Monthly Archives: October 2014

London’s “Magnificent Seven”

Did you know that during the 19th Century, to alleviate overcrowding in existing parish burial grounds, seven private cemeteries were established around London?

In just 50 years, London’s population had doubled from 1 million in 1800 to 2.3 million in 1850. Stories of body snatchers and graves being dug that already contained bodies prompted a creation of  several cemeteries, independent of any parish church, with well-thought out landscape design to appeal to the newly emerging middle-class.

These were to be known as “London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries” and aren’t only the resting places of many well-known names in British industrial history, but have become unique and historic visitor attractions.

These seven are:

  1. Kensal Green Cemetery - Click to see our extensive list of engineers known to be buried here.Isambard Kingdom Brunel's tomb at The Kensal Green Cemetery.
  2. Highgate Cemetery - One of the most famous of the seven and resting place for Michael Faraday and Karl Marx amongst others.
  3. Nunhead Cemetery - Consecrated in 1840,  this quiet burial ground shelters an Anglican chapel.
  4. West Norwood Cemetery -Perhaps the most ‘well-maintained’ than the others, Henry Bessemer and Sir Henry Tate are buried here.The resting place of Henry Bessemer, (West Norwood Cemetery).
  5. Abney Park Cemetery -In 1840 this cemetery was arranged as an extensive A-Z arboretum, with several organised visitor’s attractions.
  6. Brompton Cemetery - Said to host tombstones that inspired character names for Beatrix Potter’s children’s books, this cemetery nurtures a domed chapel and the graves of Charles Vignoles and John Fowler.
  7. Tower Hamlets Cemetery - This cemetery was opened in 1841 and closed for burials in 1966. It’s now a peaceful nature reserve.

The Story of The SS Great Eastern

It was Brunel’s biggest ship – and the biggest ship in the world at that time – built by John Scott Russell and Co at the Napier Yard in Millwall, London - at 680ft long, 58ft deep and with a beam of 82ft 6 inches. She was more than twice the size of SS Great Western with innovative designs for a wrought iron double hull construction and an extraordinary compilation of standard elements for a ship of its size.

The Launch of The Great Eastern
A Difficult Launch

Against all advice, Brunel had designed the ship to launch sideways, and it became clear there were to be problems when after sliding a few feet, the ship became stuck with the sheer weight of 12,000 tons of iron mass on the iron launch rails. Five men were critically injured and killed in this first attempt to launch when the multiplying winch spun out of control. Three months later after much pushing and pulling the 12,000 ton ‘Leviathan’ reached the shoreline and caught the high tide. The painstaking launch cost altogether a sum of around  £120,000 that not only saw the Great Eastern Shipping Company crash, but a publicly humiliated  Brunel almost out of pocket.

The Engineer of 5th February 1858 recorded the feelings towards the launch at the time: 

“a step which thousands of persons have been anxiously looking for during the last four months – namely the launch which was contemplated as long ago as last October. After all that has been said on the subject of the launch, - after all that fear that many persons entertained, notwithstanding its absurdity that the vessel would never be got into the water – after all the pushing and pulling to which she has been subjected and after all the money that has been spent about her, there she lies at last snug enough at her moorings,….

Mr Brunel and Mr John Scott Russell at The Launch.

The ship however held fast an unlucky reputation and only four days after leaving her moorings at Deptford for her first trip, an overheated boiler caused a terrible explosion that launched the forward funnel like a rocket, killing five boiler men and critically injuring many others.

“I was lying in the extreme angle of the bows, looking aft and discussing the safety and prospects of the ship, when suddenly, with the mingled roar and crash of a battery of artillery and a line of musketry, up shot the forward funnel of the ship in two pieces, 30 ft in the air, amid a shower of splinter s and pipes and a volume of steam and smoke…” 

From a correspondent of The Engineer published in Sept 16. 1859 Journal.

Brunel had been present for the trial of the ship’s engines but after some time of failing health eventually collapsed from a stroke days after this maiden voyage from London. Sadly only 10 days later he died at the age of 53 on the 15th September 1859; his greatest engineering achievement and crowning efforts left to John Scott Russell for completion.

From Passenger Liner to Cable Layer

Once finally completed, the gigantic vessel struggled to find enough passengers to fulfil her capability of carrying up to 4000 to Australia or the Americas. So in 1864 after the first five years prior to the launch, The Telegraph Construction Company obtained the ship to lay the first ever transatlantic cable between Europe and America. This was in itself another miraculous chapter for the great ship, and over 26,000 nautical miles were covered. The transatlantic cable was completed in Autumn 1866.

The Great Eastern

After a successful cable-laying career, the Great Eastern resigned itself as a passenger liner once more, but again with little success. She became a showboat and floating palace, celebrated for her splendor and great interior.

Eventually however, on this day – 28th October 1885 at 14.30 – she was sold at auction to Mr De Mattos of  Lewis’s.


“It will be remembered that she was purchased last spring by Mr De Mattos and that Messrs. Lewis of Liverpool made arrangements with him for employing the huge vessel as a show ship”.. 

From 'The Great Eastern Steamship' Editorial in The Engineer Oct 15th 1886.

The last chapter of perhaps one of the greatest Victorian ship stories ended, when the SS Great Eastern was eventually broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey in 1889-1890. Due to her vast size and intricacy, she took eighteen months to break up.

Great Eastern Auction Brochure
A digital copy of The Great Eastern Brochure containing six pages detailing inventories in every room can be viewed on Grace’s Guide here. This original was owned by the Duke of Norfolk and believed to have been lost in a fire at his home (although unsubstantiated).



Early Brewer’s Exhibitions on Grace’s Guide

S. Briggs and Co Picture a great hall lined with stands of bottling machinery, cooling contraptions, and brewers lorries, glass enamelled steel tanks and ornate water heaters. This was a common sight in the earlier Brewer’s Exhibitions of Great Britain held at the end of October each year.

The origins of great beer competitions and exhibitions date back to the late 1800’s when brewers, maltsters, wine merchants and distillers came together and showed off their best beer, latest innovations and finest apparatus.

An exhibition strictly of a trade character organised in 1879 in the Agricultural Hall, Islington was to become an annual event for many years to come,  attracting competitors including S. Briggs and Co,  Linde British Refrigeration Co and Leyland Motors.

We have a few of the earlier exhibitions covering the unfolding contraptions of the early competitors on the site, some particularly detailed, in the following Engineer journals:

1879 Brewer’s Exhibition  (p 259)
1893 Brewer’s Exhibition  (p 411)
1898 Brewer’s Exhibition (p 451)
1909 Brewer’s Exhibition (p 421)

Soda Water Machinery


Interesting Telegraph Equipment – Solved!

We’ve had an interesting enquiry regarding this lovely old piece of telegraphy equipment and as our research continues we’ve uncovered some interesting answers!

We often receive e-mails from people wanting to know more about their hidden treasures or mystery antiques. Most items and any related information finds a place on the Grace’s Guide history pages and we’re often able to look up more details for our reader straight away. Sometimes however, we need to do a bit of extra research and with items like this, we’ll ask museums, collections, enthusiasts and experts to help us find the answers.

In this case we got in touch with Porthcurno Museum in Cornwall, The Central Archive of The British Museum and The Siemens organisation itself. All proposed excellent information, but the most certain came from Professor Emeritus Tom Perera of the Montclair State University. Take a look at his online telegraph museum.

He expertly identified the object as a Siemens Code Transmitter designed to send a specific message in Morse code when activated. The message in this case being “S” and “I”. Adding to this he tells us it was most likely an alarm device that sent those characters to alert the main station that an event had occurred at the site, identified by ‘I’ ‘S’ and dated it between 1890 and 1930.

Do you know anything more? If you think you can add to the story of this fascinating piece of equipment– please don’t hesitate to get in touch.  We’d love to hear from you.


A Remembrance for ‘The Greatest Engineer of the 19th Century’ – Robert Stephenson (1803–1859)

Robert Stephenson

“Few professional men have attained such well-deserved celebrity as Robert Stephenson, and his works will remain to attest his well-earned reputation” – a fine sentence taken from his 1860 obituary in The Engineer remembering the works of a man who has been described as ‘The Greatest Engineer of the 19th Century’.

In addition for being the first inventor and constructor of tubular plate-iron bridges, he was a great pioneer of locomotion design, and has gone down in railway construction history as a mechanical genius with his father George Stephenson (also known fondly as the ‘Father of the Railway System), with his contributions to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and London and Birmingham Railway amongst many others. Together they founded ‘Robert Stephenson and Co’ the first company set up specifically to build railway engines, where many early locomotives such as the famous ‘Rocket’ improved the outlook of locomotion production forever.

During his lifetime, he was a member of Parliament for Whitby, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a Chief Engineer for many endeavours, and a great traveller for his works, admired globally for his generous and kind personality as well as his successful projects and innovations.

Influencing countries from Belgium and Denmark to Canada and Egypt, his talents were felt worldwide, and many will probably remember his works through his important influence on bridge design and construction from the High Level Bridge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the Victoria Tubular Bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. Being a rival of Isambard Kingdom Brunel  didn’t stop a friendship with him and they often helped one another at work.

His death was deeply mourned throughout the country and he was rightfully granted a resting place at Westminster Abbey. He left behind a legacy of engineering achievements and should always be remembered for his well-earned reputation both privately and professionally.

The 12th October 2014 signifies the 155th anniversary of his death.