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The 'Great Eastern' (1853-1888)

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The largest ship of its kind
Known for

The Great Eastern named: the Leviathan.
View full size imageThe Great Eastern under sail. © NMM
The Great Eastern was a giant steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At the time of her launch in 1858 she was the largest ship in the world.

Although the design of the Great Eastern was groundbreaking, Brunel’s mighty vessel was considered a commercial failure as a passenger liner.

After being laid up in 1864, the Great Eastern was sold for £25,000 (the equivalent of about £1.3 million today), a fraction of its original cost, to a Greenwich-based cable-laying company. This next stage of her career was by far the most successful. From 1865 until 1872 she laid four telegraph cables under the Atlantic, and others to link Bombay and Aden.

By 1872, however, the Great Eastern had been made obsolete by purpose-built cable-laying ships. She ended her career as a floating billboard before being scrapped in 1888.

Port connection
Building the 'Great Leviathan'.
View full size imageBuilding the Great Eastern. © NMM

The contract for building Brunel's Great Eastern went to John Scott Russell's yard at Millwall. It took several attempts over three months to launch the ship (sideways) so it could be towed to Deptford for fitting out.

After failing as a passenger liner, she was sold a Greenwich-based cable laying company: The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (an amalgamation of Glass, Elliot & Co. and the India Rubber, Gutta Percha & Telegraph Cable Co.).

  • 207 metres long (680 feet)
  • 25 metres wide (83 feet)
  • Weighed 22,352 tonnes
  • Carried 4000 passengers in comfort or 10,000 troops squeezed together
  • Had six masts called Monday to Saturday
  • Had two paddle wheels 17 metres in diameter (56 feet)
  • Had two paddle wheels 17 metres (56 feet) across
  • Had five large funnels 31 metres high (100 feet) and almost 2 metres wide (6 feet)
  • Had six boilers which could produce 1600 horsepower = 120 times the power of a small car
  • The propeller was made of cast iron and weighed 36.6 tonnes 
  • Could travel at 14 knots = about 18 miles per hour


Life story
1853 Work begins on the biggest-ever steamship to be built on the River Thames at Millwall.
1857 The ship is named 'Leviathan', then the 'Great Eastern'.
1858 After a long delay, the 'Great Eastern' is launched.
1859 Undergoes sea trials.
1860 The 'Great Eastern' makes her maiden voyage as a passenger liner.
1861 A large Atlantic storm damages the ship.
1864 The vessel is sold to a telegraph cable-laying company in Greenwich.
1865 The 'Great Eastern' is used to lay the first telegraph cable under the Atlantic Ocean from Western Ireland to Newfoundland in Canada.
1866 – 1872 The ship lays three more cables under the Atlantic.
1872 – 1885 The 'Great Eastern' is laid up in Milford Haven in Wales after being made obsolete by purpose purpose-built cable-laying ships.
1885 Lewis’s department store in Liverpool hires the ship as a music hall, fun fair and giant advertising hoarding.
1888 The 'Great Eastern' returns to the Mersey to be broken up by 200 men over the next two years.

Find out more
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a passenger liner
The ship of the future?
StoriesThe 'Great Eastern' as a cable laying ship
Connecting the world
Port profileIsambard Kingdom Brunel
One of the greatest engineers in history
Port profileJohn Scott Russell
A groundbreaking naval architect
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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