The Great Eastern Steamship
ARD tasks bravely done, are never wholly done in vain; but sometimes
they have been carried out too soon. This was the case in the building
of the Great Eastern steamship. Fifty years ago there was no place in
the shipping world large enough to accommodate her properly, and Mr.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who spent hard years of toil planning her
construction, was nearly half a century ahead of his fellow-men. Time
has proved that his ideas were correct.
The monster ship was first thought of by him about the year 1852, for it
was then that he laid his schemes before the Eastern Steam Navigation
Company, and explained to them why large ships would be more profitable
'When sending a vessel from London to Calcutta,' said he, 'she will go
much more cheaply if she does not have to stop on the way to take in
coal. Now, I propose to build ships capable of carrying enough coal to
take them round the world; or at any rate to Calcutta and back.'
The Great Eastern
He also made it clear that there is not so much risk with a large ship
as with a small, for damage which would be enough to sink the latter
would have but little effect upon the former. Mr. Brunel had already
proved his skill in designing iron ships, for even at the time of which
we are speaking, the Great Western was steaming between England and
America, and the Great Britain had been upon the rocks on the Irish
coast, suffering little damage by the collision.
His plan was to build the hull with a double skin, leaving a space of
some feet between them, so that if the outside one was burst through,
the water failed to get past the inner coat.
The Directors of the Company agreed with his views, and in December,
1853, work upon the Great Eastern was begun.
At Millwall, in the Isle of Dogs, in the shipyard of Messrs. Scott
Russell & Co., the foundations were laid, and in a very little time,
people passing up and down the river Thames were attracted by the first
signs of the building of the 'big ship.' Up from the river's edge, for a
distance of 330 feet, ran the two sloping 'ways' or slides, and across
these were laid the cradles in which the huge baby was to lie. Each of
the 'ways' was 120 feet broad, and they were separated by a distance of
some 200 feet. Owing to the size of the proposed ship, it was found
impossible to build her, as is usually done, with her stern toward the
water. Mr. Brunel feared that it would not be safe to launch her in such
a position; he decided therefore to plan the erection parallel with the
stream, so that he might lower her gently into the water sideways.
Nothing that had been done before in the way of ship-building could be
taken as a guide, for the increase in size made difficulties that no one
had yet had to encounter. Little did those who only 'looked on' realise
the thought and trouble which this new enterprise meant. Again and again
the engineer had to alter his measurements, as fresh considerations
arose. Among other things he was obliged to take into account the depth
of the water at low tide in the river Hooghly, at Calcutta; for if the
Great Eastern was built so as to sink too low in the water when fully
loaded, she would never be able to enter the port of the capital of
India at all.
But at last all the measurements were decided upon. The ship would be
693 feet long, 83 feet broad, and 58 feet from keel to upper deck;
weighing altogether 13,000 tons. With room in its iron shell for 5000
people, the Great Eastern would be a floating town, containing more
inhabitants than many flourishing communities in England. The frame, or
skeleton, consisted of 'bulkheads,' or huge webs of iron stretching for
400 feet lengthwise of the ship, and crossed by similar bulkheads from
side to side, placed at intervals of about 20 feet. These formed a
strong framework on which to fasten the walls of the ship. There were no
openings between the compartments formed by the bulkheads, except on a
level with the first deck; so that if water did, by any misfortune,
burst through from the bottom, it would not flood the whole ship.
The hull was completed at the end of the summer of 1857, and was ready
for receiving the engines for driving the screw and the two enormous
paddlewheels. The latter were between 50 and 60 feet in diameter. Then
came the preparations for the launching; and little had the engineer
guessed that in the short space of 240 feet, which separated his ship
from the main stream of the Thames, would lie the greatest difficulties
of all. The 'ways' sloped at a gradient of one foot in twelve, and had
iron surfaces. The day before the launch was to take place, these were
well greased. Chains were stretched from the stern and the bow to barges
in the river while hydraulic jacks, for pushing the huge body from the
land side, were anchored firmly to the ground. A careful estimate of how
much strength would be required had been made, and additional
precautions were taken to prevent the ship sliding too swiftly when once
set in motion.
All arrangements being then considered complete, it was decided to
attempt the launch on the 3rd of November. On that day, against Mr.
Brunel's wishes, vast crowds of sightseers pushed their way into the
yard, and even intruded themselves between him and his workmen, so that
the signals he wished to make could not be seen. However, at about noon,
the Great Eastern began to move on its journey to the river. It
slipped a short distance and then stopped. The men on the barges, seeing
the monster sliding towards them, deserted their posts in terror. Had
they known that nearly three months were to elapse before the ship would
be induced to reach the water, they would hardly have given way to such
The unruly crowd went home disappointed on that November day, and Mr.
Brunel's troubles were increased by the receipt of large numbers of
letters advising him what to do. They mainly came from people who were
quite ignorant of mechanical laws. The engineer knew that strength must
prevail at last, but though he used all he could obtain at the moment,
the ship only moved an inch or two at a time. At last, at the time of
his greatest perplexity, Robert Stephenson visited him at Millwall, and
gave kindly encouragement as well as aid. He provided greater power than
Mr. Brunel had yet been able to obtain, and on January 31st, 1858, the
huge vessel imperceptibly slipped the last few inches into the Thames.
But it seems sad to have to say that the Great Eastern was nearly as
much trouble on the water as she had been on the land. Her designer
never lived to see her face the storm and wave. Anxiety had undermined
his health, and he died on September 15th, 1859, as she steered into
Weymouth on her first trial journey.
The world was not ready for such big ships, and though she made several
voyages to New York (where she was greeted with the flutter of flags and
the welcome of cannon), the Great Eastern did not earn her wages.
After a curious existence of thirty years, during which period she
changed her masters many times, doing good service, in 1865, by laying
the Atlantic cable, she was sold to be broken up as little more than old
Our steamships now are built even larger than Mr. Brunel's vessel,
though in a slightly different way. But we have better means of
constructing them, and docks large enough for their accommodation.
One of the largest ships yet launched was built for the Cunard Company a
short time ago. It is 760 feet long, and 87 feet broad, and is nearly
thirty times heavier than the Britannia—the Company's first ship to
cross the Atlantic sixty-five years ago. Her saloons and dining-halls
are fit apartments for a palace, and are built in a hull measuring sixty
feet from keel to upper deck. Still larger vessels are in course of
The poor Great Eastern—the leviathan of other days—has been
eclipsed; but whatever admiration we may feel for the new, it must not
be allowed to diminish the honour that is due to the old.