What could go wrong? The SS Great Eastern

Having a bad day or happy that it’s all going so well? – So what could go wrong?

It all looked so good for Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the top engineer of his day as he looked on as the launch of his new ship the SS Great Eastern was about to happen.

With a history of success such as the Great Western Railway (where he caused the standardisation of UK time), the Clifton Suspension Bridge design, the building of the SS Great Britain and the Royal Albert Bridge over the mighty Tamar River in Devon what could go wrong?

There might have been clues to what was about to happen; although only 53, Brunel was in physical decline caused by overwork and liver disease. His atmospheric railway from Exeter towards Plymouth had failed and he had the distraction of building the Royal Albert Bridge concurrently with the Great Eastern. He also needed to rest for long periods of time and thus he may have left too much to contractors and hadn’t overseen the Great Eastern’s launch preparations as he might.

Scott Russell & Co. won the contract with a very good tender to build the SS Great Eastern and work began at Burrell’s Wharf at Millwall Dock in spring 1854. Her sheer size meant that she could not be built with her pointed at the Thames because of a lack of space on land (she was that big!) and so it was decided that she would be built and enter the water sideways.

The SS Great Eastern was 211m in length with a gross tonnage of 18,915 and she was capable of carrying 4,000 passengers non-stop to Sydney, Australia. Only in 1901 was she surpassed.

Despite a number of technical issues, cost cutting (she was built in two adjacent shipyards) and the bankruptcy of Scott Russell the SS Great Eastern or ‘Leviathan’ as she was also called by some, the ship was ready to be launched in November 1857.

Although Brunel wanting to keep it low key, the Great Eastern Company directors sold 3,000 tickets, but, and if you are having a bad day or have screwed something up this week, then put yourself in Brunel’s shoes as the launch got under way. There must have been quite an anti-climax when the ship failed to move despite the hydraulic rams pulling her toward the Thames. Three further attempts were made and after more rams were added and with a benefit of a high tide she finally entered the water in late January 1858.

Brunel never really recovered from this and he died a few months after the SS Great Eastern’s maiden voyage in 1859. The ship itself worked for many years but never really made the money it was hoped for and ended up as an advertising hoarding for a department store in Liverpool where she was broken up in 1889.

There are traces of the ship still on the Liverpool shoreline and her launch site can be found on the Isle of Dogs in London. Although a river wall now cuts the site off from the river, the timbers of one of two cradles upon which she was built remain and at low tide there is more evidence on the shoreline.

So are you having as bad a day? When I make a mistake I often put it into perspective by thinking of the SS Great Eastern’s failed launch and the building of the Willy Brandt Airport in Berlin is another that comes to mind. (or Facebook for that matter which was down on August 23)

The pictures show one of the two wooden cradles still in situ at Burrell’s wharf, abandoned launch rams at Old Millwall Dock and Old Millwall Dock (which was too small for the ship) looking out into the Thames.