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The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and steamships
Design of the 'Great Eastern'
Building the 'Great Eastern'
Launch and sea trials of the 'Great Eastern'
Maiden voyage of the 'Great Eastern'
Voyages across the storm-lashed Atlantic
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Building the Great Eastern

Problems of size

Building the 'Great Leviathan'.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern under construction at Millwall, 1854. © NMM
The ship (originally named Leviathan) was laid down at John Scott Russell's yard and on the neighbouring one, at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs, in December 1853.

Because of the ship's size she had to be built parallel to the Thames rather than with the stern (rear) facing the water. It would not have been possible to launch the ship in the normal way because the stern would have run aground. A sideways launch would avoid this problem, but that method had not been used before.

The building of the Great Eastern, 1857.
View full size imageThe building of the Great Eastern.
News of the project filled the newspapers and crowds of sightseers came to the shipyard to watch the largest ship in the world being built. This painting gives you an idea of the massive scale of the new ship.

 

Spiralling costs

Building of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe keel of the Great Eastern under construction at Millwall.

When the keel was laid the cost of the ship was estimated to be £377,000 (£19 million in today's money), which was less than Brunel's original figure.

By the time of the vessel's launch the project costs had risen to £732,000 (more than £35 million in today's money).

Workers in wood and metal

The Great Babe's Cradles.
View full size imageThe 'Great Babe's' cradles, c. 1857.

The Great Eastern's hull was supported on large wooden 'cradles' while it was being built. The cradles and scaffolding were made by carpenters who still had a vital part to play in shipbuilding, even though iron vessels were beginning to replace wooden ships.

Building of the Great Eastern, starboard, profile view.
View full size imageStarboard view of the Great Eastern, taken from Deptford, 1857.
Workers called riveters built the hull from iron plates fixed to a frame. They were called riveters because of the heated metal pins, or rivets, they used to fix the plates together.

Working on the Great Eastern by gaslight.
View full size imageWorking on the Great Eastern by gaslight.
The riveters used special tools to help bend the metal into shape and drill the iron plates. It was hard and slow work. One team could only fit 100-140 rivets a day even though they worked for ten hours. About three million rivets were used during the building of the Great Eastern.

Enterprise of many trades

Building of the Great Eastern, bow view of ship and yard.
View full size imageBow view of the Great Eastern at John Scott Russell's yard.

As well as metalworkers, many different types of tradesmen helped build the Great Eastern. Highly skilled craftsmen were required to furnish and decorate the public areas of the ship to the standards of a luxury hotel.

Building of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageThousands of workers helped build the Great Eastern.
Also, the paddle and screw engines, the six boilers, five funnels, six masts, and all the associated machinery, had to be carefully installed by London's community of skilled workers. Eventually, 2000 workers were engaged on the project.

 


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Glossary
Bow
Keel

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StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
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Fact fileThe 'Great Eastern'
A giant steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel
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Fact fileIsambard Kingdom Brunel
One of the greatest engineers in history
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Fact fileJohn Scott Russell
A groundbreaking naval architect
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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