The SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
At the time of her launch, in 1858, she was by far the largest ship that had been built, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling.
‘She has made in all eight or ten trips with passengers across the Atlantic. She has carried troops to Quebec. In 1863 she knocked a hole 83ft. long in her bottom on Montauk Point. In 1860 she encountered the storm in which she lost her paddles and broke her rudder head. A sensational story was told at the time about the fitting of jury steering gear by an American engineer, Mr. Towle, which, like many other sensational stories, is not true.’
1854 Brunel entered into a partnership with John Scott Russell, an experienced Naval Architect and ship builder, to construct the Great Eastern. She was built by Scott, Russell and Co’s Napier Yard at Millwall, London, the keel being laid down on May 1, 1854.
Unknown to Brunel, Russell was in financial difficulties. The two men disagreed on many details. It was Brunel’s final great project, and he collapsed from a stroke after being photographed on her deck, and died only ten days later, a mere four days after Great Eastern’s first sea trials.
The hull was an all-iron construction, a double hull of 0.75 inch wrought iron in 2 ft 10in plates with ribs every 6 ft. Internally the hull was divided by two 350 ft long, 60 ft high, longitudinal bulkheads and further transverse bulkheads dividing the ship into nineteen compartments.
1857 ‘THE “GREAT EASTERN” MONSTER SHIP – Mr. S. Beale, deputy-chairman of the Midland Railway Company, and whose name has long been honourably connected with the industrial and mercantile pursuits of this country, is now supplying Messrs. Scott, Russell, and Co., the builders of the monster ship, with immense iron plates to be used in her construction. The plates have been expressly rolled for the bows of the “great ship” at Millwall, and vary in size from 2 tons to 2½ tons, the largest plate being 27 feet long by 4 feet 3 inches wide, and 1¼ inch thick. The rough plates from which these beautifully finished plates were cut out were of course much larger. The plates, which have been planed, are quite free from blisters and blemishes, the edges are perfect, and altogether they are an admirable specimen of what can be effected in these days of progress by enterprise, ingenuity, and skill. The difficulty of rolling these immense masses of iron was enormous. The process is this : — Between 3 and 4½ tons of iron are bound together, and placed in a furnace expressly constructed for the purpose, and, after the iron has been heated to a white heat, it is withdrawn and carried to the rolls, and, by admirable mechanical arrangement, rolled into plates. — Derby Reporter.’
The Great Eastern was the first ship to incorporate the double-skinned hull, a feature which would not be seen again in a ship for 100 years, but which is now compulsory for reasons of safety. She had sail, paddle and screw propulsion. The paddle-wheels were 56 ft in diameter and the four-bladed screw-propeller was 24 ft across. The power came from four steam engines for the paddles and an additional engine for the propeller. Total power was estimated at 8,000 hp. She had six masts (said to be named after the days of a week – Monday being the fore mast and Saturday the spanker mast), providing space for 18,148 square feet of sails (7 gaff and max. 9 (usually 4) square sails), rigged similar like a topsail schooner with a main gaff sail (fore-and-aft sail) on each mast, one “jib” on the fore mast and three square sails on masts no. 2 and no. 3 (Tuesday & Wednesday); for a time mast no. 4 was also fitted with three yards. In later years, some of the yards were removed. According to some sources (see External links) she would have carried 58,502 sq ft. This amount of canvas is obviously too much for seven fore-and-aft sails and max. 9 square sails. This (larger) figure of sail area lies only a few square meters below that the famous Flying P-Liner Preussen carried (with her five full-rigged masts of 30 square sails and a lot of stay sails). Setting sails turned out to be unusable at the same time as the paddles and screw were under steam, because the hot exhaust from the five (later four) funnels would set them on fire. Her maximum speed was 13 knots.
1858 January 31st. She was finally launched after many technical difficulties. She was 692 ft long, 83 ft wide, with a draft of 20 ft unloaded and 30 ft fully laden, and displaced 32,000 tons fully loaded. In comparison, SS Persia, launched in 1856, was 390 ft long with a 45 ft beam.
Two people were killed in the difficult sideways-launch of the Great Eastern, and the ship became known to some as the unlucky ship. She was involved in a series of accidents, including a bizarre incident in which an overheated boiler launched funnel no. 1 like a rocket, killing a crew member and five boiler men in the process.
She was at first named the SS Leviathan, but her high building and launching costs ruined the Eastern Steam Navigation Co, so she lay unfinished for a year before being sold to the Great Eastern Ship Coand finally renamed SS Great Eastern. It was decided she would be more profitable on the Southampton–New York run, and outfitted accordingly.
1860 June 17th. After two trial trips in 1859, she set forth on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. On her eleven-day maiden voyage she carried 35 paying passengers, 8 company “dead heads” (passengers who don’t pay) and 418 crew. Among the 35 passengers, eight officials and a crew of 418, were two journalists, Zerah Colburn and Alexander Lyman Holley. Also on board were with Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Gooch and Norman Scott Russell (Scott Russell’s son). John Scott Russell, who had intended to sail on the maiden voyage, remained at home. Holley travelled as one of Scott Russell’s personal friends. Norman Scott Russell stayed with Holley in New York for a few weeks.
1861 Left Milford Haven for her second voyage to New York, with 100 passengers on-board.
1862 August 27th. The Great Eastern suffered an accident similar to that of the Titanic, but did not sink. She scraped on an uncharted rock off the coast of Long Island, which opened the outer hull over 9 feet wide and 83 feet long. However, the Great Eastern’s inner hull was unbroken, and she made her way into New York the next day under her own steam. Nobody was hurt.
Cable Laying Duties
The vessel was sold for £25,000 (her build cost has been estimated at £500,000) and converted into a cable-laying ship. Funnel no. 4 and some boilers were removed as well as great parts of the passenger rooms and saloons to give way to open top tanks for taking up the coiled cable. She laid 2,600 statute miles of the 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable.
From 1866 to 1878, under Captain Robert Halpin (born Wicklow, Ireland, 1836, died 1894) and J. P. Anderson as Chief Officer, the ship laid over 26,000 nautical miles of submarine telegraph cable including from Brest to St. Pierre-Miquelon (1869), Aden-Bombay (1869-70).
1867 Steam-steering gear was fitted to the ship; designed by Forrester and Co.
Re-fit as a Liner
At the end of her cable-laying career she was refitted once again as a liner but once again efforts to make her a commercial success failed. She was used as a show-boat, a floating palace / concert hall and gymnasium.
1885 October 28th. Now lying at Milford Haven, she was auctioned by Charles Walford Kellock and Coat Lloyd’s Captains’ Room, Royal Exchange, London.
In the 1885 sale by auction she was bought by David Lewis of Lewis’s Department Store, Liverpool for use as an advertising hoarding—sailing up and down the Mersey. The idea was to attract people to the store by using her as a floating visitor attraction.
1889–90 She was broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey by Henry Bath and Son. It took 18 months to take her apart.