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).



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