Article by Tom Moult. Edited by Tom Hercock. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel represents the energy and drive of the Victorians in an age that epitomises progress in industrial innovation and the power of engineering. Whilst Brunel symbolizes the Victorian work ethic and the ingenuity of Victorian engineers, at the time his SS Great Eastern was launched in 1858 it represented the ultimate pinnacle of maritime mastery and what engineering could achieve.
Born in 1806 to the eminent engineer Marc Isambard Brunel – who famously built the Thames Tunnel, the world’s first underwater tunnel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel has been recorded more favourably in British history, partly due to his being born in England as opposed to his French-born father. Nevertheless, the word Brunel had already come to mean engineering in itself. In 1822 Isambard started work with his father and four years later was in charge of the construction of the Thames Tunnel. His career would see some of the most iconic constructions ever created in the Victorian age.
The railways are perhaps the classic example of the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian engineers who inherited it. Brunel is famed for the construction of the Great Western Railway which was the first major British railway, opened in 1838, and his other eminent engineering feats include the Paddington railway station and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864. In maritime technology Brunel also left his mark; producing vast ships that broke new boundaries in naval technology (iron hulls and screw propellers; the SS Great Britain was the first ship to combine both in a large ocean-going ship), and the combination and success of such innovations would soon render the old wooden line-of-battle-ships and their reliance on sail redundant as the new technology quickly resonated into warfare.
This article however, is concerned with Brunel’s SS Great Eastern. Built in 1858, she was the largest ship the world had ever seen, and would have a somewhat troubled career until being broken up in 1889. The 22,500 tonnage the ship possessed ensured she would retain a dominant position in maritime technology until virtually the end of the century. With a length of nearly 700 feet, and 83 feet wide, Great Eastern truly was a Leviathan, which was interestingly the initial name considered instead of Great Eastern. Propeller, paddle and sail powered the ship; the presence of sails on such a ship reflected the fact that man’s traditional mastery of the oceans could not yet quite be forgotten as industrial steam power slowly replaced the older romantic ways of sail power and exploration of the seas based on human endurance rather than limitations of fuel. This sentimental attachment to the ‘old ways’ of commanding the sea resounded into the Royal Navy and the nuclear submarine of the day, HMS Warrior, launched two years after Great Eastern and which was still a three-masted ship with sails, albeit with an iron hull and propellers.
In many ways, there are parallels between the engineering the Great Eastern represented and the Victorian age itself. Her sheer length would not be matched for another forty years. Brunel’s vision was to create a luxurious ship so large it had the capacity to travel around the world without needing to stop for fuel, something it would come to fulfil.
The history of the Great Eastern is not altogether a sequence of successes. Dogged by financial difficulties, the initial company went bankrupt and money problems to keep her afloat reflected the immense size and ambition of the project. There were problems with her launch at Millwall on the Thames when the capstans used to lower her to the water proved too weak for the sheer size of the vessel. On her first voyage, the Great Eastern was once again clouded with problems when a boiler exploded, ripping one of the funnels off and throwing it into the sea. The cost of repair left the second company in a financial maelstrom.
Her career was not off to a good start; two of her overseeing companies had collapsed and a boiler had exploded killing five stokers and wounding many. The costs of fitting her out with luxurious accommodation when faced with mounting debts had compromised her initial purpose as a luxurious passenger steamship, simply to keep her afloat. In 1862 she then struck a rock in New York harbour and was out of action for another year; creating further soaring repair costs and ruining yet another company.
It was not all bad however, and Great Eastern would not entirely be remembered in history as a harbinger of disaster after disaster. The steamship turned away from passenger carrying and moved into the dramatic and rapidly evolving world of science and technology. In 1866 she arrived in North America carrying the underwater cable that created unbroken lasting communication between Europe and America. Until 1874 she would continue to operate laying underwater cables across the world.
Liverpool – the great maritime city of the north – would serve as the SS Great Eastern’s final destination; as a tourist attraction, and later her new owners, Lewis’s Department Store used her for advertising purposes sailing her along the Mersey. By 1889, the vision of the Great Eastern had, excuse the pun, sailed away, and by the time of her break-up she was more of a burden than a figure of pride in maritime engineering.
The weight of the Great Eastern project took its toll on Isambard Kingdom Brunel; he collapsed from a stroke several days after the ship left London for her maiden voyage, and died three days later on the 15th September 1859. The disastrous launch of the Great Eastern’s career was not what Brunel had expected, but history remembers Brunel and the SS Great Eastern as prestigious examples of what Victorian engineers could achieve.
It took nearly two years for the ship to be broken up at Liverpool, and a city that has such tradition with the sea served as a fitting location to end the life of such a remarkable ship. During her dismantlement, a skeleton was found in the hull which was thought to be a riveter who had been accidently sealed in during her construction. The funnel which was blown away from the deck during the boiler accident was also later recovered. Additionally one of her top masts now acts as Liverpool Football Club’s flagpole. At least the Great Eastern isn’t entirely forgotten, and the legacy of such a pioneering feat in British maritime history remains. The ship was ground-breaking; in scale, ambition and pioneering new techniques of naval architecture. To have seen the SS Great Eastern in her prime must certainly have been something.