph cables lying across the seabed of the Atlantic.  A dividend of 70%  was returned on the Great Eastern Steamship Company’s shares.

Great Eastern and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867

Great Eastern under repair at New Ferry, by Edwin Arthur Norbury. The Illustrated London News engraving at the top of the post is thought to have been based on this painting. Source: Artware Fineart

Great Eastern had been a familiar sight on the Mersey from the early 1860s, when she often used Liverpool as a base for her transatlantic crossings.  The Mersey was one of the few rivers wide enough and sheltered enough to provide her with safe harbour when she was not at sea.  After 1866, Great Eastern returned to Milford Haven.  The Great Eastern Steamship Company, having completed its work, jumped at the opportunity to rent her out for a one-off voyage as a passenger ship.  She was leased for £1,000 a month to a French company, La Société des Affréteurs du Great Eastern, which planned to use her to take around 3000 wealthy Americans to the Paris Exposition, and was moved to the Mersey for a refit.  Some illustrations refer to her being at New Ferry, others at Rock Ferry. There is some confusion in publications over whether New Ferry or Rock Ferry was the most appropriate name for the location.  In fact, both appear to refer to the Sloyne, an anchorage in the Mersey, lying off shore where Tranmere Oil Terminal is located.  It was popularly used as a mooring for particularly deep ships, including the Royal Navy training ship HMS Conway

The French company agreed to pick up the bill for refitting Great Eastern, together with new screw boilers, at a cost of £80,000. A Liverpool company picked up the contract to restore her to her former finery and overhaul the engines, work taken place at the Sloyne, as shown in the picture above and at the top of the post, between 19 January and 21 February 1867, ready to sail in March.

The story of Great Eastern‘s repairs was reported 26th January 1867, as follows in the Brecon County Times Neath Gazette and General Advertiser for the Counties of Brecon Carmarthen Radnor Monmouth Glamorgan Cardigan Montgomery Hereford.

Account of the repairs to Great Eastern at Rock Ferry. Source: Brecon County Times

BEACHING OF THE GREAT EASTERN. The big ship was, on the 19th, placed on the grid- iron at New Ferry, just above Liverpool, on the Cheshire side of the river. The gridiron, on which the ship now rests, was constructed about three years ago, when the vessel was first overhauled in the Mersey, but has since been altered, strengthened, and very much improved. There was a very high spring tide, and although the ship was drawing 18 feet 6 inches of water on an even keel, there was quite sufficient depth on the shore to render the operation of beaching a safe one. She lies broadside on the grid running parallel with the river. About nine o’clock a.m. all was in readiness, and the ship left her moorings. Sir James Anderson, the commander of the big ship, attended to the navigation, while Mr. Brereton, the successor to Mr. Brunel, and Mr. Yockney, carefully watched the engineering department.  Four steam-tugs (two on each side the Great Eastern assisted to keep the vessel in position, as with scarcely perceptible motion she neared the beach. The screw engines only of the big ship were worked. Tie screw boilers have been taken out of the ship, and are to be replaced by new ones, and the screw engines were consequently worked from the paddle boilers. The big ship took the grid about ten o’clock. She was placed with great nicety in the exact position fixed upon. Every- thing passed off without the slightest accident, and the beaching may be said to have been accomplished in the most skilful and successful manner. The Great Eastern is kept in position by two massive dolphins. Although her sides and bottom are rather dirty, the lines, bolts, and rivets appear in excellent order. The gridiron is perfectly flat for 60 feet wide, and the big ship rests in perfect security upon it. Every precaution has been taken to prevent accident. Thousands of men are at present engaged on the ship, and she will be ready at the time specified to trade between New York and Brest. Her first voyage after she comes off the grid-iron will be from Liverpool to New York, with goods and passengers.

Great Eastern sailed to New York with 123 passenger on board, which took a lengthy 14 days due to storms and the need to run in new parts.  Jules Verne, renowned for his novels about futuristic technology, was on board Great Eastern when she left the Mersey .  His subsequent novel The Floating City, is a real mixed blessing, combining his own real world experiences with a very bad fictional drama.  In spite of that, the bits of his text where he talks about the ship herself are excellent.  One of my favourite bits describes her leaving her mooring on the Mersey before heading across the Atlantic (the rest of this account can be found at the end of this post):

Illustration in the Jules Verne book The Floating City

At this moment large volumes of smoke curled from the chimneys; the steam hissed with a deafening noise through the escape-pipes, and fell in a fine rain over the deck; a noisy eddying of water announced that the engines were at work. We were at last going to start.

First of all the anchor had to be raised. The Great Eastern, swung round with the tide; all was now clear, and Captain Anderson was obliged to choose this moment to set sail, for the width of the Great Eastern, did not allow of her turning round in the Mersey. He was more master of his ship and more certain of guiding her skilfully in the midst of the numerous boats always plying on the river when stemming the rapid current than when driven by the ebb-tide; the least collision with this gigantic body would have proved disastrous.

To weigh anchor under these circumstances required considerable exertion, for the pressure of the tide stretched the chains by which the ship was moored, and besides this, a strong south-wester blew with full force on her hull, so that it required powerful engines to hoist the heavy anchors from their muddy beds. An anchor-boat, intended for this purpose, had just stoppered on the chains, but the windlasses were not sufficiently powerful, and they were obliged to use the steam apparatus which the Great Eastern, had at her disposal.

At the bows was an engine of sixty-six horse-power. In order to raise the anchors it was only necessary to send the steam from the boilers into its cylinders to obtain immediately a considerable power, which could be directly applied to the windlass on which the chains were fastened. This was done; but powerful as it was, this engine was found insufficient, and fifty of the crew were set to turn the capstan with bars, thus the anchors were gradually drawn in, but it was slow work.

Dining room on the Great Eastern. Source: National Library of Ireland

After an on-board accident leaving port, the ship reached New York without further incident, and preparations were immediately made for her voyage from New York to Brest in France, from where passengers to were to be sent on to Paris.  She had berths prepared for 3000 passengers, but the lengthy  outward passage, much discussed, proved to be a deterrent and she left New York with only 191 on board.  This was a disaster for the French company that had invested so much in her.  It was also a disaster for the Great Eastern Steamship Company, which was caught up in legal disputes concerning unpaid crew fees amounting to £4500.00.  When the company told aggrieved crew members to sue the French firm that had leased the ship, they took legal advice.  Great Eastern was seized by the Receiver of Wrecks, and the Great Eastern Steamship Company eventually awarded the crew a miserly £1500.00. No dividend was paid in 1867.

From 1869 to 1870 and between 1873 and 1874, the great ship had returned to cable work.  Between these two contracts she sat unused at anchor on the Mersey and in 1874 was returned to Milford Haven where she again sat unused.

Great Eastern’s final days on the Clyde and the Mersey 

Back in Milford Haven, no-one could think of a commercially viable use for Great Eastern, and she was beached on a gridiron  in 1874 and was left there for twelve years.  In 1885 she was eventually auctioned to a coal haulier, Edward de Mattos for £26,200, who had first shown interest in her in 1881.  He is thought to have wanted her as a coal hulk in Gibraltar, but his plans fell through, and he agreed to lease her to Louis S. Cohen. Cohen, managing director of Lewis’s Emporium in Liverpool, one of the earliest department stores, had attempted to purchase the ship himself to use as a show boat, but  was prevented by some of his mortgagees.  Leasing her was the next best solution, and Cohen hired crew to bring her from Milford Haven to Liverpool, inviting 200 guests to enjoy the voyage.  In May, she left Milford Haven, once her engines were persuaded back to life by one of her former engineers, George Beckwith.  Having sat unused for so long, her paddles had rusted and were useless, but the screw propeller was in tact and the engines obediently fired up.  Unsurprisingly, the engines could not achieve anything like maximum output, and the hull was mired with seaweed, mussels and limpets, but she still averaged 5 1/2 knots.  The engines failed once when pipes burst, and there was a small fire, but these problems were resolved en route and the guests were delivered safely to their destination.  News of her upcoming arrival in the Mersey had generated considerable interest, and the crowds began to gather.

All along the shore from Crosby crowds of people might be seen assembled looking for the arrival of the big ship.  Tugs crowded with persons approached and cheered.  The Cheshire shore and the New Brighton pier were crowded, and all the way up the river on either side the shore riverwalls and landing stages were black with spectators. (New York Times).

Great Western with an advert for Lewis’s department store painted on her hull. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich (P10569)

Advertising was painted on her hull, promoting Cohen’s own chain of Lewis’s department stores, the painting having been carried out before her arrival at Liverpool.  Lewis’s was a local success story.  It was founded in 1856 by the son of a Jewish merchant who called  David Levy, who changed his name to Lewis.  He did an apprenticeship with tailors Benjamin Hyam and Co, and at the age of 23 opened a boys’ clothing shop.  His wife’s nephew was Louis Cohen, and the two teamed up to grow the business into the Lewis’s supermarket chain, with the flagship store in Liverpool, and branches opening during the later 19th Century in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, all marketed with the slogan “Lewis’s are friends of the people.” David Lewis died in 1885, after which Louis Cohen took over the entire enterprise.  The entrepreneurial spirit that drove the retail chain was clearly drawn to the marketing possibilities of Brunel’s great ship.

Moored on the Wirral side of the Mersey, visitors had to be ferried over to Great Eastern from Liverpool, and there was no shortage of visitors willing to pay a shilling for a visit, accompanied by entertainments including music and dancing, and religious music played on a Sunday.

Great Eastern laid up in Milford Haven. Source: Source:  Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives blog

When Cohen’s contract came up for renewal, he decided against renewing and de Mattos decided to covert Great Eastern into a funfair, with space rented out to performers, vendors and other interested parties.  She opened complete with merry-go-rounds and acrobats, with a music hall, a dining room and bars.  After opening in Liverpool, she spent the winter in Dublin with adverts for tea painted on her hull, returning to Liverpool in April 1887.  She was now refused a license for alcohol, possibly because of church objections to the employment of workers on a Sunday, even for sacred music performances.  The novelty had worn off and the revenues dried up, and she was moved to Greenock on the Clyde in August 1887, to lure in residents of Glasgow who were delivered by steam packet, but again the scheme was a financial failure.  The ship was put up for auction and posters were printed publicising the sale.

TO BE SOLD AT PUBLIC AUCTION on Thursday 20th October 1887 at 12 O’Clock, at the Brokers’ Saleroom, Walmer Building, Water Street, Liverpool, if not previously disposed of by private treaty, THE CELEBRATED, WORLD-RENOWNED, MAGNIFICENT, IRON PADDLE AND SCREW STEAMSHIP ‘GREAT EASTERN’, as she now lies in the Clyde. Lately steamed from Dublin to Liverpool and then to the Clyde with her screw engine, which is 1,000 h.p. nominal; paddle engines are 1,000 h.p. nominal. She has lately been painted and decorated.

The ship was now purchased by a Mr. Craik for £26,000 who seems to have been de Mattos’s manager and had bid on the ship to prevent a financially ruinous sale.  After several more weeks of failure to find a buyer for Great Eastern, she was sold to a shipbreakers for £16,500.

This cartoon was published in 1858 at a time when members of the media were poking fun at the multiple failures to launch the ship, which at that stage was still called “Leviathan.”  It is bizarre and truly regrettable that this silly satire became the commercial reality nearly 30 years later. By Watts Phillips. Source: Mariners’ Blog

By October, Great Eastern was again up for sale, and was purchased only to be auctioned for scrap in 1888 to Henry Bath Ltd, 30 years after her launch in London on the Thames.  Henry Bath was established in 1794, and is still going today, although no longer involved in ship breaking.  She left the Clyde on 22nd August 1888.  Unable to make more than 4 knots, she was provided with a tow from the accompanying tug, Stormcock.  It took three days to move her to  the Mersey.

Great Eastern, beached in advance of being broken up.  Source: Liverpool Echo

Great Eastern was broken up on the Mersey on the same gridiron erected for the repairs.  It is a measure of how big an impression she still made that there was a huge demand for souvenirs, with people lining up to buy pieces of the ship before she the work began.   Breaking began on 1st January 1889.   In this too she ate into her new owner’s profits.  They company directors had estimated that it would take 200 men a year to break up the ship, but she was so well built that it took nearly two years to complete the brutal and punishing task of taking her apart. Her buyers, having been very happy with the purchase price and having made an excellent start selling her pieces of her hull and her fittings, had looked forward to a substantial profit from breaking her up as scrap.  Instead, they found themselves paying out for far more manhours than anticipated, and having to bring in additional machinery, including wrecking balls, to finish the job.  She was broken up at a loss.

Final comments

Flagpole at Anfield, which was originally a topmast from Great Eastern. The flagpole still stands today. Source: Play Up, Liverpool

There are plenty of paintings and contemporary newspaper articles, as well as original documentation, from which much of the Brunel and Great Eastern story have been retold in books, articles, museums and art galleries.  An example is a display in the  Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Emigration Gallery where the ship’s bell is preserved.  There is also a silver model of the ship made for the son of Captain Paton, who had been with the ship from 1860-1863.  Captain Paton’s son, James Paton, had been born on board Great Eastern.  A part of one of the ship’s funnels, which exploded during her sea trials, is now at the S.S. Great Britain Museum, saved after she put into Weymouth for repairs.  In 2011, Time Team, a Channel 4 archaeological series carried out a geophysical survey on the Mersey foreshore that suggested that some small pieces of the ship are still buried where she was broken up on the Mersey.  Perhaps the most unusual remnant of the ship is at Liverpool FC in Anfield, where one of Great Eastern‘s top masts is used as a flagpole.  There must be dozens of souvenirs purchased in the final days before Great Eastern was broken up, still out there, perhaps unrecognized.

The Leviathan or Great Eastern Steam Ship.  Source:  Royal Museums Greenwich

It is often said that Great Eastern was ahead of her time, but in some ways, she was too late for the moment when she would have fulfilled Brunel’s vision of filling her to capacity with passengers.  The gold rushes of California (1848–1855) and Australia (1851-1860) saw massive emigration from the UK.  In Australia, by the early 1870s the population had tripled, and most of the emigrants accounting for this phenomenon were carried on sailing ships in often dreadful conditions; they would have been far better off on Great Eastern.  It remains something of a mystery to me why, after her initial service in the US and as a cable layer, she never did go to Australia.  In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, putting many sailing ships out of business in China, because they were unable to navigate the Red Sea’s difficult cross-winds, whilst steam ships could chug on regardless, in a fraction of the time.  Full-rigged tea clippers like Cutty Sark (launched in 1869) shifted on to the Australian route, carrying out passengers and goods for wealthier emigrants and farmers, and returning with sheep wool.  Steam ships of the era could not carry sufficient coal to be competitive but Great Eastern would have been perfect.  Emerson interestingly suggests that some of the company’s directors may have wanted to avoid putting her into competition with shipping lines serving Australia and the Far East in which they had interests, and perhaps that was indeed a factor.  

As Kenneth Clark said in his classic book Civilisation, Brunel “remained all his life in love with the impossible.”  There are plenty of survivors to remind us of this wild, explosive imagination.  One of Brunel’s earlier and brilliant ships, the Great Britain, has been preserved in dry dock in Bristol, and his railways and bridges are still used today.  It is a true tragedy that Great Eastern could not be rescued, but she really was too big and expensive to maintain.  It is impossible to imagine how she could have been saved.  Brindle calls her Brunel’s “ultimate triumph, and his greatest folly.”  Sad.

I am left wondering it was like to be at the helm of such an enormous ship, powered by steam or sail, propelled by screw or paddle.  So far, I have found nothing about what it was like to handle that vast, glorious bulk, so please let me know if you know of any first-hand accounts by one of her former captains or crew.

The same length as Great Eastern, the Silver Spirit, photographed in 2021. Source: Vessel Finder

Cruise ships today are still being made that are the same length as Great Eastern, although their other vital statistics are  unsurprisingly considerably different.  One example is Silversea’s Silver Spirit, 211m long (the same length as Great Eastern), with a passenger capacity of 608.  Although she was shorter when first built in 2009, she was cut in half and a middle section added in 2018.

The following is a short but visually appealing 2-minute Royal Museums Greenwich video about Brunel and the Great Eastern:


Here’s more from Jules Verne on what it was like to be on board the leviathan.

A Floating City
Chapter V – Off at Last [leaving the Mersey]
Jules Verne

THE WORK of weighing anchors was resumed; with the help of the anchor-boat the chains were eased, and the anchors at last left their tenacious depths. A quarter past one sounded from the Birkenhead clock-towers, the moment of departure could not be deferred, if it was intended to make use of the tide. The captain and pilot went on the foot-bridge; one lieutenant placed himself near the screw-signal apparatus, another near that of the paddle-wheel, in case of the failure of the steam-engine; four other steersmen watched at the stern, ready to put in action the great wheels placed on the gratings of the hatchings. The Great Eastern, making head against the current, was now only waiting to descend the river with the ebb-tide.

The order for departure was given, the paddles slowly struck the water, the screw bubbled at the stern, and the enormous vessel began to move.

The greater part of the passengers on the poop were gazing at the double landscape of Liverpool and Birkenhead, studded with manufactory chimneys. The Mersey, covered with ships, some lying at anchor, others ascending and descending the river, offered only a winding passage for our steam ship. But under the hand of a pilot, sensible to the least inclinations of her rudder, she glided through the narrow passages, like a whale-boat beneath the oar of a vigorous steersman. At one time I thought that we were going to run foul of a brig, which was drifting across the stream, her bows nearly grazing the hull of the Great Eastern, but a collision was avoided, and when from the height of the upper deck I looked at this ship, which was not of less than seven or eight hundred tons burden, she seemed to me no larger than the tiny boats which children play with on the lakes of Regent’s Park or the Serpentine. It was not long before the Great Eastern, was opposite the Liverpool landing-stages, but the four cannons which were to have saluted the town, were silent out of respect to the dead, for the tender was disembarking them at this moment; however, loud hurrahs replaced the reports which are the last expressions of national politeness. Immediately there was a vigorous clapping of hands and waving of handkerchiefs, with all the enthusiasm with which the English hail the departure of every vessel, be it only a simple yacht sailing round a bay. But with what shouts they were answered! what echoes they called forth from the quays! There were thousands of spectators on both the Liverpool and Birkenhead sides, and boats laden with sight-seers swarmed on the Mersey. The sailors manning the yards of the Lord Clyde, lying at anchor opposite the docks, saluted the giant with their hearty cheers.

But even the noise of the cheering could not drown the frightful discord of several bands playing at the same time. Flags were incessantly hoisted in honour of the Great Eastern, but soon the cries grew faint in the distance. Our steam-ship ranged near the “Tripoli,” a Cunard emigrant-boat, which in spite of her 2000 tons burden looked like a mere barge; then the houses grew fewer and more scattered on both shores, the landscape was no longer blackened with smoke; and brick walls, with the exception of some long regular buildings intended for workmen’s houses, gave way to the open country, with pretty villas dotted here and there. Our last salutation reached us from the platform of the lighthouse and the walls of the bastion.

At three o’clock the Great Eastern, had crossed the bar of the Mersey, and shaped her course down St George’s Channel There was a strong sou’wester blowing, and a heavy swell on the sea, but the steam-ship did not feel it. . . .

Our course was immediately continued; under the pressure of the paddles and the screw, the speed of the Great Eastern, greatly increased; in spite of the wind ahead, she neither rolled nor pitched. Soon the shades of night stretched across the sea, and Holyhead Point was lost in the darkness.


Colour lithograph (7 in total) of the S.S. ‘Great Eastern’, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Scott Russell, launched 1858. 1850s. Longitudinal section. Scale 1/8″ : 1′. Flat copy. Click to see bigger image, and click the link following to see close-up details in sections. Source:  The Science Museum


Books and papers

Brindle, S. 2005.  Brunel. The Man Who Built the World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Cadbury, D. 2003.  Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. Harper Perennial

Emmerson, G.S. 1980. The Greatest Iron Ship.  S.S. Great Eastern. David and Charles

Maggs, C. 2017. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The Life of an Engineering Genius. Amberley Books

Rolt, L.T.C. 1957 (with an introduction by Buchanan, R.A. 1989). Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Penguin

If you want to know more about Brunel or Great Eastern and are looking for just one book to read:
Of all the books about Brunel in general, rather than the Great Eastern specifically, I found Maggs and Rolt the most useful. Rolt offers the best narrative with most detail (447 pages). Maggs is also thoroughly digestible, and is the best for quoting Brunel himself (310 pages).  Brindle is by far the least useful for detailed analysis (195 pages), but is an enjoyable romp through Brunel’s life.  All three have shiny illustrations and photographs clumped together.  All three, being about Brunel, end with his death, and do not pursue the longer term fortunes of any of his ventures.
Regarding Great Eastern, Emerson’s book is invaluable, with a good analysis and some terrific photographs, although it is not always easy to track dates; Cadbury did an excellent job in the chapter of her book (and the other chapters on other engineering triumphs of the period are also a good read); the chapter by Maggs is short, but quotes Brunel extensively, which offers great insight into Brunel’s thinking; Rolt provides a lot of excellent detail in two and a half chapters on the subject; finally, Brindle devotes only 21 pages to all three best-known ships, which renders it fairly useless for insights into Great Eastern.


Artware Fine Art
Text about the picture “The Great Eastern beached on the gridiron New Ferry , On the Cheshire Bank of the Mersey February 1867 with workers maintaining the Hull”

Dead Confederates. A Civil War Era Blog
The World’s Largest Troopship

Grace’s Guide
S.S. Great Eastern

Henry Bath Ltd

History of the Atlantic Cable and Underseas Communication
Great Eastern by Bill Glover

The Illustrated Times
The Death of Mr Brunel

Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives
From Millwall to the Kop – the story of Great Eastern

Timeline of the Great Eastern

Liverpool Echo
Can you help solve this decades-old Anfield mystery?

Liverpool Echo
Store that has its heart in Liverpool

Lyttleton Times, vol.VIII, Iss.496, 5 AUGUST 1857, page 3 (originally from The Times)
The Great Eastern

New York Times
The Great Eastern. Details of a Voyage from Milford Haven to Liverpool, May 1886

Old Mersey Times (originally from the Daily Post, January 23rd 1860)
Death of Captain Harrison of the Great Eastern.

Shipping Wonders of the World
The Famous Great Eastern

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Sat 31 Dec 1892, p.10

Victoria and Albert Museum
Photographing the Great Eastern


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