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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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Voyages across the storm-lashed Atlantic

The great Atlantic storm

Grand Saloon of Great Eastern in a storm.
View full size imageThe grand saloon of the Great Eastern during the storm. © NMM
The Great Eastern next left Liverpool under Harrison's command on 10 September 1861 with 400 passengers on board, but still a long way short of being full.

Before long the ship's bad luck struck again. A storm off the south of Ireland damaged both the screw and the rudder. The mountainous seas destroyed the paddle floats, leaving the ship helpless for three days and nights.

No sail could be hoisted in the gale, and in the grand saloon passengers and furniture were thrown about. Her luxurious fixtures and furnishings were damaged or ruined.

The Cable Ship.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern in a heavy sea. © NMM

Somehow, the ship survived the storm and the crew made temporary repairs. These helped the ship to return to Queenstown, Ireland, four days later. Once in port, it was soon clear that Brunel's superb design had saved the Great Eastern from a storm that would have sunk any other vessel.

Captain Harrison's letter

Audio File Captain Harrison's letter.
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Captain Harrison later described the events of the storm in a letter to the Chairman and Board of the Steam Ship Co., London, on 10 October 1861.


Thursday, 12 September 1861

Quotation marks left
View (looking aft) from the port paddle box of the Great Eastern.
View full size imageThe view from the port paddle box of the Great Eastern. © NMM
The gale was increasing with a very heavy sea, causing the ship to roll heavily. I heaved her up to the sea, but in about ten minutes she fell off four or five points and I could not get her to the wind again.

I set the mainsail and topsail to get her before the wind but the crew of the topsail was carried away and the fore mainsail was split by the violence of the gale. From this time the ship became unmanageable, constantly rolling.

I believe the rudder shaft had parted at this moment, though the fracture was not discovered till the next morning owing to the steady resistance offered by fourteen men at the relieving gear. Neither the man at the helm, nor those at the reversing gear heard any noise or felt any jar which could lead to a suspicion that the rudder or shaft had parted.

At about 6:30 P.M. the port paddle wheel broke up and was carried away. About midnight the gale was

Quotation marks right
fearful with a tremendous sea. The ship was labouring and rolling heavily.

Letter from Commander Harrison to Chairman and Board of the Steam Ship Co., London.
View full size imageHarrison's letter to the Chairman and Board of the Steam Ship Co., 10 October 1861. © NMM
Friday, 13 September 1861

Quotation marks left
At 1:00 A.M. the ship was rolling fearfully and rolled a sea on board which washed away two boats and stoved two more on the port quarter, one boat on the starboard quarter and two hatches off the upper deck, letting a large quantity of water down into the aft cargo space where much of the passengers' luggage remained. The water shipped, washing to and fro, dashed the luggage in the cargo space to pieces.

Audio File Captain Harrison's letter.
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At 2:00 A.M. the starboard paddle wheel was carried away from the box and hung from the latter for several hours causing great disturbance and threatening damage to the ship's side as she rolled till it was finally carried clear away at 7:30 A.M.

The weather slightly moderating, I immediately commenced rigging a temporary rudder at about 1:00 P.M. The gale moderating fast, I stopped and reopened the screw engines to get her head around – no doubt at this time the rudder post was carried away which was seen by the ship's carpenter to fall off a few minutes afterwards. The temporary rudder being now ready, I stopped the

Quotation marks right
screw and launched it which assisted considerably in bringing the ship head to the wind.

Desperate measures

Troops for Canada.
View full size imageTroops bound for Canada, c. 1861. © NMM
The repairs to the ship at Milford Haven took eight months. What happened during the storm did little to convince people that such a huge and innovative vessel was safe and reliable.

There were two more undersubscribed return voyages to New York, where the ship was opened to paying visitors in a desperate attempt to earn some money.

The last passengers

The ship was then chartered by the British Government. The War Office used the Great Eastern to carry reinforcements to the military garrison of Canada, where the Fenians had risen in revolt.

Leviathan Great Eastern
View full size imageThe Great Eastern's owners went bankrupt in 1865. © NMM

Despite mutiny, fog, icebergs, and a near collision with Cunard's Arabia, the Great Eastern eventually reached Canada.

Another unsuccessful passenger voyage then followed, during which the Great Eastern struck an uncharted rock that tore a 26 m (85 ft) hole in the hull.

The expensive repairs and the loss of earnings convinced the owners to give up the transatlantic run in 1864 and lay the ship up. The following year, the company was declared bankrupt.

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