On the deck of the
Illustrated London News
1 January 1859
The illustration (click thumbnail to enlarge) represents the deck of the Great Eastern steam-ship as it appeared during the time that the vessel was thrown open to the visits of the public. In our Journal of the 11th December we gave a full account of this interesting exhibition, under the title of "A Visit to the Great Eastern." Subsequently to that period, and until the last moment of which it was possible, consistently with the arrangements of the company, to permit the entrance of any one to the ship except those engaged in the business connected with her preparation for sea, crowds of persons daily thronged her decks, and wandered over every part of her vast fabric. The average number of visitors was 5000 or 6000 a day; the aggregate number of those who came on board during the twelve days during which free admission was granted reaching to between 60,000 and 70,000. Considering the season of the year, the very unfavourable weather which prevailed, the peculiarity of the sight which people came to see namely, a vessel lying, not in a dock, but in such a position that she could only be reached by means of water conveyance such an occurrence may be considered as unprecedented.
It is to be noted that, owing to the judicious arrangements of Captain Harrison and the officers of the ship, notwithstanding that the utmost freedom of locomotion was allowed to the visitors, not a single accident occurred. The sketch which we have engraved represents the deck of the vessel between the paddle-boxes, which at this point is eighty-three feet wide; and, including the extent of the paddle-boxes, the space covered amounts to 120 feet. Near this spot is the entrance to the principal saloon, and close to it the captain's cabin, which, when completed, will form a small house from the top of which he will be able to command a view of the whole deck.
NB: unfortunately we do not have the previous article referred to in the text above.
The design and construction of the SS Great Eastern (originally, prior to her launch, named Leviathan) was Brunel's last great project. The most well-known photo of Brunel was taken in 1857 at Blackwall with Great Eastern's huge launch chains behind him. The young photographer was Robert Howlett, whose great achievement was creating a record of the construction and launching of the steamship.
Howlett died the following year in 1858, aged only 27; to be followed by the subject of his iconic photo a year later. In failing health Brunel suffered a stroke just prior to the ship's sea trials, and died a few days later on 15 September 1859, thus never living to see her maiden voyage in June 1860 or knowing what became of the ship he called his "great babe".
Brunel's vision was years ahead of its time, and one website describes Great Eastern as 'the most misplaced ocean liner in history'. She was an unlucky ship, dogged by misfortune through construction and in whatever role she afterwards played, and a commercial failure. She bankrupted both her builder and her first owners, and Brunel himself had also put a great deal of his own money into the project. Her passenger-carrying career was extremely short before being converted for cable-laying, though she carried passengers for a brief period again in the late 1860s. As early as the mid-1870s she was mothballed for a number of years (a period broken only by a brief sojourn as a huge floating billboard), before finally being auctioned for scrap in 1887. Breaking began on the Mersey in 1889, but the construction of the Great Eastern had been so strong and robust, and she was so large, that it took 200 men the best part of two years to destroy her, some 3.5 million man-hours being expended in the process.
The story of this ship that was indeed a leviathan is a sad one, but Great Eastern earned her place in history nevertheless, and she remains one of the most famous vessels ever built. Perhaps her greatest achievement was to point the way forward for the engineers who designed and built her successors.
There are many sites with information about Brunel and the Great Eastern, and the following links are only a selection.
PortCities London site: the first of six concise pages following the story of Great Eastern, with wonderful pictures.
Great Ocean Liners: go to Ship Histories and take Great Eastern link from 1860s box.
Great Eastern timeline
Brunel, at Engineering Timelines.
SS Great Eastern, with more external links at the foot of the page.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Brunel and Great Eastern photographer, Robert Howlett:
V&A Museum: click his name from the list of photographers
Icons, A Portrait of England
Wrexham area |
Sheffield area |