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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

Maiden voyage of the Great Eastern

Maiden voyage to New York

The Great Eastern under weight July 23rd (escort and other ships introduced being the Terrible, the Sphinx the Hawk & the Caroline)
View full size imageThe Great Eastern under way.
Repairs after the explosion took nine months, although Scott Russell had promised that they would only take three weeks. The Great Eastern's maiden voyage eventually began on 17 June 1860 from Southampton to New York.

Scott Russell's journal

The arrival of the Great Eastern at New York
View full size imageThe arrival of the Great Eastern at New York.
The trip to New York was not fully subscribed, but the ship seemed to have performed well. One of the passengers was Norman Scott Russell, the son of John Scott Russell.

Russell kept a journal during the voyage and here is an extract from it. His comments reveal some of the teething troubles that the new ship and its crew faced.

Thursday, 21 June 1860

Journal of Norman Scott Russell.
View full size imageThe journal of Norman Scott Russell.
'Everyone was delighted to find how well she behaved, the rolling was very easy and the motion decidedly lively, but she never shipped a drop of water and we could see an American liner about two and a half miles off showing her deck quite clearly and pitching thirty feet of water with the sea beating down over her bows. My father's opinion that the sails of this ship would never be of any use as propellers is quite confirmed by what I have seen – Captain Harrison himself thinks that the only use they are is to steady the ship and to be used as wind-sails to aid draught of the funnels and keep the engine rooms cool'.

From Sheerness to Valentia.
View full size imagePassengers on board the Great Eastern.

Russell went on:

'The engineering results of the voyage are however on the whole satisfactory. The engines have done their work with an expenditure of fuel, which as nearly as it has been ascertained, is not extravagant. There was however much surprise at the neglected conditions of the decks, which appeared as if they had neither been cleaned, scraped, or varnished since it was launched. The planks in many places appeared badly shrunken and suffering for the want of welting down. The same was observed on both sides of the paddle boxes'.

Change of route

Boats of the starboard quarter of Great Eastern
View full size imageView of the life-boats along the starboard quarter of the Great Eastern.
By the time of the Great Eastern's first voyage the ship's owners had decided that she would take passengers across the Atlantic - not to Australia and Asia, as originally intended.

The recent opening of the Suez Canal meant that the long sea route to India around the bottom of Africa was now uneconomical. This would not have mattered had the Great Eastern been able to use the canal. Unfortunately, though, the ship was too wide to go through!

Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern was too wide to use the Suez Canal.

The Great Eastern was therefore left with the Atlantic route. But Brunel's ship was too slow to compete with the smaller, faster vessels that dominated the Atlantic.



First Captain

Captain Harrison of the Great Eastern
View full size imageCaptain William Harrison (second from right), commander of the Great Eastern.
The first Captain of the Great Eastern was William Harrison. Although his vessel was a marvel of mid-Victorian engineering, his time in charge of the ship was to be spoiled by disaster and misfortune.

Although the Great Eastern was very safe, passengers were put off by the rolling of the ship in the Atlantic storms. As a result, very few tickets were sold for the first crossings.