photograph by Robert Howlett
In the 19th century, the Thames foreshore from Blackwall around the Isle of Dogs to Limehouse were dotted with shipyards.
However the building of the Great Eastern between 1854 and 1859 at the Millwall Iron works was on a scale never seen before. It was undertaken by the Victorian dream team of Isambard Kingdom Brunel the most famous engineer of his day and John Scott Russell the famous Naval architect.
Although the ship would be four times bigger than any ship built before weighing 21,000 tons, 692ft long with a beam of 83ft, there was great confidence that the ship would even eclipse the Crystal Palace as the greatest example of Victorian engineering.
Photo National Maritime Museum
Brunel’s reason for building the ship this big was simple, it was expected that ship would undertake the lucrative routes to India and Australia and a ship this size could take enough coal to make the journey without refuelling.
(Inside Russell’s shipyard casting a large cylinder for the ship 1856)
He also selected the site on the Isle of Dogs due to the available skilled workforce and shipbuilding machinery available.
One major problem was how to launch the ship, due to the fact that no dock was big enough, Brunel’s solution was to launch the ship sideways using cables and chains. Nothing had been attempted on this scale before, but Brunel was confident that his calculations were correct to allow the launch to go ahead.
In 1850s the widespread interest in the ship’ s launch meant that a large number of small ships and steamers gave sightseeing tours of the “Monster Steamship” as it was known.
Because Brunel knew the launch would be fraught with difficulty he was keen to keep the whole thing low-key, however the ship company sold thousands of tickets for the launch and every available vantage point was taken on land as well as on the river.
photograph by Robert Howlett
A newspaper report records what happened next :
We now proceed to give the history of the proceedings on the 3rd of November. Precisely at half-past 11 o’clock the ceremony of christening the ship was gracefully and spiritedly performed by Miss Hope, the daughter of the chairman of the company— the ‘Leviathan’ being the name selected. As soon as this form had been gone through, Mr Brunel gave the signal for knocking away the few last remaining ‘shores ‘ and ‘stays,’ and now the mighty machine stood supported solely on her cradles, awaiting the relaxation of the checking cables), which up to this moment had been kept perfectly taut. . The first step necessary was to relax the checking cables; and this part of the process was begun shortly after mid-day. The operation had proceeded so far us was necessary to permit the application of the tractive and motive power, when almost before the latter had been brought to bear the vessel suddenly acquired motion, and more quickly than was expected moved towards the water. One consequence of this unforeseen rapidity in her change of position was a violent revolution of the brakes attached to the sternmost checking cable, the handles of which, suddenly flying round, unhappily struck several workmen nearest to them, causing severe fractures, and other serious injuries. Great alarm was naturally caused by this misadventure, but Mr Brunel preserved an admirable presence of mind, and by his example, encouraging the assistants, the checking machinery was reapplied, and the motion of the vessel stayed.
The injured men were removed to the Poplar Hospital, and as soon as the excitement had subsided Mr Brunel again applied himself to carry out the object of the day. In his mind the one great point of vessel’s motion had been achieved. But the facility which had taken place suggested danger of a precipitate descent to the water, and consequent jeopardy to the lighters to which the tractive tackle was attached. He immediately determined to preclude this possible risk by removing the lighters referred to, and dispensing with the tractive chains communicating with them, The delay thus occasion made it 2 o’clock before another signal for the checking cables could be given. No doubt, however, was entertained that the vessel would not be afloat in the course of the afternoon. The cables having been again relaxed, the entire power of the hydraulic pumps and the stationary engine to the vessel’s stem were set in motion ; and expectancy was again strained to its utmost pitch. The pumps and the steam winch continued to work without producing any effect, till a startling sound as of the snapping of metal was heard. This was found to arise from the fracture of several teeth in the cog wheel of the steam winch in connection with the engine, which produced such an overwhelming pressure on the cable at the stern of the ship that one of the links gave way. This additional loss of tractive power put an end to the possibility of launching the ship on that day. There was no time to effect the necessary repairs before the highest flow of the next day’s tide; would therefore it, became inevitable to defer the entire operation until the December spring tides— an announcement which Mr Brunel himself made with entire confidence of success at the period specified.
It was surprise to many that the ship was named the Leviathan as she had been known as the Great Eastern when she was being built.
The failure to launch made Brunel and Scott Russell a laughing stock and financially bankrupted the Eastern Steam Navigation Company and John Scott Russell. The stress bought about a period of ill health for Brunel who worked tirelessly to find a way to launch the ship.
After the launch (National Maritime Museum)
Over the next few months the ship was slowly edged down the slipway inches at a time until when the actually launch came about in February it was a bit of a anti climax, once again a newspaper report of the day takes up the story.
LAUNCH OF THE LEVIATHAN. On Sunday afternoon, February 1st, the long protracted process of launching this vessel was happily brought to a successful termination, and the Leviathan was floated of her ways and towed to her moorings in the river. The whole affair was effected with such perfect regularity, and with so much the appearance of its being quite a matter of course and every day occurrence, that it is almost difficult to discover any incident to distinguish it from other events of the same kind which take place along the river’s bank at each full tide. It had been resolved to launch her on the Friday, but this intention was frustrated for two days by a sudden change of wind, which it is said would have rendered it madness to have attempted to float her. The monster vessel moved easily, and with such a low rate of pressure that a short time gave an advance of a few inches, which showed that more than half the cradles were quite pushed off the ways and rested on the river bottom. At half past one the men in the row boats stationed alongside observed that she no longer rested on the cradles—that she was, in fact, afloat, but, of course, the transition was so gradual that few were aware of it until the tugs began steaming ahead, and showed that at last she was fairly under way. Then the cheers which arose spread the great news far and wide, and thus, under the most favourable circumstances the Leviathan commenced her first voyage on the Thames. Two powerful tug boats were at her bows and two were fastened astern. Other steamers also were in attendance and rendered their aid, but the efforts of the four who have mentioned were mainly instrumental in managing her. During the progress’ of the vessel an extraordinary scene took place. When her stern cradle had been relieved from the. great, weight which had reposed upon it, the immense timbers parted and darted above the surface of the water, point upwards, like shoals of springing porpoises. Another incident attracted considerable attention, and at first caused some amount of unnecessary alarm. The immense chains which had held the vessel on land were one by one released, and as they glided through the hawse-holes they created a sound like heavy peals of thunder, which, until the cause was ascertained, induced people to believe that some accident had occurred or some part of the tackle given way. During the afternoon the various river steamers came down crowded to excess; the numerous occupants of which joined in the congratulations which everywhere awaited Mr Brunel. Every point of land, too, where a view of the proceedings of the ship could be obtained was densely crowded ; and a feeling of the liveliest satisfaction seemed to be expressed in the countenances of all present. Thousands of persons continued to flock down to Millwall and Deptford. up to an advanced hour, and the church bells of the latter place rung out a merry peal in honour of the occasion. It will be very gratifying to those who take an interest in the success of Mr Scott Russell’s noble ship to know that she has not sustained the slightest blemish, and that her ” shear” is as free from defect as before the launch was attempted. The vessel will remain in her present position, opposite Deptford, until she has been fitted—a process which will occupy from four to five months.
Although afloat there was not the money to fit the ship out to the standard promised , therefore it did not attract the numbers of passengers expected. A series of technical problems also contributed to the idea that the ship was dogged by bad luck.
The death of Brunel a few days after its maiden journey did not help matters and although it did a few transatlantic journeys, its days as a passenger liner were numbered.
To pay off some of its debts , the company leased the ship to a company to enable them to lay a transatlantic cable, eventually even this type of undertaking ended and the ship ended up as a public attraction in Liverpool and finally in 1886 was broken up on a beach near Liverpool.
The ship may have come to a sad end, but if you go to the site near Burrells Wharf , you will come across some of the wooden part of the launch infrastructure which has been preserved .
There are also remains of the site at low tide, the slip way is visible near the Clipper pontoon.
If you walk down to the Burrell’s Wharf development , you will find the plate house which was part of the ship yard and the place where the large pieces of metal were handled.
If you walk onto Westferry Road the name of J Scott Russell still remains over the old offices.
And there is a blue plaque to mark the spot where the great ship was built.