PortCities London
UK Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool London Southampton
You are here:  PortCities London home > The working Thames
Text Only About this Site Feedback
Explore this site
About maritime London
Early port
Tudor and Stuart port
18th-century port
19th-century port
20th-century port
People and places
Port communities
Crime and punishment
Leisure, health and housing
Thames art, literature and architecture
The working Thames
London's docks and shipping
Trades, industries and institutions
Port of science and discovery
Historical events
Ceremony and catastrophe
London in war and conflict
Fun and games
Things to do
Timeline games
Matching games
Send an e-card

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
Send this story to a friend Send this story to a friend
Printer-friendly version Printer-friendly version
View this story in pictures View this story in pictures

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. © NMM
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. © NMM
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. © NMM
'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. © NMM

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. © NMM
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. © NMM

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. © NMM
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.

Page 5 of 6. Previous page Next page

Find out more
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship
Connecting the world
StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
Fact fileThe 'Great Eastern'
A giant steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Fact fileIsambard Kingdom Brunel
One of the greatest engineers in history
Fact fileJohn Scott Russell
A groundbreaking naval architect
GalleriesFamous Thames ships
The great and the good
GamesThe Great Eastern Quiz
Get 100% to see an animated London skyline (flash 6 player needed)
GamesShip Trumps
Which ships were the fastest? (Flash 6 player needed for game)
Related Resources
Related Galleries 4 Galleries
Related Images 465 Images
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
Legal & Copyright Partner sites: Bristol Hartlepool Liverpool Southampton About this Site Feedback Text Only