8 February 2023 —“The Unappeasable Whale That Ate Men and Gold.


On 1 May 1854, work began at the Messrs. John Scott Russell & Co. shipyard on the Thames River on a mightily ambitious project. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the civil engineer responsible for Great Western, the first steamship designed for ocean crossings, and Great Britain, the first iron-built oceangoing ship along with John Scott Russell, had designed a colossal ship that would dwarf all other ships that had come before her. The justification for her enormous size was, essentially, fuel economy. Steamships of the era consumed great quantities of coal. As explained in a report to the shareholders of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, the proposed new vessel would be so large as to be able to carry enough coal to power the long trip from the UK to far-off Australia or India: 

1.  That they shall not be obliged to stop at any place by the way to take in coal, stoppages for coal not only causing great delay by the time required for coaling, but compelling the vessels to deviate widely from the best route, in order to touch at the necessary coaling stations. Existing steam-ships have generally lost from twelve to twenty days in this manner, and so extended the duration of their voyages nearly to the time occupied by fast sailing vessels, thus incurring the cost of steam without securing its advantages. 

2. In avoiding the delay of coaling on the voyage, your ships will also escape the great cost of taking coals at a foreign station. Coals obtained on the Indian and Australian route cost on the average, including waste and deterioration, four or five times as much per ton as in this country. But your ships will take their whole amount of coals from near the pit’s mouth…. On the voyage of existing steam vessels to Australia or India and home, the consumption amounts to from 4,000 to 6,000 tons, the cost of which would supply 15,000 to 20,000 tons, if taken on board at some port in immediate communication with the coal field.  

After multiple failed attempts to get the hull all the way into the water, a team prepares yet again to launch the ship that had been christened Leviathan at the Isle of Dogs, Millwall, London in January 1858. Richard Tangye's Birmingham firm supplied hydraulic rams added to the effort, which proved successful on 31 January 1858. Richard Tangye is believed to be the figure at right in a top hat. The drag chain reel in the center was the backdrop for the famous image of the "Little Giant," Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Photo: PD.

To power the mighty ship, Brunel was taking no chances. Her two sets of propulsion engines, estimated to supply a total of 11,000 horsepower, drove a 24-foot screw propeller and 58-foot paddle wheels, respectively. In addition to steam power, her six masts (named after the days of the week, Monday through Saturday) would carry 6,500 square feet of sail. Her projected capacity was 4,000 passengers—and the inner cabins would be three times the size of the finest staterooms in any ship afloat. Her hull consisted of an inner skin and an outer skin, both of iron, with just under three feet of separation between them. As there wasn’t a dry dock in existence large enough for such an undertaking, the ship was built on the Thames riverbank, parallel to the river. When the time came to launch her, she would have to be launched sideways—another novelty in that era. The project ran out of money after two years; Brunel raised more funds and continued to supervise construction, despite the fact that the company had removed him from his official job as resident engineer. 


On 3 November 1857 thousands had gathered for the launching of the great ship. The daughter of the company chairman of the board, Henry Thomas Hope, christened the new ship the Leviathan. That name never stuck—she would always be known as the Great Eastern, and the name was officially changed less than a year later. As the ship began to slide, the chain intended to check its speed spun the windlass so violently that it threw the men stationed to work it, killing two. A shipwright applied his brake to the ship’s movement, but the team was subsequently unable to get her moving again, as the remaining onlookers slowly gave up. Over the next several months, Brunel struggled with hydraulic rams, winches, and chains to move the great hull a matter of feet, but it wasn’t until 31 January of 1858, in part thanks to a particularly high tide, that they finally coaxed the great ship into the Thames. 

a lavishly furnished dining room with large table set for fancy meal

Great Eastern was originally conceived as a deluxe passenger ship to carry up to 4,000 passengers in high style the long distance between the United Kingdom and Australia, India, or Sri Lanka. Photo: National Library of Ireland.

Once in the water, Great Eastern still needed to be fitted with funnels, boats, sails, instruments, masts, and furnishings. With debts piling up, the company threw open the doors for sightseers, yielding $25,000 in revenue in one week. It wasn’t anywhere near what was needed, and the Eastern Steam Navigation Company folded, to be replaced by new financing and the founding of the Great Ship Company. The new director abandoned the plan of sailing to far-off Australia or India, and seized on the lower-hanging fruit of voyaging between the United States and the United Kingdom, rendering moot the great ship’s immense capacity for coal. 


Great Eastern departed on 7 September 1859 bound for Holyhead, on the Irish Sea. A steam explosion, caused by a valve unintentionally left shut, blew off one of the smokestacks and claimed five lives. Brunel, whose health had been failing, died just days after the explosion. While she put in for repairs, her maiden voyage to North America was put off again. With the renewed sightseeing tickets as the only revenue in sight, a new group of shareholders succeeded the last. The ship would be haunted by more accidents and injuries throughout her career, as well as financial calamity for her long succession of owners. James Dugan, author of The Great Iron Ship, would call her “the unappeasable whale that ate men and gold.”

steamship Great Eastern

Great Eastern in Milford Haven in the 1870s. Photo: PD.

As repairs were carried out, the Great Ship Company was in fierce negotiations with port cities in the US for the honor of receiving Great Eastern. Portland, Maine, was led to believe that it would be selected, and spent $125,000 on its new Victoria Pier to accommodate the ship’s size. When she headed instead to New York City, which had hastily dredged a berth in the Hudson for a mere $3,000, the Grand Trunk Railroad, which had shared in the cost of Portland’s pier, sued the company in vain. On that first trip Great Eastern carried only 35 paying passengers—hundreds of booked passengers had switched to Cunard, exasperated with Great Eastern's departure delays—and 418 crew. 


Money problems would continue to plague the ship’s owners, and when the company was again bankrupted, the owners after that. Great Eastern’s only real success had little to do with her capacity for carrying coal, nor the passenger trade. In 1865 she was gutted and refitted to lay the transAtlantic telegraph cable from the United Kingdom to North America. Though not the first ship chosen for the job, she proved to be the best suited, and she had a successful, albeit brief, career laying submarine cable, until Siemens launched CS Faraday, a ship designed specifically for cable-laying, in 1874. 

Towards the end of her career, Great Eastern suffered the indignity of serving as a floating billboard for the Lewis's Department Store in Liverpool. Photo: PD.

Great Eastern was then put to use for a short time as an entertainment venue and a vehicle for commercial advertising; she was eventually scrapped in 1889–90; her great size and double hulls making for a massive effort to dismantle her.


In our next installment, we'll learn more about the attempts to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, and Great Eastern's role in the effort.



Extra Credit

An account of The Great Eastern, the largest steamship in the world: belonging to the Eastern Steam Navigation Company




Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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