The Great Eastern

This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at a particular place and events that happened there in the past. When I take a photograph I am always struck by that sense of moment it represents; for a fraction of a second I captured this instant. In that moment I also feel connected to all the time before and all the time after. In these articles I want to explore that time before to answer the question, what happened here? I hope that you find them interesting. To keep up to date with future posts on this and other subjects, remember to click the Follow button.

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Joggers run along the Thames Riverside Walk, cyclists pick up or return Santander Cycles from the docking station, and supermarket delivery vans pull up to provide residents with their weekly groceries. It’s a quiet side road today but at the heart of it stand the vestiges of a momentous event in maritime history.

A jogger runs along the Thames Riverside Path close to the launch site of the SS Great Eastern

All that remains to tell you of these events are an incongruous line of weathered wooden beams overlooked by blocks of flats. At this place two men met; one of them possibly the greatest engineer in the world who had changed the appearance of Britain with railways, bridges and tunnels. The second was a young man, only in his twenties but already at the height of his chosen career; photography. He would produce one of the defining images of the 19th century.

It is a full length portrait of a man, a slight figure wearing a tall hat to make himself look taller. He is smoking a cigar. Behind him are coils and coils of huge chains. His hands are shoved in his pockets and his clothes, whilst of a good quality, look shabby; there appears to be some mud on his shoes and on his trouser legs. Underneath the hat his hair looks awry – it has not been cut for some time. This is a man who has other things on his mind than his appearance. Beneath his dark eyebrows he is staring out of the photograph at some scene beyond our sight.

That scene would be the efforts currently being made to launch the Great Eastern, at that time, the largest ship ever created, and the man is the engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The photograph was taken by Robert Howlett on the 3rd November 1857 at Millwall in East London.

Brunel was still only in his fifties but by now he could look back on a number of engineering achievements; a tunnel under the Thames, the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the Great Western Railway, and the SS Great Britain (the largest ship at its time of launch and the first propeller driven transatlantic liner). Now he was watching his latest invention as it was prepared to be launched into the Thames, and it was not going well.

The SS Great Eastern was bigger than her predecessor, the Great Britain. She was 211 metres (692 feet) long and she was capable of carrying 4000 passengers. As well as a propeller she boasted paddle wheels each 17 metres (56 feet) in diameter . The ship was designed to travel non-stop to India and Australia without having to refuel. It was the largest and possibly the most ambitious project of Brunel’s career. He may already have been aware that he was suffering from kidney disease – the Great Eastern would be a fitting pinnacle to his lifetime’s work.

The construction and launch of the ship would be mired in difficulties, however. Brunel worked with John Scott Russell. Scott Russell owned a ship builders yard on the Thames at Millwall and this was where the vessel would be built and launched. The two men had worked together before and had got on well but on this occasion there would be disagreements. Brunel was used to making all the decisions but Russell Scott, as a ship builder, felt he knew how it should be constructed.

Building the ship was noisy, hot and claustrophobic. Three million rivets were driven into the vessel to hold it together. For the workers it must have felt almost like entering hell each day. The work was dangerous and many of the construction crew would fall to their deaths before the ship was launched.

Eventually the ship was ready for launching and a date was set – the 3rd November 1857. The event became something of a public affair much to Brunel’s annoyance who wanted to keep it low key. Crowds of people gathered to watch the occasion. The next day The Times wrote up the story (at that point the ship was called the Leviathan):

Men and women of all classes were joined together in one amicable pilgrimage to the East, for on that day at some hour unknown, the Leviathan was to be launched at Millwall … For two years, London – and we may add the people of England – had been kept in expectation of the advent of this gigantic experiment, and their excitement and determination to be present at any cost are not to be wondered at when we consider what a splendid chance presented itself of a fearful catastrophe …’

the Times, 4 November 1857

For at least one man it became a tragedy. John Donovan, one of the men operating the winch to lower the vessel into the water (sideways) was thrown into the air and killed. Several other men were seriously injured. In the event the ship got stuck and could not be launched. It was not until January the following year that the Great Eastern finally took to the water.

The original budget had been £500,000 but the launch alone ended up costing £120,000.

It was on that day in November 1857 that the photographer Robert Howlett took the picture of Brunel standing in front of the winching cables. Howlett was only 26 at the time but, like Brunel, he had already achieved a great deal in his chosen craft of photography. He had photographed veterans of the Crimean War, and worked with the artist William Powell Frith to take photographs to assist in the painting of “Derby Day”. And he had been commissioned by Queen Victora to photograph the frescos at Buckingham Palace.

The Illustrated Times had commissioned him to photograph the launch of the new ship. His photograph of Brunel is seen as one of the first “environmental” portraits, taken in the subject’s own surroundings rather than in a studio as was usually the case in that era. Howlett photographed the ship itself and some of the other personnel involved that day. Another photograph shows Brunel and others standing together and looking in unison off to their right. It looks like this was not posed and Howlett has caught them reacting to something occurring out of shot.

As Howlett took the photographs and Brunel waited anxiously for the ship to be launched, we can only imagine the conversation between the two men. They must have got on as Brunel hired Howlett the following Spring to photograph the construction of the bridge across the Tamar between Devon and Cornwall. By then the engineer was unwell and unable to make the journey to see the development in person so he used Howlett to act as his eyes.

They certainly had a lot in common. Both were hard working and driven men. And, tragically, both were to die within a year or so of this day. In September 1859 just before the Great Eastern’s maiden journey across the Atlantic Brunel suffered a stroke and died a few days later. Howlett died barely a year after he had taken this photograph, on the 2nd December 1858. He was just twenty seven.

As for the Great Eastern it was originally built to take passengers to India and Australia but it could not compete with lighter and faster vessels. The opening of the Suez Canal also sounded its death knell for the journey east – it couldn’t fit. Instead it was used for the transatlantic services but even here it could not make money. However it did play a crucial part in connecting North America with Europe when it was used to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865. Here its size helped; it was the only vessel large enough to carry the cable. After a short period as an advertising hoarding the ship was broken up in 1888.

The weathered beams that made up the launch ramp are now overlooked by blocks of flats

The scene of this drama today is quiet and tranquil. The beams that would have launched the Great Eastern stand in a small park next to the Thames and surrounded by blocks of flats. Sometime ago I wrote about the idea of capturing time past in a photograph. It was inspired by the thought that these wooden beams connected us to the drama of that day in November 1857. The events seep through the ancient timbers that span the park and if you stand here silently and place your hands upon the ancient timbers you can almost experience the noise and sights of that day.

Further reading

Planning, building and launching the Great Eastern

The life and works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The life and works of Robert Howlett

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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