Most people know that the SS Great Eastern was built by J. Scott Russell and Brunel on the Isle of Dogs. Much has been written about her by far more knowledgeable people than me, but I was curious about precisely where she was built, and what happened to her.
At the time of her launch in 1858, the Great Eastern – at 692 ft (210 m) long – was by far the largest ship ever built. A contemporary print gives an idea of how the construction looked to Islanders of the time.
When I first saw the drawing, it wasn’t the ship that grabbed my attention, but the grassy fields in the foreground, complete with sheep. I shouldn’t have been surprised , I knew that much of the Island was pasture land in the middle of the 19th century, but it takes a little time to reconcile this with the built-up West Ferry Rd of today. This extract of an 1862 map shows Scott-Russell’s yard and the area around it. Apart from the Chapel House, the interior of the Island south of West India Docks was uninhabited.
The detail and accuracy of the buildings in the drawing are also notable.
The building marked A is the main Great Eastern works building constructed for Scott Russell by William Cubitt & Company. This building was taken over by Burrell’s when they moved on to the site in the 1880s, and named it the Big Shop. It is still standing and is today called the Plate House.
The building marked B is the former Robert Burns pub. There were no less than four public houses in this short section of West Ferry Rd. Other than The Ship, which opened in 1830, all were newly-opened by landlords who hoped to capitalize on the presence of the many hundreds of Great Eastern workers and visitors:
- Great Eastern, 395 West Ferry Rd
- Robert Burns, 248 & 250 West Ferry Rd
- The Ship, 290 West Ferry Rd
- Glendower, 296 West Ferry Rd
The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a model of the construction of the Great Eastern. The later Plate House is visible, as well as an advert for Bass Ales painted on the roof of what is probably a representation of the Robert Burns pub.
The model, and other contemporary images, show the bow of the Great Eastern to be level with the Plate House tower. This allows us to superimpose a plan of the ship over a satellite photo.
The remains of the Great Eastern slipway timbers are visible in the satellite photo. There were two such slipways; Bering Square marks the location of the other one.
The ship’s paddle wheels were 56 ft (17 m) across, close to twice as wide as the present-day Napier Avenue, which marks their location during construction. We can envisage how the ship looked from West Ferry Rd, superimposing an old photo on a modern view.
After two failed attempts, the Great Eastern was launched at 1:42pm on 31 January 1858.
These must have been interesting times on the Island. Within a year or two on either side of the launch date
- Christ Church was consecrated.
- Cumberland Oil Mills were built.
- William Cubitt built a wooden pier at the end of what would be named Pier St
- Robert Baillie and Joseph Westwood, in partnership with James Campbell, set up business in a new yard at Cubitt Town. They called it London Yard.
- CJ Mare & Co is taken over by Charles Mare’s father-in-law Peter Rolt and continues business as the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co (the birth place of West Ham United).
- The Lord Nelson and Queen public houses were built.
- John Scott Russell (himself the son of a Presbyterian minister) laid the foundation stone of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church
However, the SS Great Eastern was not a success. On her maiden voyage, she sailed down the Thames into the English Channel, and had just passed Hastings when there was a huge explosion, the forward deck blowing apart with enough force to throw the No. 1 funnel into the air. Scott Russell and two engineers went below and ordered the steam to be blown off and the engine speed reduced. Five stokers died from being scalded by superheated steam, while four or five others were badly injured and one had leapt overboard and had been lost.
Although the SS Great Eastern was originally designed for the far Eastern run, there was never enough business to justify her use on this route, and so she made primarily Transatlantic voyages. But she proved unable to compete with the speed and performance of other ships plying the same route.
In 1866, the ship was modified and went into service as a cable-layer. From 1866 to 1878 she laid over 30,000 miles (48,000 km) of submarine telegraph cable including from Brest, France to Saint Pierre and Miquelon in 1869, and from Aden to Bombay in 1869 and 1870.
At the end of her cable-laying career, unsuccessful attempts were made to turn the SS Great Eastern into a visitor attraction. She even served time as a giant billboard for a Liverpool department store.
Finally, a year later, she was beached at Rock Ferry on the River Mersey for breaking up. During her dismantling a horrific discovery was made. Between the double hulls the scrappers found the remains of two bodies. It was assumed they were what was left of two shipyard workers mistakenly entombed when she was being built.
Just over 30 years after her launch, the SS Great Eastern was still the largest ship ever built, but she proved to be an expensive mistake. Technical and financial problems plagued her construction (problems which I have not even mentioned here), she was never a business success, and her end was ignominious.
If you go to Rock Ferry, it is possible – without digging too far – to find iron scraps and other remnants of the ship. But to see something more substantial or recognizable, you have to travel the short distance from the Mersey to Liverpool’s football ground at Anfield. At the Kop end is a huge flag pole. It is in fact a topmast that was rescued from SS Great Eastern while it was being broken up.
A peculiar end to a peculiar ship.