By Simon Hancock

The Great Eastern is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable ships in British maritime history. In Pembrokeshire terms the main association is the twelve unhappy years spent in retirement at Milford Haven [1874-86] after her cable laying days were over. Two earlier visits to Neyland during 1860-62, noted for their feverish expectation of com­mercial development and unprecedented influx of day-trippers has been comparatively overlooked.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel [1806-59] and originally. conceived as the Leviathan, the Great Eastern’s keel was laid down on 1 May 1854 and boasted sail , paddle and screw propulsion. The behemoth displaced 22,500 tons and was 692 feet in length,1 making it much the largest ship ever built. It took months of agonizing effort to finally launch her from the yard at the Napier Yard, Milwall, an ordeal which seemed to typify the economic disappointment and shee r bad luck which dogged the Great Eastern ‘s 30 years of service. By the end of January 1858 the cost of construction stood at £732,000, double the original estimates. 2 The launch was eventually accomplished on 31 January 1858.

After surviving a serious internal explosion off Margate on 9 September 1859, [an event which apparently finished off an already gravely ill Brunel]3 and a ferocious eighteen hour storm off Holyhead ,4 the vessel was moved to Southampton for the Atlantic passenger route. The maiden voyage to New York began on 17 June 1860 with a complement of 418 crew but only 35 passengers. The voyage took 10 days and 19 hours. At New York the Great Eastern was hailed as the wonder of the modern age and perhaps a welcome diversion from the turbulent political storm clouds which were gathering that summer of 1860. When the price of admission to board and inspect the vessel was reduced to 50 cents an astonishing 143,764 sightseers visited in less than four weeks. 5 T he Great Eastern received the ultimate accolade when, on 23 August 1860 President James Buchanan and his staff spent two hours inspecting the ship.6

Even as the Great Eastern was being constructed at the Napier Yard, feverish speculation was being made regarding which port or locality in the United Kingdom would host the monster’s proposed Atlantic crossing route. A number of local commentators not surprisingly favoured the port of Milford and especially the newly-created ‘ port’ of Neyland. Doubtless much of this fancy rested upon Brunel’s knowledge of the capabilities of the Haven and his recorded visits to the locality. The great engineer surveyed the Haven on 16 October 1851 on board the Cambria steamer, seeking a site for the terminus of the South Wales Railway.7 During one of his later visits, I 9 July 1857, there was much speculation as to the object of his visit. Hopes were entertained ‘it had something to do with the Haven as to its being the place of arrival and departure for the Great Eastern. ‘ 8

Whatever the long-term intentions of the owners of the Great Eastern, a large measure of both expediency and commercial judgement underscored their negotiations with the South Wales Railway Company when it came to the ship’s return voyage to the United Kingdom in August 1860. 9 The railway company, mindful of their investment at Neyland [the railway had opened on 15 April 1856] offered berthing accommodation there. In their half-yearly report of the directors of the railway company, it was announced how ‘accommodation has been provided for enabling the process of cleans­ing her bottom to be proceeded with; and it is hoped that the selection of Milford Haven as the return port, on her first voyage, will benefit your traffic and provide a wise choice on the part of the owners of that vessel.’ 10

The accommodation in question was a huge wooden gridiron constructed on the foreshore at Neyland opposite the Pembroke Dockyard. The huge undertaking gave employment to 200 men for over two months . The beach was excavated to a distance of 550 feet and a wooden structure erected consisting principally of two huge grids, each 150 feet in length. Two ‘dolphins’ 30 feet in height were also built for the Great Eastern to li e against as wel1 as act as guides in the actual beaching operation. The grid­ iron was constructed by engineers of the South Wales Railway Company who also added a pier of loose stones to enable visitors to have a ready made access to the ship at any state of the tide. The gridiron cost nearly £1,000. 11 Doubtless the directors considered this a wise investment as they anticipated significant revenue from visitors anxious to view the world ‘s largest ship at Milford Haven. In early August 1860 the company were inviting tenders for the supply of refreshments for first and second class excursionists with contractors to sup ply all necessary plates, china, glasses and waiting-on staff.12

The Great Eastern left New York on 16 August 1860 with several score passengers including a ventriloquist and ‘improvisatore,’ the Wizard Jacobs and his brother the intriguingly-named ‘ Goblin Sprightly.’ 13 In mid­ Atlantic the ship’s screw shaft gave out 14 but after temporary repairs were carried out progress was resumed. The Great Eastern reached the mouth of Milford Haven on Sunday 26 August 1860. As though the arrival of the world ‘s biggest ship was not of enough attraction, the recent arrival of the eleven Royal Navy warships of the Channel Fleet made for further novelty and surprise. The 121-gun Royal Albert carried the flag of Vice-Admiral, Sir Charles Freemantle. 15 The presence of both fleet and largest com­mercial vessel on the globe clearly under scored the unrivalled port facilities of Milford Haven, a fact which contemporaries were quick to allude to.

The Great Eastern was met at St. Anne’s Head by one of the Neyland to Waterford steamers, the City of Paris , which manifested ‘an amount of enthusiasm for which we were hardly prepared … round after round of cheers, which our passengers returned much more heartily than they would have done had they known the demand that was soon to be made upon them for that exhaustive vocal performance.’ 16 As they rounded Stack Rock the Channel Fleet anchored in a double line. Passing at a rate of twelve knots an hour the Great Eastern was greeted with cheers from the crews in the rigging ‘and mounting with the activity of cats , were soon clustering on every yard , mast and spar to get a good sight of the great ship that was now dwarfing their own magnificent craft to the proportions of a cock boat.’ 17 Immense numbers of spectators lined every spot from Hazel­ beach to Neyland and Hobbs Point to Barrack Hill at Pembroke Dock. The Great Eastern moored a mile below the Dockyard and her 63 passengers were disembarked.18

On 28 August 1860 the leviathan was thrown open to the public where the steamers of Messrs Ford & Jackson [who operated the steam packets from Neyland to southern Ireland] conveyed visitors from Milford, Hobbs Point and Neyland. The fare and entrance fee were 2s.1’J The Great Eastern’ s seven months or so out of active service ironically proved to be highly remunerative for the long-suffering shareholders or the company, even if the sums expended on repairs proved to be rather substantial. Even before the vessel was floated up to the gridiron something of a frenzy of public interest manifested itself in the thousands of sightseers eager to see both Great Eastern and Channel Fleet.

By early September two special excursion trains arrived at Neyland, in addition to the well-patronised scheduled regular services. One train from Merthyr carried 1,100 visitors, the great majority of whom were obliged to stay out all night, there being no available beds at either Neyland or Pembroke Dock.20 Other excursionists came from London, Cheltenham and Gloucester. Some visitors arrived by sea on specially organised trips from llfracombe and Ireland. One correspondent remarked ‘Fancy the perpetuation for one month of the scenes of which Neyland has been the centre for the last three or four days; hundreds of visitors arriving by every train; refreshment rooms which used to be deserted are now crowded; vast masses lining all the approaches to the station.’ 21 For Neyland such interest was heaven sent. It was remarked how when such ships as the Great Eastern visited on a regular basis ‘that which now aspires to be the town of New Milford will have realised all that local enthusiasm anticipates as its brilliant destiny. At present it deserves attention principally as com­bining something of the rudeness of a new settlement with the comfort of a new hotel.’ 22

By early September around 2,000 people a day were visiting Neyland with passengers paying 1s. more than the usual fare from stations along the South Wales route. The company had speculated by building the gridiron and found itself handsomely rewarded with greatly increased passenger revenues. The owners of the Great Eastern likewise shared in the bonanza ‘and as the daily expenses of the ship are very trifling, the shareholders may congratulate themselves that she is earning something toward s a dividend. Evidently she will remain an object or curiosity wherever she may be, and her exhibition may be relied upon as a source or revenue .’ 23

The advent of sightseeing on this unprecedented scale was symptomatic of the development of recreational travel which started with the most prosperous in society and quickly moving down the social scale.’ 24 Above all it was the railway which made this new mobility in leisure possible with advice and reports regularly appearing in the local press testifying to the growing habit and ritual of annual holidays. 25 Despite the euphoria of the welcome given to the great ship the economic problems for the owners and shareholders were real enough. The crew of 403 was paid off over two days, a process complicated by disputes.26 There was no dry dock to receive the Great Eastern, only the gridiron and little by way of shoreline organisation.27 Once the coal on board had been discharged and every disposable weight had been sent off 28 by Captain Vine Hall, the difficult operation of beaching the ship could be contemplated. This task was duly accomplished on Sunday 16 September 1860, when, with the aid of a powerful tug, she was placed on the gridiron ‘with as much precision as a Thames steamer.’29 Those on the bridge included Captain Hall, Mr Brereton, Captain Thomas T. Jackson, the ship’s agent, Mr lvemey, the Queen’s harbour pilot and several other gentlemen. The Great Eastern was safely docked and was almost ‘a noble monument to the memory of I. K. Brunel, as he may be said to have given his own life to render his darling project a success.’ 30

The beaching was a success despite ‘blowing half a gale of wind.’31 With the Great Eastern on the gridiron visitors were able to walk entirely round the hull and afforded even greater opportunity for inspection. The South Wales Railway Company organised a number of special excursion trains, charging 4s.6d. a head to include entrance fee for the vessel. On I October 1860 one train with 39 carriages conveyed 2,700 passengers. Among them were the 17th division of Glamorgan Rifle Volunteers, raised and equip­ped by Mr Evan Evans of Neath. They marched into the ship preceded by their band playing a quick step.32 The visitors came from every social class, ‘from the merchant to the squire.’33 Despite the unprecedented number of visitors there was apparently little merchandising, merely a few trinkets, engraved shells and the like for purchase34 and there were repeated com­plaints concerning the lack of refreshments. Some enterprising Llangwm women saw their opportunity and offered to sell oysters to the hungry visitors.

Fig. 1: Photograph of the Great Eastern on the gridiron at Neyland (Courtesy of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Wales).

Fig. 1: Photograph of the Great Eastern on the gridiron at Neyland (Courtesy of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Wales).

Although visitor income was appreciated by both Great Ship Company and the railway company, there were significant repair and maintenance issues which brought the Great Eastern to Pembrokeshire. Concern was expressed at the state of the ship’s bottom. Consequently it was reported how 200 men would be employed to scrape and clean the weeds and barnacles after which McInnes copper paint would be applied. 35 Any sus­pected deterioration was soon demonstrated to have been greatly over­stated. Equipped with lanterns ‘and like so many disciples of Diogenes’:16 inspectors went wading through mud and the bars of the gridiron in search of marine algae. All that they found were a few small tufts of weed and a few limpets no more than half an inch in height. Nevertheless, the men were put to work and the weed and shells removed.

Whilst on the gridiron a new brush to the aftermost bearing of the main screws haft was introduced. A Board of Trade examination of 27 Sep­tember 1860 noted the screw shaft bearing being worn down in its bed to the extent of four inches at the outer end. It was further recommended that feed pumps be fitted to the screw engines. The surveyor’s report stated how new decks would be required costing in the region of £ 15,000. 37 Clearly any anticipation of the Great Eastern sailing to the United States on 17 October 1860 was impossible. Instead, the ship was put into a state of ‘permanent efficiency and . . . all current expenses be forthwith reduced to the minimum consistent with the safety and interest of the vessel.’ 38 The Great Eastern was to rest her bones on the gridiron at Neyland for the winter of 1860 – 61 although Captain Hall was quick to refute any claims that the damp climate of Milford Haven would be detrimental to the machinery and splendid hangings of the saloon.39

During the winter the Great Eastern was placed in the care of Captain Tho mas T. Jackson, the agent, two assistants and ten crew members includ­ in g an auxiliary engineer. Despite the inclement weather the ship remained open to visitors although the average fell to 25-30 a day, a far cry from the 19 ,000 excursionists who visited in September alone.40 The Great Eastern spent a quiet, undisturbed winter at Neyland ‘in calm, wondrous security .’ 41 During January 1861 various repairs were carried out under the super­ intendence of Captain Carnegie, so that she might leave as announced for New York in the Spring.42 The most formidable task was the replacing of the upper deck which had been constructed of unseasoned timber. Mr James Gaddarn [1822-90] a Neyland shipbuilder secured the contract and he employed a good number of hands to complete the work on time. 43

By mid- February 1861 a number of sailing and engineering officers had joined the ship in preparation for fitting her for sea.44 Such feverish activity renewed interest in the vessel which had lain at Neyland for six months. The date announced for her removal from the gridiron, 26 March 1861 was coincidentally the day before the launch of the 91-gun HMS Defiance from Pembroke Dockyard. The combination of these two note­ worthy maritime events, it was expected, would generate considerable public interest. To cater for the demand Edward Williams, manager of the South Wales Hotel, Neyland, endeavoured to lay on refreshment s of every description ‘at moderate charges.’ 45

Exactly six months and ten days after she was beached at Neyland, the Great Eastern was floated off the gridiron. Two small steamers towed her head southwardly and the paddle wheels were put into gentle motion and the mooring chains let go. The ship moored off Milford town to take on coal, cargo and passengers until her second voyage to Ne w Yor k. As anticipated, largenumbers of spectators assembled at every possible location to see these events including Neyland, Hobbs Point. the Signal Station and the fortified battery. 46 At nine o’ clock on the evening of 1 May 1861 the Great Eastern left Milford Haven bound for New York, the first time in the history ‘or this great and hitherto most unfortunate undertaking the directors have been able to keep faith with the public in the matter of punctuality of sailing .’ 47 Thus ended the Great Easte rn ‘s firsl sojourn in the Haven. It had been a memorable and impressive one, marred by tragic­ comic episodes of the litigation betwee n John Scott Russell and the owners of the Great Ship Company. Shortly after the appointment of Captain Carnegie RN to command the ship , the High Sheriff of Pembroke­shire boarded the vessel and placed an attachment on the ship under a court award of £24,000 to Russell for building costs and repairs.48 The Great Eastern’s second Atlantic voyage took nine days and thirteen hours, but given the war fever gripping the United States her arrival in New York went virtually unnoticed.

The highly visible presence of the world’s biggest and most celebrated vessel in their midst must have done much good for the economic prospects of the new community of Neyland. Ne wly-established inns like the Picton Castle Hotel, Lawrenny Castle Hotel and Mariners must have done a rare trade. Many were not slow to spot an economic opportunity. One indi­vidual, D. J. Olver, based at No. 2, Picton Terrace, Neyland, offered hair dressing services 49 to those visiting the Great Eastern. Later, the same individual offered photographs of the ship on the gridiron for 2s.7d. free of postage.50

The Neyland of the late 1850s and 1860s witnessed a large number of property transactions, especially leases from the principal landed estates, the Picton Castle and Lawrenny Castle Estates. One Jesse Evans, a native of Nolton, took leases of ground as early as May 1857  51 and more on 7 October 1859. 52 These were clearly pieces of ground on which dwelling houses and shops would be erected. Of particular interest was a memorandum of agreement between Thomas Evans of the Great Eastern Inn, Jesse Evans, mason and the Rev. J. H. A. Philipps or Picton Castle. The memorandum was dated 19 April 1862 .53 Clearly a public house bear­ing the sign of the famous ship was opened either in late 1860 or in 1861 . When the 1861 census was taken the only residents at home were Matilda and Mary J. Evans, aged fourteen and ten respectively, daughters of Jesse Evans. The latter kept another public house named the Traveller’s Rest at Parryville on the road to Honeyborough.54 Interestingly 3d. brass checks or tokens for use at the Great Eastern Inn or Hotel were issued by Jesse Evans and around five examples have been identified.

Fig. 2: Brass 3d. check of the Great Eastern Inn or Hotel.

Fig. 2: Brass 3d. check of the Great Eastern Inn or Hotel.

The most permanent record of the Great Eastern’s presence at Neyland in the early 1860s was the naming of a terrace of houses, actually being constructed at the time of the great ship’s arrival and a short distance from the location of the gridiron. The 1861 census records the course of erection or eight houses between Picton Terrace and Trafalgar Cottage. This row of dwellings was later named ‘ Great Eastern Terrace.’

After being chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Canada [June-July 1861] the Great Eastern’s third voyage to America began at Liverpool on 10 September 1861. On the second day she encoun­ tered a severe gale which caused the ship to roll heavily. The starboard paddle wheel was smashed to pieces and the vast iron rudder post was sheared off 2 feet above its collar. Ironically, the Great Eastern had left Liverpool with 400 passengers and freight ‘considerably larger, indeed than she has been favoured with on any previous voyage.’55 Temporary repairs were carried out at Queenstown , Ireland and on 6 October 1861 she set sail for Milford Haven where more permanent repairs would be carried out. On 7 October 1861 the Great Eastern lay off the town of Milford. The 5,000 tons of coal on board were advertised for sale 56 and the presence of the ship once again proved to be a considerable attraction.

During the latter months of 1861 repairs were carried out at Milford. These included the replacement of fittings and furniture demolished in the gale, while saloons and berths were rearranged and put in order.57 The principal repairs were new paddlewheels, rudder head and sailing gear. One of the principal contracts was awarded to James Gaddarn of Neyland that ‘spirited s hipbuilder’ 58 to build a large coffer-dam in order to facilitate repairs to the sternpost and rudder. This work required all the men in his employ.

On Sunday 16 February 1862 an attempt was made to berth the Great Eastern on the gridiron. The attempt ended in disaster. Assisted by three steam tugs, she rounded the Wear Point but during the operation the snapping of a hawser drew into the screw of the Great Eastern a boat containing men belonging to HMS Blenheim. Thirteen men threw themselves into the water, the remaining were ‘rapidly sucked into the maelstrom of waters formed by the screw revolution.’ 59 Two men were drowned, Thomas James of Milford and a boy named Kinston, a native of Ireland. To compound the horror, the Great Eastern struck HMS Blenheim carrying away her bow sprit, jib-boom and foreyard. The damage was estimated at £350.60 The 60-gun screw ship of 1,822 tons, guardship in the Haven and commanded by Lord Frederick Kerr had sustained considerable damage.

On Monday 17 February 1862 another attempt was made to put the Great Eastern off the gridiron. This time the manoeuvre was successfully accom­plished within an hour. This tragic incident added to the ships reputation as being a decidedly unlucky vessel. Later that day a number of men scraped the bottom of the ship and painted her. The public were permitted once again to inspect her.61 By early March the new after sternpost was being caulked watertight while a cracked plate was being attended to.62 On 16 April 1862 the Great Eastern left the gridiron for the second and last time and she sailed off for Milford without a mishap. The new paddle­ wheels had been fixed and the ship ‘rendered as perfect in all respects as money, experience and forethought can make her.’63 Improvements to the saloon and state rooms had turned the ship into a veritable floating hotel.64 One of the improvements, admittedly minor in nature, was the extra dial to the lobby clock, the work of Thomas Williams, watchmaker of Mariners Square, Haverford west.65

Fig. 3: Postcard of Great Eastern Terrace, Neyland.

Fig. 3: Postcard of Great Eastern Terrace, Neyland.

The remainder of the career of the Great Eastern was a continuation of the disappointments and misfortunes which had dogged her since her very inception, although she did much valuable work in laying transatlantic telegraph cable. After her lengthy retirement at Milford Haven she was sold and ended her days as a showboat at Liverpool before being broken up. For Neyland, memories of the Great Eastern ‘s visits soon faded. On 15 September 1862 the Great Eastern Inn was sold at public auction on the instructions of the Trustees of the Pembroke Dock No.2 Benefit Building Society66 and the premises eventually became a domestic dwelling known as New Milford House. The gridiron was removed in December 1864, according to the evidence of James Gaddarn, shipbuilder, when he gave testimony at the Pembrokeshire Spring Assizes of 1865.67 The action was taken by Francis Trewent against the Great Western Railway Company [which had incorporated the South Wales Railway Company] for damages for the use of the foreshore and trespass when the Great Eastern was beached at Neyland. The plaintiff was awarded £30 and the defendants were advised to pay another £30 if they wanted to avoid further action.

The Great Eastern never returned to Neyland although she was berthed at Milford Haven for over a decade. Her two visits to the new railway com­munity of Neyland represent most noteworthy and interesting occurrences and an example of the novelty of popular mass day-tripping, itself a product of the railway age.


    1. James Dugan, The Great Iron Ship (Stroud, 2003), 13.
    2. Patrick Beaver, The Big Ship (London, 1969), 45.
    3. T. C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (London, 1957), 298.
    4. Dugan, The Great Iron Ship, 50.
    5. Francis Rowsome, ‘The Strange Story of the Great Eastern’ , Harpers Monthly Magazine, 178 (Dec. 1938-May 1939), 511.
    6. Daily News, 24 August 1860.
    7. Pembrokeshire Herald, 17 October 1851.
    8. Ibid., 24 July 1857.
    9. The National Archives, CRES. 58/854.
    10. The Times, 21 August 1860
    11. The Welshman, 24 August 1860.
    12. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph, 8 August 1860.
    13. Rowsome, op. cit., 507.
    14. Dugan, op. cit., 79.
    15. The Morning Chronicle, 25 August 1860.
    16. Pembrokeshire Herald, 31 August 1860 .
    17. Ibid.
    18. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph, 29 August 1860.
    19. Ibid.
    20. Ibid., 5 September 1860.
    21. Ibid.
    22. Pembrokeshire Herald, 7 September 1860.
    23. Daily News, 17 September 1860.
    24. Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions. Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London, 2006), 212.
    25. Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England (London, 1978), 60.
    26. Pembrokeshire Herald, 31 August 1860.
    27. Dugan, op. cit., 80.
    28. Daily News, 17 September 1860.
    29. The Morning Chronicle, 21 September 1860.
    30. The Times, 19 September 1860.
    31. Pembrokeshire Herald, 21 September 1860.
    32. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph, 3 October 1860.
    33. Pembrokeshire Herald, 19 October 1860.
    34. Ibid., 14 September 1860 .
    35. Daily News, 17 September 1860.
    36. The Morning Chronicle, 21 September 1860.
    37. Pembrokeshire Herald, 19 October 1860.
    38. Ibid.
    39. The Times, 16 October 1860.
    40. Ibid., 30 October 1860.
    41. The Morning Chronicle, 22 January 1861.
    42. Pembrokeshire Herald , 25 January 1861.
    43. Potter’s Electric News, 23 January 1861.
    44. Pembrokeshire Herald , 15 February 1861.
    45. Ibid., 15 March 1861.
    46. Potter‘s Electric News, 3 April 1861.
    47. The Times, 3 May 1861.
    48. Dugan, op. cit., 84.
    49. Pembrokeshire Herald, 19 October 1860.
    50. Ibid. , 21 December 1860.
    51. Pembrokeshire Record Office. O/RTP/Sir R. B. P. Philipps. 7/18.
    52. Ibid.
    53. Ibid
    54. 1861 Census returns for the Parish of Llanstadwell.
    55. The Mornin g Chronicle, 19 September 1861.
    56. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 27 October 1861.
    57. The Morning Chronicle, 19 December 1861.
    58. Tenby & Pembroke Dock Gazette, 23 January 1862 .
    59. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph , 19 February 1862.
    60. Dugan, op. cit., 83.
    61. Haverfordwest & Milford Haven Telegraph , 19 February 1862.
    62. Daily News , IO Mar c h 1862.
    63. Ibid ., 17 April 1862.
    64. Haverford west & Milford Haven Telegraph, 23 April 1862.
    65. Ibid., 7 May 1862.
    66. Ibid., l0 September 1862.
    67. Pembrokeshire Herald, 10 March 1865.