Great Eastern (1858)

John Scott Russell & Company
Millwall, London, England
Keel laid:
May 1, 1854 (a)
January 31, 1858
Year built:
September 1859
Sold Nov. 1887 for £16,000 to Henry Bath & Sons and scrapped in Liverpool in 1889.
Beginning of construction date, ship was flat bottomed, no keel.

Eastern Steam Navigation Company
London, England

Great Ship Company Ltd.
London, England

Dimensions, machinery and performance
1 four cylinder (paddlewheel) by J. Scott Russell
1 four cylinder (screw) by James Watt

Across wheels:
10 (4 paddle, 6 screw) 25 psi (c)
Wheel diameter:
56' (a)

13 knots
9 knots (screw only)
30' (full)
1,000 (paddle)
1,600 (screw)

Gross tons:
22,500 (32,000 displacement)
5 (d)
6 (rigged for sail)
4,000 (b)
18,148 sq. ft.
Construction notes
52' after replacement following the storm of Sept. 1861.
Was never fitted for more than 3,000 passengers.
Designed to carry up to 10,000 troops in wartime.

2 removed to lay the Atlantic cable, replaced in 1867.
4th funnel removed to lay the Atlantic cable, replaced in 1867.
12 watertight compartments, 3 million 1" rivits all hand driven, 30,000 7/8" thick plates.
Carried 20 lifeboats, original concept called for two 100' steamers to be carried alongside,
but this idea was abandoned after the collapse of the Eastern SN Co.

Early 1859
Jan. 21, 1860
Capt. William Harrison
Late 1860
Capt. John Vine Hall
May 1861
Capt. Carnegie RN
May 1861
Capt. James Kennedy
Sept. 1861
Capt. James Walker
Capt. Walter Paton
Capt. James Anderson (later Sir James Anderson)
Robert Halpin
Apr. 1886
Capt. D. R. Comyn RNR

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and John Scott Russell.
Brunel concieves the idea of the Great Eastern. The ship is to be the biggest in the world
designed to "monopolize" the trade route from the UK to the Far East and Australia.

May 1, 1854:
Construction of the Great Eastern begins.
Brunel is "relieved" of his position as resident engineer by the board of directors.
Nov. 3, 1857:
First launch attempt, the ship moved a few feet and stuck fast on the ways.

It is reported that Brunel did not want an audience for the launch, however unknown to
him tickets were sold and an estimated 100,000 people arrived to see the ship launched.
At this time Brunel's "Great Babe" as he called it, had no official name, although he was
sure people would call it "Brunel's Absurd Big Ship" (as he stated in a memo). A list of
proposed names was presented to him minuets before launch, however he was far more
interested in getting her into the water and is said to have said "You can call it Tom Thumb
if you like".
The name chosen by the company directors was Leviathan and the ship was
christened by the daughter of the company director Henry Thomas Hope.

The ship was launched sideways because the Thames, only 1,000' wide at the site,
was not wide enough to accept a hull of that size lengthwise. The hull was built on
railroad rails, which caused the iron hull to "bite" into the iron making a smooth launch
next to impossible. In addition to the ship's weight, tugs and hydraulic rams were used to
push and pull the ship into the water. During the launching such great force was exerted
that it caused a windlass to spin in reverse injuring ten men and killing two. The chains broke and sent huge links flying through the air causing a panic among the crowd and

Brunel made several attempts to push the great hulk into the water over the next few
weeks using the largest rams then availabe, he managed to move the ship a few dozen
feet closer to the river, but all attempts ended with destroyed rams and chains.

Jan. 31, 1858:
The Great Eastern is sucessfully launched, she is taken across the river to Deptford for
fitting out.

Sept. 5, 1859:
Isambard Kingdom Brunel makes his last visit to the Great Eastern, he is photographed
by the London Stereoscope Company by the mainmast after which he walks a few feet and
collapses from a stroke.

Sept. 8, 1859:
Departs Deptford on trial voyage to Milford Haven, Wales. The ship is towed by the
tugs Victoria, Napoleon, Victor, Punch and True Briton to Purfleet and anchors for the

Sept. 9, 1859:
Departs Purfleet under her own power, making 12 knots before reaching Goodwin Sands.
At 6pm when off Hastings the forward funnel suddenly exploded and was launched to the
forward part of the ship. The mirror that surrounded the funnel casing in the salon below
was shattered, but no passengers were injured.

One crewman used a coal chute to escape the ship and avoid being scalded to death,
however he was killed by the paddle wheel. Another crewman, who was severly burned,
was found on deck, flesh hanging from his body burned away by the steam, said "I am
all right, there are others worse off than me, so look after them"
he died soon after.
In all six men were killed or died later of injuries. The ship put into Portland later that
evening and remained there until repaired by John Scott Russell.

The cause of the explosion was steam build up in the funnel jacket due to a steam cock
which had been closed in error. The funnel was bought by the Weymouth (Dorsetshire)
Waterworks Compamy and installed at the deep end of Sutton Poynte as a shaft for the
water supply. What remains of the funnel was donated to the SS Great Britain Trust in
Bristol, England and is on display in the Maritime Museum adjacent to the SS Great Britain.

It is a popular belief that the news of the explosion on the Great Eastern killed Brunel,
who was suffering from Bright's Disease (kidney failure), however he died on
Sept. 15, 1859, six days after the explosion.

His eulogy in a local paper read in part;
"The history of invention records no instance of grand novelties so boldly imagined and
so successfully carried out by the same individual."

But in regard to the Great Eastern it read;
"Brunel was the right man for the nation, but unfortunately he was not the right man
for the shareholders. They must stoop who would gather gold, and Brunel could never

Oct. 8, 1859:
Departed Portland for trials following repairs, arrived at Holyhead, Wales on Oct. 10.
While at Holyhead the ship was opened for visitors, ticket sales were less than expected.

Oct. 16, 1859:
Inspected by HRH the Prince Consort, the Duke of Newcastle and Admiral Sir George
Seymour at Holyhead. It was expected that the Queen would visit the ship however she
was not presant.

Oct. 24, 1859:
A gale hit Holyhead and damaged the Great Eastern, shattering skylights and flooding
the grand salon, which had just been repaired after the funnel expolsion. The strom
lasted until late Oct. 25 and wrecked the harbor sinking or grounding many vessels.
It was only the expert handling of the Great Eastern by Capt. Harrison and the paddle
engineer Alexander McLennan that saved the ship. The storm would become known as
the Royal Charter Storm, named after the ship forced ashore on Anglesea Island killing
over 400 people.

Nov. 2, 1859:
Departed Holyhead for Southampton where she would stay for the winter.
Nov. 3, 1859:
Arrived at Southampton.
June 9, 1860:
Fourth trial voyage. Departed Southampton and taken out to sea for 12 hours and returned.
June 28, 1860:
Arrived at New York.
Aug. 16, 1860:
Departed New York for Milford Haven, Wales.
May 1, 1861:
Departed Milford Haven, Wales for second voyage to America.
June 27, 1861:
Departed Liverpool for Canada with troops.
Sept. 17, 1861:
Arrived at Queenstown, Ireland after storm.

Roll of Remembrance

Nov. 6, 1857
Donovan, John
Died of injuries received while launching ship on Nov. 3.
Stacey, Henry
Died of injuries received while launching ship on Nov. 3.
Sept. 9, 1859
Funnel explosion off Hastings
Adams, Robert (Fireman)
died of injuries Sept. 11
Boyd, John (Fireman)
died of injuries Sept. 9
Edwards, Richard (Fireman)
died of injuries Sept. 12
Gorman, Edward P. (Fireman)
Killed by paddle wheel escaping ship Sept. 8
Mahon, Michael (Fireman)
died of injuries Sept. 10
McIlroy, Michael (Fireman)
died of injuries Sept. 10
July 1860
Leavitt, Thomas (Hand)
Fell while inspecting paddle wheel at New York
July 1860
O'Brien, Thomas
Murdered by Thomas Hicks (Fireman) while at New York
July 1860
Darrell, James (Quartermaster)
Found dead in his berth of alcohol poisioning at New York
July 1861
Pollard, James (Sailor)
Fell during trooping voyage
Jan. 1863
Parbridge, Edward (Passenger)
Died of natural causes during return leg of 5th voyage
The steam whistle is on display at the SS Great Britain Trust Maritime Museum in
Bristol, England. It is operational and is worked using compressed air.

Builder's Data
Page published Jan. 29, 2007