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Port Cities: The working Thames - The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner
PortCities London

The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and steamships
 

The Great Eastern

The Cable Ship.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern in a heavy sea. © NMM
The Great Eastern was a huge steamship designed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At the time of her launch in 1858 she was the largest ship in the world.

Although the design of the Great Eastern was brilliant, in some ways the story of the ship is a sad one. Brunel's mighty vessel was considered a commercial failure as a passenger ship. After a brief period as a cable-laying ship she ended her career as a floating billboard before being scrapped in 1888.

The Great Western

The Great Western riding a tidal wave, 11 December 1844
View full size imageThe Great Western riding a tidal wave, 11 December 1844. © NMM
Before Brunel designed the Great Eastern he had built two other steamships that revolutionized shipbuilding with their speed, power, size and construction. His first attempt was the Great Western (1838), a wooden paddle steamer that was the first steamship to make regular crossings of the Atlantic.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel at Millwall during the building of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageBrunel at Millwall during the building of the Great Eastern. © NMM
She was launched at Patterson & Mercer's yard in Bristol on 19 July 1837 and sailed to London later that month to be fitted out.

Her first trip to New York took just 15 days. This was a great success since a one-way trip on a ship with sails would have taken more than a month. She eventually completed 45 Atlantic voyages to New York for her owners, The Great Western Steamship Company.

 

The Great Britain

SS Great Britain leaving Blackwall.
View full size imageBrunel's SS Great Britain leaving Blackwall. © NMM
In 1843 Brunel followed up the Great Western with the world's first large iron steamship, the Great Britain. The initial design was for a paddle-driven ship, but Brunel gave up on that idea when he saw one of the first propeller-driven ships arrive in Britain.

Waterline model of SS Great Britain (1843).
View full size imageWaterline model of SS Great Britain (1843). © NMM

The Great Britain therefore became the first screw-driven iron ship to cross the Atlantic. Displacing nearly 1930 tons when it was launched, the Great Britain was the largest ship afloat.

The Great Eastern was the third of Brunel's huge shipbuilding projects.

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