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Port Cities: London's docks and shipping - The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner
PortCities London

The 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner

Launch and sea trials of the Great Eastern

An unsuccessful launch

Miss Hope naming the Leviathan
View full size imageMiss Hope naming the Leviathan in November 1857. © NMM
In August 1857 the vessel was named Leviathan. But it was another four months before she was renamed Great Eastern and finally entered the water.

A shipbuilders' superstition says that any delay between the naming ceremony and the launching of a ship brings bad luck. This was certainly the case with Brunel's vessel.

By 11 November 1857 the Great Eastern was ready to be launched and 10,000 people arrived to witness the event. The champagne bottle was smashed and then disaster struck. As the ship began to move, an accident on one of the great chain drums killed a workman and injured five others. The ship had only moved 1.5 metres (four feet)!

The 'Great Eastern' takes to the water

A Suggestion! The Leviathan: what to do with her now you've got her off
View full size imageA suggestion! The Leviathan: what to do with her now you've got her off. © NMM

As the months stretched by between the launching ceremony and taking the water, the Great Eastern became an object of fun.

This cartoon suggests turning the hull into a casino, circus and music hall covered with advertisements. The idea was to prove oddly prophetic.

Launching of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageLaunch of the Great Eastern, 30 January 1858. © NMM

Throughout November and December 1857 and into the New Year, the Great Eastern inched down the launching ways towards the river.

She was pushed by a series of huge hydraulic rams (large poles powered by pressurised air). Finally, on the high tide of 30 January 1858 the Great Eastern floated off the cradles.

Bankruptcy and failing health

Great Eastern rounding the point opposite Blackwall
View full size imageThe Great Eastern rounding the point opposite Blackwall. © NMM

However, the strains of the construction and launch proved too much financially for John Scott Russell who was soon bankrupt. At the same time, Brunel's health was failing. The project had swallowed up a lot of his own money.

Great Eastern in a Choppy Sea.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern sets off on her trial trip, September 1859. © NMM

After being fitted out at Deptford, the ship was ready for its trials on 5 September 1859. Brunel made a final inspection visit, but shortly after coming on board he collapsed with a stroke.

However, two days later the Great Eastern set off on her trial trip. She was cheered on her way by enormous crowds as she travelled down river towards the sea.


View full size imageChina celebrating the launch of the Great Eastern. © NMM
The public impact of the launching of the Great Eastern was enormous. The event was widely celebrated in the press and by souvenirs and mementoes. There were even dance tunes written in honour of the ship.

Present from the Great Eastern.
View full size imageA mug commemorating the Great Eastern. © NMM
Brunel's mighty vessel was featured on paintings, jewellery, china, coins and textiles. The souvenir industry celebrated the fact that the world's biggest and most technologically advanced ship had been built in Britain.

Engraved green turban shell.
View full size imageEngraved green turban shell commemorating the Great Eastern. © NMM
Mementoes of the Great Eastern ranged from tourist souvenirs and examples of sailors' crafts to real oddities of Victorian culture, such as this turban shell.





Tragic trials

The explosion on the steam-ship Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe explosion on the Great Eastern, 9 September 1859. © NMM
On 9 September 1859 the Great Eastern was passing Hastings during her sea trials when a heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded.

Six firemen were scalded to death by the hot steam and the grand saloon was devastated. The explosion would have sunk a lesser ship, but the Great Eastern survived.

Brunel's new construction methods - dividing the ship up into compartments with watertight bulkheads - limited the extent of the damage. However, the bad news hastened the death of Brunel, who passed away on 15 September.