History of the Merchant Navy

It had always been Brunel’s dream to build a ship capable of carrying 4000 passengers and in 1854 the keel of the Great Eastern was laid at John Scott Russell’s yard near the Isle of Dogs on the River Thames. She was a monster equipped with side paddle wheels, screw propellers, five funnels, and six masts capable of carrying 6,500 square yards of sail. By far the largest ship afloat at time she was 688 feet long with a beam of 82 feet, a designed tonnage of 18,914 tons and a top speed of 15 knots. As traditional methods of steering would be a problem she became to first ship to be fitted with a steering engine. She was also the first ship to be constructed with a cellular double bottom which increased the overall strength of the vessel as was proved when she ran over a rock and only incurred minor damage.

But the construction proved to be long and difficult. Numerous problems cause continual delays but the biggest problem concerned the launch. The intention was to slide the 12,000 tons of dead weight tonnage sideways into the Thames from where she lay some 330 feet from the high water mark but this proved to be the biggest problem of all. Advice was sought and given not least by the other great railway pioneer Robert Stephenson. During September 1857 the last plates were riveted and on 3rd November Brunel announced the date of the launch but without success.

A second attempt was made on 2nd December with Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales in attendance but, again without success. A further unsuccessful attempt was made on the 5th January,1858, followed by a fourth attempt on 30th January when it proved to be too windy. However, on the 31st January the Great Eastern was launched. Brunel directed the launch and inch by inch the great ship was eased into the River Thames. The cost of the launch was estimated to be £1000 per foot and by the time the vessel was afloat the total cost was around £732,000. This proved to be too much for John Scott Russell who now faced bankruptcy.

The fitting out of the Great Eastern took until August 1859 and on 7th September she commenced a voyage to Holyhead. Unfortunately, when the ship was off the English coast near Hastings in Sussex there was an explosion which blew the forward funnel off. During the construction Brunel was everywhere, supervising everything. The overwork and the worry finally took its toll and while on board choosing cabins for himself and his wife he suffered a stroke, collapsed and on 11th September, 1859, died without ever seeing his great ship commence her maiden voyage.

A party checking the tackle prior to the first abortive attempt to launch the Great Eastern in 1857.

Brunel and his team watching the launch. Scott Russell, Wm Jacomb, Brunel and Lord Derby.

Brunel had designed the Great Eastern to go to Australia or India with up to 4000 passengers and up to 6000 tons of cargo without having to recoal, but the owners deployed her on the transatlantic route. But the ship never made any money on that route. The first voyage scheduled for 8th October, 1859, was delayed and delayed until at the end of May 1860 when passengers began embarking for a voyage from Southampton to New York. Eventually, on 17th June, 1860, she sailed for New York with 35 paying passengers, 8 company supernumeries and 418 crew members, arriving at Sandy Hook on the 28th. It wasn’t until the end of August, and after a couple of local cruises to Cape May and Annapolis, that she returned to England with 100 passengers in 9 days 4 hours. The second Atlantic crossing commenced on 1st May 1861 and, with 100 passengers, completed the voyage in 9 days 13 hours and 20 minutes. She returned to England on 25th May with 194 passengers.

During 1861 the Great Eastern was converted into a troopship and in the August sailed for Quebec with 2,144 officers, 473 women and children a crew of 400 and 122 horses completing the voyage in 8 days and 6 hours. She returned to England at the end of August with 357 passengers. On 10th September, 1861, she sailed from Liverpool to New York with 400 passengers.

Early in 1862 she was refitted and on 7th May sailed for New York with 138 passengers returning to England with 400 First-Class and 300 steerage passengers. In July she sailed for New York with 376 passengers arriving on the 11th and arrived back in England on 6th August with 200 First-Class and 300 steerage passengers. On 17th August she sailed from England with 820 passengers but on 28th August as she was approaching New York she struck a rock off Montauk Point, Long Island (now referred to as the “Great Eastern Rock”) and opened an 83 feet gash in her side.

Repairs to the ship were completed by January 1863 and on the 6th she sailed for England with 1200 passengers arriving on 17th/18th. She made several more transatlantic before being chartered by the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co. to be converted into a cable laying vessel.

With the advent of telephonic communication cables were being laid to link continents and considerable experience had been gained during the laying of some short ocean cables. There had always been a dream to lay a cable between Europe and the United States and in 1864 the Atlantic cable project was revived. Because of her size and the relative stability she could provide the Great Eastern was chosen for the task. The 18,915grt vessel was equipped with three cylindrical tanks to hold 2000 nautical miles of cable. The machinery required to pay out the cable and the dynamometer which enabled a brakesman to maintain an even strain on the cable was was situated aft. Machinery for recovering broken cable was situated forward which meant that there had to be laborious manhandling of the cable from forward to aft and vise versa to rectify defects.

In May1865 the Great Eastern took on 1,395 nautical miles of cable at Sheerness in Kent and headed towards Valentia near Bantry Bay in Ireland. On 23rd July she headed out across the Atlantic Ocean for Hearts Content in Newfoundland to start laying the transatlantic cable. Ten days later on 2nd August and approximately half way across, the cable was lost. Attempts were made to recover the cable but without success and the ship returned to Crookhaven.

A second attempt was not made until 1866 when, after taking on coal at Bereshaven, the Great Eastern sailed from Valentia towards Heart Content. On 22nd July 1866 the halfway mark was passed and on 27th July the ship arrived in Newfoundland and the first transatlantic cable had been successfully laid. A few days later she sailed from Hearts Content and returned to the point where the first cable had been lost After grappling 330 times the cable was recovered and buoyed off.

In 1867 the Great Eastern briefly reverted back to carrying passengers and on one voyage which departed from Liverpool for New York on 26th March 1967 the writer Jules Verne and his brother Paul were among the 123 passengers.

An engraving from a 19th century book depicting the Great Eastern in a storm off Cape Clear
(K.Fenwick Collection)

However, such was her success as a cable layer that she was converted back to cable laying and, in 1869, chartered to the French Telegraphic Company to lay the French transatlantic cable. On or about 20th June 1869 she sailed from Brest and on the 22nd day arrived at Miquelin where the cable was spliced to the shore cable The Great Eastern returned to Portland, England from where, in November 1869, she sailed to Bombay, a voyage which lasted 83 days. On 14th February, 1870, she began laying a cable between Bombay and Aden, a task that was completed in 2 weeks.

Her last transatlantic cable was laid from west to east in 1874. Sailing from Hearts Content on 26th August,1874, she proceeded to Valentia where she arrived 14 days later. Between 1865 and 1874 the Great Eastern laid five transatlantic cables and repaired four of them in mid ocean. However, by 1874 the charterers, Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co., had ordered a purpose built cable ship, the Faraday, and, as a result the Great Eastern and was paid off and ‘mothballed’ until, in 1886, she was sold at auction and, for a short period, became a floating fair.

In the autumn of 1886 she was towed to Dublin where she stayed for a short time before being moved to Greenock. In 1887 she was sold at auction to ship breakers who moved her to Liverpool where in May 1889 the breaking up commenced, a process which lasted for 18 months. However, there was one final drama for the Great Eastern before the dismantling was completed in 1890; a body was discovered in the double bottom.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel will always be remembered for his achievements not least, his three ‘great’ ships. Without his vision it is possible that the development of the ship in terms of size may have been considerably slower. The Great Britain, now permanently berthed in Bristol, is a fitting memorial to an engineer who saw the potential and constantly strove to achieve it. The shipping world has a lot to thank Brunel for.

Painting by E.Weeden entitled ‘Der Leviathan’
(Hamburg-Information, Hamburg)

We have briefly recounted the story of Brunel and his three “great” ships but for more about the man read the first biography to portray Brunel how he really was. Adrian Vaughan’s book reveals not just an engineer of genius, a born actor and a courageous leader, but also a man who was obstinate, unjust, dictatorial and, in the end, paranoid.-
Isambard Kingdom Brunel – by Adrian Vaughan