SS Great Eastern, launched in 1858 was a huge iron sailing steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall Iron Works on the River Thames, London. Brunel, who was famous for his work on railways, was also interested in using steam to power iron ships.

The Great Eastern was the third of his huge shipbuilding projects. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling. Her length of 211 m was only surpassed in 1899 by the 215 m 17,274-gross-ton RMS Oceanic, and her gross tonnage of 18,915 was only surpassed in 1901 by the 214 m 21,035-gross-ton RMS Celtic. The ship’s five funnels were rare. This was later reduced to four.

Deck of the ‘Great Eastern’

Brunel knew her affectionately as the “Great Babe”. He died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage, during which she was damaged by an explosion. After repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and North America before being converted to a cable-laying ship and laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866.

One of the biggest problems with steam power in its early days was that it was difficult for ships to carry enough coal to reach their destinations. There might not be enough places on the ship’s route where they could pick up extra coal if needed. Sometimes the coal took up so much space that there was hardly any room left for cargo! Because of this the early steamships still had masts (Great Eastern had six) and sails, which meant the ship could sail even if the coal ran out. Brunel believed, however, that he could solve the coal problem by building a ship so enormous that it could carry enough coal for a voyage to India or Australia without stopping for coal along the way. Great Eastern was 211 meters in length and was designed to carry 4,000 passengers, or 10,000 soldiers if used to carry troops.

Work began on the ship in 1854. There were many problems in building and launching the ship and the Great Eastern was not finally afloat until January 1858. Brunel never saw it sail—he suffered a severe stroke just before the ship was due to leave on its first voyage from Liverpool. By the time the ship arrived in New York ten days later, he was dead.

Although the design of the Great Eastern was brilliant, in some ways the story of the ship is a sad one. Nowhere in the world were there docks and harbors big enough to cope with a ship six times bigger than anything known before. Also, the ship never sailed on the long routes that Brunel had planned. Instead, the Great Eastern was used to cross the Atlantic to America, a much shorter voyage. Although the Great Eastern was very safe, passengers were put off by the rolling of the ship in the Atlantic storms.

In 1864, Great Eastern was sold for a fraction of its cost to a company helping to lay the first undersea telegraph cable between England and the United States. Great Eastern was the only ship afloat that had enough room to carry the cable. The time that the ship spent laying cables for the new telegraph system was its most successful. Great Eastern successfully laid the cable, which began operation in July 1866.

SS Great Eastern with four funnels.

Finishing her life as a floating music hall and advertising hoarding (for the famous department store Lewis’s) in Liverpool. The ship was eventually scrapped at New Ferry on the River Mersey by Henry Bath & Son Ltd in 1889–1890, in what was an early example of breaking-up a structure by use of a wrecking ball.  The ship was built so strongly that it took 200 men 18 months to take her apart. At the time Everton Football Club were looking for a flagpole for their Anfield ground, and consequently purchased her top mast. It still stands there today at the ground – now owned by Liverpool Football Club at the Kop end.

SS Great Eastern: Too Big To Sail