January 2020 lecture.
‘Brunel’s SS Great Eastern’ Notes from the lecture by Dr Simon Hancock to the Pembrokeshire Historical Society in January 2020
The SS Great Eastern was one of the world’s most famous ships being the third of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamships. His earlier ship designs, the Great Western(1837) and the Great Britain (1843) had been successful but both were dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Great Eastern which was originally known as the Leviathan. The ship was 692 feet in length and displaced 22,000 tons and was the biggest ship ever built and only surpassed in the twentieth century. Intended to sail directly to Australia with enough coal for the voyage the ship combined screw propellor, sails (there were six masts and five funnels) and paddle wheels. The ship could carry 4,000 passengers and had a crew of 418. The cost was originally estimated at £500,000 and the keel was laid down in 1854 at the Napier Yard at Milwall and the builder was John Scott Russell. The ship was launched sideways into the Thames but the whole project was bedevilled with financial difficulties. There were three months of inactivity due to funding difficulties. The ship was ready to launch in 1857 but the first attempt in November 1857 was a fiasco. It took nearly three months to launch the ship with numerous accidents and only after employing hydraulic Rams from the Tangye company. The ship was launched on 31 January 1858 and the whole launch coat around another £170,000. The ship was fitted out and the maiden voyage undertaken in 30 August 1859. On 6 September 1859 an explosion threw the no. 1 funnel into the air and caused considerable damage. Six crew members died in the accident.
Although designed to sail for the Far East the Great Eastern was put on the transatlantic route (1860-3) which it was never designed for. The first voyage to New York took place on 17 June 1860 and took around ten days. Several of the voyages made small profits but these were more than wiped out by accidents such as when the ship struck a rock while entering New York in 1862 which cost £70,000. The ship’s double hull was highly original and saved the vessel.
During winter periods the Great Eastern was laid up at Neyland on a huge gridiron on two occasions (1860-1; 1862) being repaired. By 1864 with mounting debts, the ship’s owners sold the ship for a mere £25,000. The ship was converted into a cable layer and she was employed in helping to lay the Atlantic cable including 2,600 miles of the 1865 cable. Between 1866-74 the Great Eastern laid 30,000 of cable including a stretch from Aden to Bombay in 1869-70. By 1874 even this work was done and with no purpose the ship was sent to Milford Haven in 1874 and was laid up there for 12 years. In 1886 the ship was sold and eventually became a floating advertising hoarding for the firm of Lewis of Liverpool. The Great Eastern was sold to Henry Bath and she was scrapped at New Ferry on the River Mersey (1889-90) and it took more than two years to break her up. Some of the ship’s keel still lie in the foreshore while the top mast stands at the Kp end at Anfield football ground.
The Great Eastern was a ship was ahead of its time. Financial mismanagement and truly desperate bad luck made the ship a white elephant and the stress of the whole project in no small part contributed to Brunel’s untimely death in September 1859.