What a big ship I’ve got

I found myself on the Isle of Dogs yesterday for reasons that must remain secret until Sunday. Suffice it to say that they were awesome, and will certainly get an entry to themselves. In the meantime, here’s an entry about something else that happened on the Isle of Dogs.

Now, if you were to make a list of the greatest engineers of all time, the chances are that Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be somewhere on that list, probably quite close to the top. The guy did everything – tunnels, bridges, railways, hospitals, ships, docks, carriages, the list goes on. When he got a penny stuck in his throat, his solution was to invent a machine to spin him around until centrifugal force dislodged it (one assumes it wasn’t blocking his airway at the time, otherwise that’s damn fast work).

He wasn’t so much an inventor as an improver. He’d take an existing idea and take it in new and exciting directions. Unfortunately, his originality of thought in this regard was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He came up with ideas that were undoubtedly good, but went so far against the grain that no one wanted to risk them.

On the right you can see an example of this – the broad gauge railway. Standard gauge for railways in the UK (and much of the world) is four feet, eight and a half inches. Brunel decided he could do better and went for seven feet, one quarter inch. And you know what? He was right. Locomotives built to a broader gauge could be made larger and more stable, therefore faster, safer and stronger. So those railways built by Brunel (most famously the Great Western Railway) were laid to this gauge. Unfortunately, the rest of the country was building their lines to the standard gauge. Wherever a broad gauge line met a standard gauge line, therefore, passengers and goods had to be swapped from one train to another, which was a massive hassle. Eventually, Brunel’s lines were relaid to standard gauge. Incidentally, the photo above shows the Metropolitan Railway, which borrowed rolling stock from the Great Western Railway in its early days and was therefore built to broad gauge. To this day the tunnels on the oldest parts of the Metropolitan Line are unusually wide.

But I’m moving away from my starting point. Brunel’s final great work to be completed in his lifetime was perhaps the epitome of his tendency to over-innovate. I refer, of course, to the Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern, seen left, was the biggest ship in the world when it was launched in 1858 and would hold that record for forty-three years. At the time of its construction, it was six times larger than anything else afloat. Brunel meant business.

He had already proven himself an innovator in shipping with his earlier vessels, the Great Western and Great Britain (which survives in Bristol to this day and may be regarded as the first ocean liner). With this one, he intended to take on the growing market for emigrating to the Americas. It was so big that it required both paddle wheels and twin screw propellors plus six masts. It would be 692 feet long, weigh 18,915 tonnes and need six engines. Six big engines.

The contract to build the thing went to John Scott Russell, a naval architect of esteem. His shipyard was at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs. Unfortunately, it became clear that the Great Eastern, or Leviathan as it was originally to be called, was too big for his yard and too big to be launched conventionally. After obtaining the use of a bigger yard and deciding on a sideways launch, work could begin.

To say that construction was not without its problems would be unnecessarily rose-tinted. Although the story about a riveter and his mate being sealed into the double-hull of the great ship would appear to be a myth, there were plenty of other crises. Most worrying was the financial issue. Russell was severely in debt by over £100,000 (which in modern terms, adjusting for inflation, is a lot. I mean, a lot) and there was a serious risk of the incomplete ship being seized.

Not to mention technical difficulties resulting in the completion of the ship being put back again and again. As a general rule, the way to tell how construction of the ship was going was to see whether Russell described it as his ship or Brunel’s.

Eventually, the ship was set to be launched in November 1857 – earlier than Brunel had wanted to launch it, but he was pressurised by the heinous amount of rent it was costing to keep it in the yard. Brunel had hoped for a discreet launch, so the fact that the Eastern Company, owners of the ship, sold tickets to the event did not go down well. Indeed, when he was approached at the podium by the Company directors to ask him what the vessel should be called, he angrily replied, “Call her Tom Thumb if you like!” Given that he previously referred to the ship as his “Great Babe,” it was a sign of how fed up he was with the whole thing.

As it turned out, Brunel was right to want to put the launch back – due to a lack of preparation, the ship promptly stuck in the mud, as shown left.

This was a massive embarrassment to all concerned as the ship lay there for months on end. Various solutions were proposed – my favourite was from a gentleman named Thomas Wright who wrote to the Times suggesting that a platoon of soldiers marching around the deck would provide sufficient vibration to get the ship moving. Eventually, the solution was the powerful hydraulic rams made by the newly-formed Tangye Company. Richard Tangye would later quip, “We launched the Great Eastern and the Great Eastern launched us.”

The stress had taken its toll on the workaholic Brunel, and so unfortunately he was out of the country for some R&R when the contract to fit the ship out went to… John Scott Russell. His condition no doubt exacerbated by the situation, he suffered a stroke on 3rd September 1859 and was unable to make the maiden voyage. Perhaps this was just as well.

The voyage, at last, was on 6th September 1859. But even now, the great ship’s troubles were not over. While crossing the Channel, one of the feedwater heaters exploded, shooting the front funnel into the air and killing five stokers. The accident was largely due to negligence – the heater’s safety valve had been shut off.

Nine days later, Brunel’s condition would worsen and he would die, never actually seeing his Great Babe performing its duties.

The ship was not a financial success, though it did enjoy an eventful life – on its second voyage it was nearly destroyed in a storm, saved only by a MacGuyver-esque makeshift steering system. In August 1862 it hit a rock in New York Harbour, creating a gash in the side that would have sunk any lesser ship for sure (for comparative purposes, it was 50 times the size of the hole that sank the Titanic). Not only did the Great Eastern not sink, its engineers didn’t even realise it was damaged until it got into port.

Its first real success came in 1863, when it was bought by a consortium led by Brunel’s friend and collaborator Daniel Gooch, who chartered it out for laying transatlantic cables. Not only was it a roaring success at this task, but it was the only vessel large enough to hold the sheer weight of cable required.

Alas, this job would not last forever, and the ship had an ignominious end as a showboat and mobile advertising hoarding in Liverpool. In 1889, it was broken up for scrap.

These days, there are only two physical relics of the ship still in existence. One is a topmast, which was salvage from the ship and now serves as a flagpole at Liverpool FC’s Anfield ground. The other, closer to home for Londoners, is the original launch timbers at Millwall, pictured left.

The Great Eastern was a brave, grandiose project which epitomised Brunel’s ambition, innovation and – frankly – hubris. However, these days it is rightly remembered as a great achievement and, if not a success, a milestone in British engineering history.


Filed under 19th century, Disasters, East End and Docklands, History, London, London Underground, Notable Londoners, Thames, Transport

3 responses to “What a big ship I’ve got

  1. Pingback: Great « London Particulars

  2. Pingback: A Frosty Reception | London Particulars

  3. Pingback: Adultery at the produce counter | London Particulars

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