Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern was the largest ship ever built, in 1858. Here's portcities.org.uk on her career, which included passenger liner, telegraph-cable layer and music hall. She was built on the Isle of Dogs, the shipbuilding part of the Thames (click here for a nice article on the Isle of Dogs from the 1860s).

The key question for Victorian Londoners was, of course, was she bigger than the most famous ship ever - Noah's Ark? The answer lies in this article from the Leisure Hour (1857) below:


ABOUT two years ago, in No. 208 of the "Leisure Hour," we recorded the impressions of an inspection we had then recently made to the monster steam vessel which had been for many months growing into shape, and some approach to symmetry, on the banks of the Thames, at Milwall, and which, ere this account of a late visit meets the eyes of our readers, will probably have found its destined place on the bosom of its native element. At the time of our former inspection, the huge ark, though it had already become a signal portent to marine London, and to half the marine world besides, had not sufficiently asserted itself and its capabilities, to enable us to give a very definite account of them. Like all great undertakings, as it has progressed towards completion, it has astonished not only a world of spectators, but its designers and creators as well. What was grand in idea, looks and is so tremendous in its realization, that those who have called it into being may well stagger at the aspect of a creation so enormous, and to all appearance so unmanageable by human agency. This, at least, is the impression we derive from a first glance at the "Great Eastern" in its present state, as it stands a massive mountain of iron by the water-side, complete in the swelling grandeur of its external proportions, and ready to descend into its billowy bed whenever a power sufficiently potent to dislodge it from its perch shall be brought to bear upon it.
     We shall proceed now, under the guidance of a friend familiar with the birth-history of the great leviathan, to glance at it in the advanced stage of completeness which it exhibited at our visit and shall endeavour to put the reader in possession of such items, derivable either from observation or report, as may enable him to realize in some degree the more than startling facts with which we have to deal.
    On entering Scott Russell's building-yard, our way lies through a vast shed or workshop, and here we are greeted by the first indication of what is going forward, in the spectacle of a gigantic shaft of solid iron, a hundred and fifty feet in length, and weighing sixty tons, which is undergoing the process of turning in the lathe. This prodigious mass of iron was forged in the immediate neighbourhood, by the Messrs. Mare and Co., and is nothing less than the rotating shaft to which the screw, twenty-four feet in diameter, will be fitted between the rudder and the stern of the vessel. In the same shed lie the ponderous cranks, manufactured in Bristol, and weighing some seven tons each. Emerging from the shed, the iron mountain stands before us stretching away from right to left, and shutting out all view of the river, save where in long narrow gaps beneath its bottom the ripples are seen sparkling and flashing in the sun. The wide protuberant hull is painted red, and appears smooth as polished marble to the touch, not one of the three million rivets which have been driven through the plates that stand in lieu of planking appearing above the surface of paint. It is in vain, however, that the eye endeavours to take in the huge proportions of the vessel at a single glance; it is like attempting to see St. Paul's cathedral in St. Paul's church-yard; there is not space enough in the yard on one side, nor on the river on the other, for the spectator to retreat sufficiently far to bring the whole of the stupendous structure into one view. Moreover, the iron prodigy is so built and clustered around with various paraphernalia, with fittings internal and external, with poles, ladders, staircases, scaffolding, and a world of inexplicable iron phenomena bewildering to look upon, that a section only of its broad surface is all that from any point can be comprehended at a single view. In short we may assert, without fear of contradiction, that a fair view of the "Great Eastern" will never be obtained until she has fairly breasted the flood, and floated out into an offing of half a mile at least.
    Prominent among the multifarious surroundings of the red mountain mass, are what seem at a I distance a series of comfortable little domiciles, about the size of those rural lodges that ornament the entrance of a gentleman's park. These are the boilers, of which there are ten in the whole ; and though they weigh forty-five tons each, they will be hoisted bodily into the air a height of some seventy feet, and let down to their places in the hold of the vessel before she herself condescends to touch the water. Then we find ourselves traversing the edge of a wide circular area, exceeding in circumference that of Spa Fields chapel, and radiating from the centre outwards an enormous fan of spokes and girders. This we recognise, though not without a suspicion of blundering, as one of the leviathan's paddle-wheels, which we have been informed are to be fifty-six feet in diameter ; and looking up above, we see that the central frame-work for its reception is already fixed in the vessel's side. Not far from this yawns a black-looking tunnel, through which the new river might pursue its course without feeling at all cramped for room, and along which, following our friendly guide, we take a cooling stroll: this happens to be one of the funnels or chimneys of the ship, of which there will be five ; and we note that, though perfectly circular at the end which will connect them with the furnaces, they are compressed to the form of an ellipse at the other--a contrivance by which it is found by experiment that the escaping smoke is projected with greater force, and less annoyance to passengers.
    By the time we have become a little familiar with these astounding adjuncts of the mammoth that is to engulf them all, we are a little better prepared for an ascent to the deck of the huge structure itself. Our friend leads the way up a broad staircase of ninety steps, which lands us on the far-stretching area of the deck. Here, however, we find the view considerably altered since our last visit. Then the deck presented a clear unbroken space for promenading, of something over half a quarter of a mile. Now the long promenade is divided in the middle by a gigantic steam-crane towering far aloft, and bridging the centre of the area by its colossal framework of timber and iron. It is by meads of this enormous crane that those otherwise unmanageable masses lying below - the boilers, the funnels, the unwieldy cranks, etc. - will have to be lifted on to the lofty deck, and thence deposited in their allotted positions. As dwellers on terra firma, we feel a little nervous in looking down from a height of sixty feet into the deep square cavities formed by the twelve water-tight compartments, each of which is well nigh big' enough for the reception of a baronial castle of the feudal times, and at the present moment happens to be resounding with it din that would have delighted a feudal baron, who found music in the clang of battle-axe and the ring of armour. Down in the hold the engineers are fitting lip the steam-engines, and we catch sight through the gloom of groups of men flitting hither and thither, and their sounding blows reverberate from the iron walls with a, strange clangour to which our ears are unaccustomed. Half way down, in the side galleries that surround these central compartments, carpenters are at work fitting up the passengers' berths : to these we contrive to make our way by rude flights of steps and ladders placed almost horizontally, through the spokes of which we look down fifty feet into the gloomy abysses below. From the windows of these berths we are rewarded for our pains by a noble view of the river on one side, and of the Isle of Dogs on the other, where the ship-building yard forms the foreground of the picture, not at all wanting in the rich tilts of foliage, and the crowds of shipping in the West India Docks are lost in the mists of no very great distance.
    To attempt to describe the deck of the "Great Eastern" as it was at the period of our visit would be useless, as it has since undergone a marvellous transformation -- order and beauty having grown out of confusion and chaos. We prefer rather to offer to the reader the benefit of certain facts and well-attested statements, by which he may best realize for himself some of the characteristics of this undeniable new wonder of the nineteenth century. Let him look at these things calmly and judge for himself. The following are some of the considerations which should be borne in mind. In size, the "Great Eastern" measures 680 feet in length, 83 feet in breadth, and 60 feet in height. For the better understanding of this magnitude, let it be remembered that she is six times as large as the "Duke of Wellington" line-of-battle ship a 130 guns - that her length exceeds three times the height of the monument—that her breadth is equal to that of Pall Mall, and that one turn round her deck involves a walk of more than a quarter of. a mile. Compared with all vessels of modern times, she stands alone and unapproached; she is twice as long and more than four times as large as the great American steam-frigate the "Niagara.," and exceeds that in tonnage by nearly 18,000 tons, her burden being within a few tons of 23,000. What relation she bears in size to the celebrated vessel of the Emperor Trajan, which was sunk in Lake Riccia more than fifteen hundred years ago, and of which some monstrous and, it is to be feared, fabulous accounts are current, we are not prepared to say. To approach her at all in size, we must go back to the days of Noah, and compare her to the ark in which his family was saved. That comparison we subjoin in a note, in the belief that it may interest our readers*:—
* The following is a comparison between the size of Noah's Ark and the "Great Eastern," both being considered in point of tonnage, after the old law for calculating the tonnage. The sacred "cubit," as stated by Sir Isaac Newton, is 20.625 English inches ; by Bp. Wilkins, at 21.88 inches. According to those authorities, the dimensions will be as follows :

Sir I. Newton.

English feet.
Bishop Wilkins.

English feet.
Great Eastern.

English feet
Length between perpendiculars 515.63 547.0 680.0
Breadth 85.94 91.16 83.0
Depth 51.56 54.70 60.0
Keel, or length for tonnage 464.08 492.32 630.2
Tonnage according to old law 18,231  58.94 21,761  50.94 23,092 25.94

    A further idea of her size may be formed from the quantity of material used up in her construction. In the formation of the hull alone, ten thousand tons of iron plates have been necessary ; each plate weighs about a third of a ton, and. is fastened by a hundred rivets ; there have, therefore, been 30,000 plates and 3,000,000 of rivets employed. In addition to this, above two thousand tons more of iron have been used, and all together she will weigh above twelve thousand tons when she descends into the water.
    In steam-power, the "Great Eastern" will transcend all other vessels in a ratio proportioned to her size. She is the first vessel, so far as we know, that will be propelled both by the paddle and the screw. Her paddle-engines will be each of 1500 horse-power, and her screw engines of of 1800, giving a total of 11,500 horse-power, calculated at a pressure of 25 pounds to the square inch, though, as her boilers are tested to 60 pounds the square inch, she can more than double that power if occasion should demand it. She will carry ten boilers, and these are so constructed that the steam produced by each may be made available where it shall be most needed.
    In sailing-power, the use of which does not appear to have been originally contemplated, she will, however, be well supplied. She will carry seven masts, all of which will be of hollow wrought iron, except the last, or mizen-mast, on which the compass will be placed, at a height of eighty-four feet from the deck, to shield it from the influence of the immense mass of iron. On these masts, the principal one of which. will be crossed with spars, as in a line-of-battle ship, she will spread 6500 yards of canvas to the breeze. The rigging will be of wire ropes, and the large shrouds of this kind will measure eight and a half inches in circumference.
    In accommodation for passengers, the "Great Eastern" will resemble rather a floating city than a ship. Eight hundred first-class passengers, two thousand second-class, and twelve hundred third-class will find a luxurious and comfortable home on board her ; and, if it be necessary for her at any time to carry troops, it is reckoned that ten thousand men would find her as convenient a transport as any in the service. In addition to the quarter of a mile promenade on the upper deck, another covered promenade will be available for passengers when the weather above is not inviting ; and again, below this will be a common saloon in each compartment, over sixty by thirty feet in area and fifteen feet high. These accommodations do not embrace those of the ship's complement and crew, who have their separate berths.
    Her speed, which is expected to prove the grand element of her success, is calculated at not less than twenty miles an hour, so that she is expected to traverse the distance between the English coast and New York in five or six days, or to reach the harbours of South Australia in about thirty. If we add to this the fact, which it is confidently expected will be realized, that, owing to her vast bulk, she will cut at a uniform level through the waves without rolling or pitching, and that, consequently, there will be no such plague as sea-sickness on board of her, it may well be that she will monopolise all the passengers, and return a rare profit to the shareholders.
    Let us look now at the precautions that have been taken to insure her safety. In the first place, we may dismiss all apprehensions from fire. The "Great Eastern" is built wholly of iron, and her fittings-tip will be so far of the same material that any accidental conflagration that may occur must necessarily confine its damage to matters of cabinet-work and upholstery. Then, as to danger from leakage and the possibility of foundering : it is really difficult to conceive how she could founder. In the first place, the huge hull is built double high above the water mark, so that any accidental collision with a, rock or another vessel, that should fracture the outer hull, would in all probability fail to injure the inner one. In the second place, being built in twelve separate water-tight compartments, she is in fact twelve distinct floating vessels firmly united together ; and even though two or three of these compartments should by any mischance become filled with water, she might yet proceed on her voyage and reach her destined port with little retardation of her course. Danger from accidents to her steam machinery is warded and fenced off by the disposition of the coal-bunkers, which, under an arch of solid iron, interpose a shield between the berths and saloons and the boilers with their furnaces.
If, from a protracted consumption of her coals, she should stand in need of ballast, provision is made for letting in at any moment any quantity short of two thousand five hundred tons of water in the cavities between the inner and outer hull. To insure the immediate execution of orders, the usual speaking-trumpet will be superseded by a code of signals, and these will be supplemented by the use of an electric telegraph, and a system of communication by speaking tubes. From all these precautions, it would appear that the only real danger she runs is that incident to all vessels, of grounding on some unknown shallow, from which, owing to her weight, it is probable there would be no means of towing her off. In that case, however, the passengers would stand an excellent chance of escape ; for she will carry twenty large boats on her deck, and in addition to these will swing abaft her paddle-boxes two small screw steamers of sixty or seventy tons each, which can be raised and lowered at will, and will be maintained in constant working order. These little steamers will prove of immense use, and will be in constant requisition : they will act for the transport of passengers, luggage, and merchandise to and from the shore, as the huge vessel will be naturally shy of taking a station too near to wharf or pier. In order that she may lie comfortably at her moorings, she will be furnished with ten anchors, which, with their stocks, will weigh fifty-five tons ; she must have eight hundred fathoms of chain cable, weighing ninety-eight tons ; her capstan and warp will weigh a hundred tons, and two hundred and fifty tons of appliances will be used for making her fast. All this heavy duty, which no united force of men could accomplish, will be done by auxiliary steam-engines located in different parts of the vessel.
    What more shall we add? It is said that gas will be manufactured on board, and laid on to every part of the vessel, and that the electric light will be fixed on the mast-head.
    For the benefit of our scientific and practical friends, we add a tabular view of what may be called the physique of the " Great Eastern," and which may further help their realization of this great iron fact of the day.

Number of main transverse bulkheads or water- tight compartments 12
Ditto partial 7
Longitudinal bulkheads running fore and aft at a distance of 36 feet apart for a length of 350 feet 2
Width of space between the two skins of ship. 2ft, 10in
Length of forecastle 140ft
Height of ditto 8ft
Height of saloons on lower deck  13ft. 8in
Number of saloons  5
Height of saloons on upper deck 12ft
Number of ditto 5
Length of upper saloons 70ft
Ditto lower 60ft
Thickness of iron plates in keel 1in.
Ditto inner and outer skins  3/4 in.
Bulkheads  1/2 in.
Iron deck    1/2 in.

Number of cylinders 4
Diameter of ditto 74 in.
Weight of ditto (each)  26 tons
Length of stroke 14ft
Number of boilers 4
Furnaces for ditto 40
Diameter of paddlewheels  56ft.

Number of cylinders 4
Weight of ditto (each)  30 tons
Diameter of ditto 84 in.
Length of stroke 4ft.
Number of boilers 6
Furnaces for ditto 72
Diameter of screw 24ft
Number of blades to ditto  4
Length of screw shaft 150ft
Weight of ditto (about)  60 tons
Weight of ship engines, etc., as at it launching , 12,000 tons
Immersion of this weight  15ft. 6in.
Ordinary light draught  20ft.
Probable maximum immersion when fully laden 30ft.
Quantity of coal which can be carried for voyages 11,379 toms. 

The question has for some time been anxiously asked, "How will the 'Great Eastern' be got into the water? She is one piece of iron weighing 12,000 tons; how is such a dead weight to be got into the river?" We cannot answer the question definitely ; but it will be done somehow. While we write, preparations are making for lowering her down an inclined plane into the stream. Whenever she moves, it will not be a launch but a crawl, at a pace not greater perhaps than the hour- hand of a clock, into her element; and she will go down, as the Britannia tube went up, under the persuasive influence of hydraulic pressure.


  1. I was reading about the Great Eastern the other day, Brunel's great ship. The crowds that turned up to watch her "be got into the water" were apparently vast, and it took hours.

    What we wouldn't give for a time machine to go back and stroll for a day through the streets of Victorian London eh?

  2. Yes, history is the nearest thing to time travel ... so near, and yet so far!

  3. I was explaining this to one of my colleagues at work, who asked why I had such an interest in the Victorian period (He claimed it was "odd for a 28yr old")
    I tried to explain that the fascination comes from not only the fact that these years were amongst our finest in our hisroty in terms of advances in almost all areas, and a lot of the period's customs still exist today, such as the funeral service and certain terms of prudishness. But the biggest thing is that with other periods in history - the Tudors for example, seem so far away, and so distant in the past that it almost seems like a story or a myth. Paintings of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII are all well and good (despite the fact that most were far from true likenesses) and artifacts and relics are interesting, without a doubt. But, the Victorian period is so close we can almost touch it, and we have photographs which tell (almost) the whole truth about the people in them (if you discount the false drawing rooms and backdrops)and in some cases, even films! And they wrote about things that still affect us today such as poverty and decency. We can walk the same streets they did, live in the buildings they built and own objects they made.
    I'm a bit of a pocket-watch collector, and find such personal items a great link to the past, to wonder who walked down the streets of London, Birmingham or Manchester with a jaunty gait and a top hat and pulled his watch from his pocket and checked the time as he crossed the road and caught an omnibus. And now, here it is in my hand.

    As you said; so near, and yet so far!

  4. Yes, it's the start of our modern era. Mass production, mass media, transport, technology, advertising ... it's all there. Glad you're still enjoying the blog. best wishes, Lee

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