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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Great Eastern
by Bill Glover

Official Number 21891 (1864)

Artist’s impression of how the Great Eastern would look when completed


The Eastern Steam Navigation Company was formed in January 1851 with the intention of exploiting the increase in trade and emigration to Australia after the discovery of gold there. To make this a viable proposition they needed a subsidy in the form of a mail contract from the GPO, for which they tendered. In March 1852, against the advice of a House of Commons Committee set up to look into the awarding of mail contracts, the Government awarded both to P&O, although the ESN tender was lower.

Finding themselves in the position of having a company without a purpose, they were in effect open to offers. Brunel wrote a paper on his idea of building a ship capable of sailing to and from Australia without the need to refuel on route and sent it to ESN. He was invited to present his ideas to the board but was unable to attend so John Scott Russell took his place. A committee was set up to look into the idea and they reported in favour and the scheme was adopted at a board meeting held in July 1852. Brunel was appointed Engineer and tenders were invited for the hull, paddle engines and screw engines.

However, although the board had accepted the scheme in principle, a number of the directors and the chairman resigned. Brunel approached Henry Thomas Hope to become the new chairman and with his help and that of John Yates, the company secretary, they were able to fill the vacancies on the board. Now Brunel, Charles Geach and John Yates set about raising capital by placing 40,000 shares of £20 each with interested investors. The first call on the shares was £3 raising a working capital of £120,000. All this was achieved by December 1853.


The final contract signed by Scott Russell on 22 December 1853 laid down the following terms.

Provided for the construction, trial, launch and delivery of an iron ship of the general dimensions of 680 feet between perpendiculars, 83 feet beam and 58 feet deep according to the drawings annexed, signed by the engineer, I. K. Brunel.

All vertical joints to be butt joints and to be double riveted wherever required by the engineer. Bulkheads to be at 60 feet intervals. No cast iron to be used anywhere except for slide valves and cocks without special permission of the engineer. The water tightness of every part to be tested before launching, the several compartments to be filled one at a time up to the level of the lower deck.

The ship to be built in a dock.

After the launch such trials and trial trips at sea will be made with the engines and probably under sail as in the opinion of the engineer may be necessary to ascertain the efficiency of the work. Any defects then discovered in workmanship or quality of materials to be forthwith remedied by, or at the expense of, the contractor to the satisfaction of the engineer.

All calculations, drawings, models and templates which the contractor may prepare shall from time to time be submitted to the Engineer for his revision and alteration or approval. The Engineer to have entire control over the proceedings and the workmanship.


As the pile driving was being carried out a moulding floor was being constructed and roofed, so that the ship’s lines could be laid out in full scale. New plate bending and punching machines were installed in Russell’s yard. Coffer dams were sunk in the floor for the paddle engine cylinders to be cast. To be able to build the paddle engine a new workshop had to be erected as the engine, when completed, stood 40 feet high.

The ship was to be double hulled with transverse bulkheads spaced at 60 feet intervals. These were built to a height of 5 feet above the deep loadline. Two longitudinal bulkheads spaced 36 feet apart ran the full 350 feet of the two engine rooms. These also reached up to the loadline. Two tunnels were installed at the lowest level, one carried the steam pipes while the other provided a link between the two engine rooms.

The first problem to arise was where the ship was to be built. Russell’s contract stipulated that it was to be built in a dock, Russell quoted a price of £8-10,000 to build the dock and so this part of the scheme was abandoned partly on the grounds of cost and partly on the need to find a suitable site on which to build the dock. Also the idea of a normal launch, ie stern first, was also rejected because of the length of the vessel and to provide the right launch angle the base of the ship, at the bows, would be 40 feet in the air. Eventually it was decided to build the ship parallel to the river and use a mechanical patent slip, designed by Brunel, for the launch. Later this scheme was also dropped on the grounds of cost.

Having decided on a sideways launch, a suitable site had to be found, Russell’s yard being too small. The adjacent yard belonging to David Napier, was empty, available and suitable so it was leased. As the punching machines and plate rollers were installed in Russell’s yard a railway was laid between the two yards for moving materials.

The keel plate was laid in May 1854 and it was expected that construction of the hull and engines would be completed by October 1855. Attached to the keel plate was the centre web which in turn had horizontal plates attached. 1 inch thick plates were used, on both inner and outer hulls, for eighteen feet either side of the centre web, these were flat to enable the ship to be beached on a gridiron. At the time no drydock existed that would be able to accommodate the ship.

The transverse and longitudinal bulkheads built of ½ inch thick plates, were attached to the centre web, and were, like the rest of the ship built up plate by plate. Then the longitudinal bulkheads were built up the same way. The deck was constructed of ½ inch plates in the same way as the hull two layers of plates being used. The deck was then covered with timber to produce a level surface.

Plating the hull, using ¾ inch thick plates throughout, began with the inner hull. The hull plates were built of inner and outer strakes, the second strake would be riveted to the inside of the first and third strake, the fourth to the inside of the third and fifth and so on. Longitudinals which consisted of normal sized plates, ½ inch thick, with 4½ inch angle iron riveted to both of the long sides, were riveted to the inner hull and then as the outer hull was plated the longitudinals would be attached. They were riveted to the centre of the inner and outer hull plates and were attached to every other row, with the exception of the flat plates on the bottom where they were attached to every row. With the angle irons overhanging half an inch the space between the hulls was 2 feet 10 inches. The height between each row of longitudinals was 5 feet 6 inches. All of the inner surfaces of the two hulls were painted to reduce corrosion.

In November 1854 Charles Geach suddenly died. As well as being a Director of the ESN he was also a Director of Beale and Company who were to supply the plates for the ship. He had agreed to take a large part of the payments from Russell in shares of ESN., Russell himself receiving part payment in ESN shares.

The first indication of the problems to come appeared on New Year’s Day 1855 when Russell informed Brunel that he was in financial difficulty and his bankers had refused him further credit. Brunel approached the board and it was agreed that Russell would be paid the amount due to him on his contract in instalments of £8,000 subject to agreement that the necessary work had been completed. This satisfied Martin’s Bank, who were Russell’s main creditors, at least for the time being.

On 12 October 1855 Russell again contacted Brunel to inform him that his bankers required an immediate payment of £12,000 on his £15,000 overdraft. Brunel authorised a payment of £10,000. A week later Russell again got in touch with Brunel to say that his bankers wanted the £15,000 and would not be satisfied with the offer of £10,000. Russell made the point that he was employing a large number of men and he needed the money to pay their wages, or he would have to lay them off. Although true quite a number of these men were employed on other ships being built by Russell and not on the Great Eastern. In all Russell had laid down six ships, some of them in Napier’s yard, one of which was preventing the completion of the stern of the Great Eastern.

1856 Progress of the Great Ship, Building at
Millwall, for the Eastern Steam Navigation Company

At the beginning of February 1856 Brunel advised the Company to take possession of the ship, citing breach of contract, to avoid its sequestration by Russell’s creditors. This produced a reaction from Russell’s bankers who refused to honour his cheques and foreclosed on his assets. On 4 February Russell suspended all payments to his creditors and a week later dismissed all his workmen.

A meeting was held by Russell’s creditors on 12 February at which it was disclosed that Russell had liabilities of £122,940 and assets of £100,353. It was decided that existing contracts would be allowed to run to completion and the business would be liquidated under the supervision of three inspectors appointed by his creditors. To the board of the ESN he issued a statement, in which he repudiated his contract effectively handing the uncompleted ship back to the company. This was from the man who had received a total of £292,295 including extra payments for additional work from ESN and yet when the situation was reviewed it was found that three quarters of the work on the hull had not been completed and there was a deficiency of 1200 tons in the amount of iron supplied and that used on the ship. Out of the original estimate for the construction of the hull only £40,000 had not been paid to Russell.

As all this was happening Brunel wrote to John Yates at Milwall instructing him to negotiate with Russell for the lease of his yard and equipment. Yates wrote back to say that Russell had mortgaged the yard to his banker and that any negotiation would have to be with the bank, who, after weeks of wrangling, agreed to lease the yard and equipment until 12 August 1857.

1857 Working on the “Great Eastern” by Gaslight

The ESN began the task of getting the work completed, those that had worked on the ship stuck out for the best deal they could get and the company had little option but to pay. Replacing the former workers was not a viable option and of course Russell’s assistants held the plans and drawings of the ship. Work on the ship restarted in May and it took far longer to complete than was expected. Towards the end of June 1857 Brunel reported that once the screw, screw shaft and the sternpost had been installed the ship would be ready for launching by the end of July. The only problem was that because of Russell’s opposition to a sideways launch and then the problems of accessing the site, the launch ways and cradles would not be ready in time. The contract for their construction had only been placed, with railway contractor Thomas Treadwell, in January 1857. Brunel then wrote to company secretary Yates to negotiate an extension of the lease on Russell’s yard. After protracted negotiations the mortgagees agreed to an extension from 12 August to 10 October for the sum of £2,500.

On the due date the mortgagees took possession of the yard and refused entry to all the workmen. Under pressure from all sides and against his better judgement Brunel agreed to launch the ship on 3 November.


The plates used were of a standard size 10 feet 0 inches by 2 feet 9 inches, those used on the bottom were 1 inch. thick those on the sides ¾ inch thick and those on the deck and bulkheads were ½ inch. thick. In all 30,000 plates were used and these were supplied by Beale & Company, Parkgate Ironworks, Rotherham, Yorkshire. Each plate was shaped by hand rollers and cut where necessary with steam operated shears, the form or line being taken from wooden models of the hull. Each plate was marked and numbered on the model and this was then painted on the relevant plate by a boy who also marked out the rivet holes, each plate requiring 100 rivets, according to another template. The rivet holes were then punched out with a steam operated punch. The plate would then be manhandled onto a bogie and moved on rails to where it was needed and would be hauled into place by men using a block and tackle.


At the peak of the building around 200 riveting gangs were at work on the ship, working a minimum of 12 hours per day. A riveting gang consisted of two riveters or ‘bashers’ as they were known, a ‘holder on’ and two boys. One boy heated the rivets the other caught the white hot rivet, thrown to him by the first boy, he then placed it in the relevant hole, the holder on then kept the head of the rivet tight up against the inside of the plate while the bashers, striking alternately, hammered the other end into shape. One such gang could fit 400 rivets per day. When the outer hull was being riveted the holder on and the second boy worked between the two hulls in a space just 2 ft.10 inches wide.


The paddle engines were built by John Scott Russell on site. They were oscillating engines with four cylinders each 74 inches in diameter and a 14 foot stroke. The cylinders could be worked in pairs or altogether, a friction clutch being provided to enable the connection or disconnection of either pair.

The crankshaft was manufactured by Messrs Fulton & Neilson, Lancefield Forge, Glasgow, who had to build new furnaces, to produce sufficient steel at one time, to make the casting. The first two attempts failed but success came with the third. It weighed 40 tons and the company charged a fee £100 per ton. In addition the forge also manufactured the following;

Two paddle cranks, two paddle shafts, intermediate crankshaft and the two friction shafts.

Construction of the engines took about twelve months and they were assembled in Russell’s yard and then dismantled and fitted into the ship, partly before launch and the rest including the main crankshaft shaft were installed during fitting out. In October 1854 Russell wrote to Brunel that he was about to cast the last cylinder and asked if Brunel would come to see it done. Of the other three cylinders two had been bored and faced and the third was in the process of being bored. Each cylinder casting used 34 tons of iron.

Promotional book


The paddles were 56 feet in diameter and these could be reefed or shortened to 36 feet to suit the draught of the ship. Each paddle had thirty 13 ft by 3 ft floats fitted. During a later refit the paddles were reduced to a diameter of 50 feet.


The screw engines designed and built by James Watt & Company at their Soho Works in Birmingham were direct slide guide engines working with a single and double connecting rod, each pair working one crank. They consisted of four cylinders horizontally opposed, each 7 feet in diameter with a 4 foot stroke. The first cylinder was cast in August 1854 and Brunel was invited to witness the event.


The screw shaft was 2 feet in diameter and consisted of four coupled shafts each 30 feet long and a tail shaft 40 feet long. The tail shaft was manufactured at the Lancefield Forge, the rest being made in London. The tail shaft was supported by a bearing consisting of four blocks of wrought iron 8 feet by 16 inches which were lined with Babbit. After the maiden voyage it was found that the Babbit had been squeezed out at the bottom of the bearing. The lower sections of the bearing were planed back by 2 inches and a brass lining with dovetail grooves cut into it was fitted. The grooves were lined with lignum vitae.


The propeller was made of cast iron, fitted with four blades, giving it a diameter of 24 feet and 44 feet pitch. Each blade was fixed to the 8 feet diameter boss by 12 bolts each of 2 ½ inches diameter. The total weight being 36 tons.


When built Great Eastern was fitted with manual steering. Two wheels were fitted to the same axle and these moved the tiller by means of chains. Later two more wheels were added and provision made for four more. In bad weather with all wheels manned problems still occurred.

In 1867 during the fitting out for the Paris Exhibition, steam powered steering gear designed by John McFarlane, a steam engineer, who was Engineer Surveyor to the Board of Trade in Belfast, was installed.


Around a thousand wooden piles, each thirty feet long, were driven into the ground at Napier’s yard to form the base on which to build the ship. On top of these timber baulks were laid to form a bed for the keel. The ways themselves each consisted of a 2 feet thick bed of concrete onto which were bolted 1 foot square timber baulks fixed parallel to the ship. The spaces between these timbers was filled with concrete. Further timbers were laid at right angles to the ship and then a final layer again parallel to the ship onto which were laid standard railway lines running at right angles to the ship.

The remains of the ways can still be seen at Millwall; there is a commemorative plaque on the riverside walk.

At one time there was also a large sign along the river bank, but this has long since disappeared. The image below is courtesy of Historic England, where it is dated 1945-1965.


For the launch the ship was supported by two cradles each 120 feet wide, shod with 1 inch iron bars. These cradles were 110 feet apart and the bow and stern overhung them by 180 feet and 150 feet respectively. During the latter part of October between 1,000 and 1,500 men worked day and night to remove everything not required for the launch.

Brunel now realised that he would be unable to test all the various items of equipment before the launch. The lease of the shipyard cost £1,000 a month and everyone was pressing for a launch date. So at the end of October he settled on 3 November 1857 to catch the high tide.

Child’s souvenir alphabet
tin plate for “The Leviathan”

Brunel had hoped to undertake the launch with the minimum of publicity but word had spread and many thousands of spectators had manned every vantage point around the yard. In his preparations for the launch he had requested that the men be told to keep quiet during the launch and any verbal orders be given quietly but firmly. He would give his orders by means of signal flags from the launching platform at the top of the ships side. To his dismay he found out that the directors had sold 3,000 tickets permitting spectators to enter the yard. As he was getting ready some of the directors joined him on the rostrum with a list of names. Brunel’s reply on being asked which he preferred was “Call her Tom Thumb if you like.” At 12.30 pm the daughter of Henry Thomas Hope, Chairman of the ESN, christened the ship Leviathan.

3 November. At the first attempt the forward cradle moves 3-4 feet in two seconds, then stops. The after cradle slides about 6 feet and stops. The latter took up the slack on the checking chain and the windlass spun rapidly throwing the men sitting on it into the air. One of them, died from his injuries a few days after the accident. A second attempt was abandoned when teeth on the forward winch were stripped followed by a pin breaking in one of the rams.

19 November. Another attempt but the abutments for the rams failed.

Attempting to launch the Great Eastern

28 November. The ship begins moving at a rate of about one inch a minute. Following a break for dinner the ship refused to move. It was found that the rails had sunk into the timber and the cradles were lying in small hollows. Two of the four midship barges broke their mooring chains and so the attempt was abandoned. The ship had moved a further14 feet closer to the Thames.

29 November. The broken chains were repaired overnight, but the same problem occurred. The chain attached to the stern dragged a 15 ton block of concrete, used to moor it, across the river bed and under the stern of the ship. Unable to move the ship with existing equipment Brunel begged and borrowed equipment from the surrounding area and with this succeeded in moving the Great Eastern another 8 feet.

30 November. Moved about 8½ feet before a 10 inch jack on the forward cradle failed. Two extra hydraulic jacks were added to each cradle and the moorings for the barges were strengthened. The ship moved a further 14 feet. Around 200 spectators watching events from staging erected outside the yard fell 20 feet when it collapsed, many were hurt, seven seriously, but no one was killed.

3 December. A further 14 feet closer to launch.

4 December. The ship moves another 14 feet before two rams, one 14 inch and one 7 inch, failed and with that all attempts were abandoned for the day.

5 December. Visit from Princess Royal, the Duchess of Atholl, Marquis of Stafford and Sir Joseph Paxton (designer of the Crystal Palace). Another 14 feet. New abutments for the rams had to be built as the existing ones were 60 feet away from the cradles.

7 December. The water supply pipes of two rams failed and nothing was done until the afternoon when the ship was encouraged to slide a further 8 feet. Mooring tackle of the haulage gear gave way.

16 December. Moved a further 3 feet. Much of the equipment, rams, chains etc. failed during the day. Brunel was accompanied by Robert Stephenson, himself in poor health, but there to help his friend in anyway he could.

After this attempt Brunel and Stephenson agreed that more hydraulic rams were needed to finish the job. Brunel dispatched one of his assistants to Richard Tangye’s workshop in Birmingham with an order for more presses. With the equipment supplied by Tangye’s doing the work, the company slogan became, ‘We launched the Great Eastern and the Great Eastern launched us.’

4 January 1858. New abutments had been built, requiring the breaking up of the concrete underlying the ways. New rams were obtained from Tangye’s including the 21 inch one used by Stephenson to raise the Britannia bridge. The haulage gear was more securely fixed to the Deptford side of the river. A barque running upstream collided with one of the barges and sank it.

5 and 6 January. The ship moved 10 feet each day and at the same time was squared up on the ways ready for the next attempt.

10 January. Reached a point where at high tide she was partially afloat.

11 to 14 January. Gradually pushed down the ways until Brunel ceased operations to prevent her floating off on the high tide of the 19th. Water was pumped into the twin hull to prevent the ship launching itself.

20 January. Following the high tide the ship was pushed into position ready for launch which was set for the 30 January.

30 January. The weather was too windy and the launch was postponed until the following day.

31 January. Throughout the night the water ballast was pumped out of the ship and at 1.30 pm the ship was finally afloat. Four steam tugs, Victoria and Pride of all Nations at the bow, with Napoleon and Perseverance at the stern gently moved the Great Eastern to the Deptford side of the river where she would be fitted out. As this was going on a barge fouled the starboard paddle wheel and Captain Harrison ordered it to be sunk.

The “Great Eastern” at her Moorings


The launch had cost £170,000, one third of Brunel’s estimate for the whole ship, and it still had to be fitted out. Getting any more money out of the ESN shareholders proved more difficult than getting the ship into the Thames. The Eastern Steam Navigation Company was close to bankruptcy and to prevent this happening and creditors seizing the ship a new company the ‘Great Ship Company’ was formed with a capital of £340,000. They bought the Great Eastern for £160,000, leaving sufficient funds for the fitting out. Existing ESN shareholders were given the market value of their £20 shares, £2-10s (£2.50), towards payment for shares in the new company and then the Eastern Steam Navigation Company went into liquidation.

Tenders were invited and two were received, one from Wigram and Lucas for £142,000 and the other from John Scott Russell for £125,000. Brunel had been told by his doctor to take a long holiday and he was absent during the time that the fitting out contract was awarded to Russell. Russell’s tender was accepted and in January 1859 the work was started. The terms of the contract being that the work was to be completed in six months to enable the ship’s first voyage to America to take place that summer.

Russell at this point was only responsible for the completion of the paddle and auxiliary engines and supervising the various sub-contractors he had been engaged to carry out the variety of tasks involved.

The following is a contemporary account of the fitting out of the passenger accommodation:

Running crosswise are twelve watertight bulkheads or walls, extending the entire height to the upper deck, with no openings below the lower deck: the ship is thus cut off into ten or more compartments, generally about 60ft long. Five of the compartments near the centre of the ship form five complete hotels for passengers, each comprising upper and lower saloons, bedrooms, bar, offices, etc and each cut off from the others by the iron bulkheads. It is as if five hotels, each measuring about 80 ft x 60 ft and 25 ft high, were let down into an equal number of vast iron boxes. Vertical longitudinal walls separate each compartment into central saloons and side cabins, or bedrooms, and decks separate the height into two such series of rooms.

The Chief Saloon is 62 ft long by 36 ft wide and 12 ft high, adjoining it is the ladies’ cabin, 20 ft long. The arrangements for ventilating and lighting the lower cabins from the skylight above necessitated the railing off of open space on each side of the saloon. Besides this, two of the enormous funnels find their way upwards through this room. These peculiarities all presented considerable difficulties to be overcome in the decoration. The open spaces on each side are treated as arcades, resting on light iron columns; and between these are ornamental balustrades, also of iron, of very delicate design. Both these were cast by the Coalbrookdale Iron Company, and are beautiful specimens of their work. This ironwork is all treated by a peculiar process in imitation of oxydised silver relieved with gilding.

Above, the columns appear to support, by means of brackets, the iron beams of the ship. There is no attempt at concealing these, but they are decorated alternately in blue and red, the under side being gilt. The spaces between these beams are divided into panels which are very lightly decorated in colour and gold.

The walls are hung with a rich pattern in raised gold and white, divided into panels by green stiles and pilasters in imitation of oxydised silver, to correspond with the columns.

The two large funnel-casings which occupy considerable space in the room, are octagon in plan. The four larger sides of these have been covered with mirrors, which continue the perspective of the saloon, and almost do away with the appearance of obstruction which before existed. On the four smaller sides, at the angles, are arabesque panels ornamented with children and emblems of the sea.

Mirrors are also placed on the large airshafts at the sides of the saloon, and on each side of them are other arabesque paintings with children personifying the arts and sciences connected with the building and navigation of the ship.

There are portières of rich crimson silk to all the doorways; and the carpet, of which the pattern is simple, the prevailing colour being maroon, assists in giving effect to the other decorations.

The sofas are covered with Utrecht velvet, and the buffets are of walnut wood richly carved, the tops being of a fine green marble.

A very peculiar feature in this unique saloon is the mode by which it is lighted and ventilated at the sides - by large openings railed off with gilt balustrades, and reaching to the upper deck, where they are met by skylights, which can be left up or down at pleasure. Besides the great additional light which these openings give, they are invaluable as securing at any moment currents of fresh air. Next to this imperial saloon is another and still longer one, which is to be appropriated to the ordinary first-class passengers, the other being exclusively devoted to the extra first and the ladies. Around these two principal saloons the sleeping-berths of the passengers are skilfully arranged, the amount of accommodation being regulated, of course, by the price paid for the passage. But it is hardly fair to call them mere berths, seeing that they are, generally speaking, rather suites of apartments, comprising sleeping, sitting, and dressing rooms, all self-contained, and offering to females as complete seclusion as if they were in their own homes. The smallest of these berths is larger than the best cabins in any other vessel; and they have the peculiar advantage of being at least double the height, and possessing most ample and ready means of ventilation.

Family Saloon Cabin in the “Great Eastern”

The cabins are not all arranged alike, but some are constructed as ‘family cabins’, and some in the usual ‘two-and-two’ fashion; whilst others, by a combination of both the above styles, can be turned into a suite of one large and two small ones, making up eight bedplaces altogether, all opening into each other, and capable of being shut out completely from the passage and the rest of the ship. Each family cabin measures 18 ft by 7 ft 6 in. and is 7 ft 6 in. high, and is furnished with every necessary convenience. The berths are so constructed that by a very simple process they can be made to collapse and fold together against the sides of the cabin, leaving a space of six inches between the two, so as to admit of stowing away the bedclothes; this done, curtains are drawn across, and so kept until night, the consequence being not only that the bed arrangements are entirely concealed all day, and the cabin turned into a snug little drawing-room, but that space is gained equal to about one-third of the whole area. The tables are so arranged as to be capable of extension or diminution in size. The cabins are floored with oilcloth, with Turkey rugs above. Under one of the settees is a bath, which can be easily supplied with hot fresh or salt water, by the aid of what are called the ‘donkey-engines’ or some of the multitudinous shaftings which are to work everything all over the ship.

The lower tier of saloons extend along the centre of the vessel immediately beneath and exactly corresponding to the first-class saloons, and form in truth the ground floor of the magnificent hotel, of which the others are the first, or perhaps it would be still more accurate to say that the lower saloons, with their flanking cabins, are the ground and first floors, the first-class saloons and their cabins thus becoming the second, for the superior height of the lower saloons enables two tiers of cabins to lie one above the other round them, short flights of stairs leading to the upper tier. It will be recollected that, in describing the principal saloon and passenger accommodation, we pointed out than an open space some six or seven feet wide was left on each side of the floors of the upper saloons, and was crossed by bridges leading to the cabins. The object of these spaces we stated to be the admission of light to the lower saloons.... The fittings of the lower saloons are of a far simpler and less magnificent character than those which adorn the upper, yet to our mind the toning down and subduing of light, combined with the great loftiness, produce an almost more pleasing and tranquillising effect. In the lower saloon, surrounded by all the substantials of comfort, and without any pomp and glitter ... one seems to feel even more at home.... The lower saloons, too. are the furthest from deck noises; and we much doubt whether between the tropics they will not prove the cooler, and, even if there were to arise in them a demand for more air, think what a breeze would pour down a windsail from the deck of a vessel tearing across the water at twenty miles an hour! The dimensions of these saloons correspond with those of the upper ones, the space on each side beneath that through which the light is admitted being occupied by a row of cabins with lean-to roofs constructed of hammered glass, which will admit plenty of light without permitting any curious first-class passenger to pry into the secrets of the cabins below by peeping over the balustrade above. The interior arrangements of the cabins are much on the same plan as those already described in those appropriated to the first-class passengers, only of course less luxurious and less smart, and accommodating on the whole more passengers. In fact, many of them, when their living contents are all berthed, for the night, will present very much the appearance of cupboards full of prostrate people laid round on the shelves.

The separate compartments into which the ‘hotels’ for the accommodation of passengers are divided are as distinct from each other as so many different houses; each will have its splendid saloons, its bedrooms, or cabins, its kitchen, and its bar; and the passengers will no more be able to walk from the one to the other than the inhabitants of one house in Westbourne Terrace could communicate through the party walls with their next door neighbours. The only process by which visiting can be carried on will be by means of the upper deck or main thoroughfare of the ship. The saloons, together with the sleeping apartments, extending over 350 ft, are located in the middle instead of extreme aft, according to the usual arrangement. The advantage of this disposition of the hotel department must be evident to all those who have been to sea and know the advantage of a snug berth as near as possible to the centre of the ship, where its transverse and longitudinal axles meet, and where, of course, there is no motion at all. The passengers are placed immediately above the boilers and engines; but the latter are completely shut off from the living freight by a strongly arched roof of iron, above which, and below the lowest iron deck, the coals are stowed, and prevents all sound and vibration from penetrating to the inhabitants in the upper stories.

There are two large holds, to be devoted exclusively to cargo, one at each end of the cabins. They are both 60 ft long, and are the whole depth and breadth of the ship; each is capable of holding about 1,000 tons of cargo. The total quantity of space appropriated to cargo will be regulated entirely by circumstances. It would be quite easy to stow 6,000 tons in the hold and various other unappropriated places. The crew and officers are berthed forward. The captain has a splendid suite of rooms on deck, within easy distance of the paddle boxes.


To enable the vast quantity of coal to be taken on board 20 ports, ten to each side, each measuring 5 feet square were fitted on the lower deck to enable coal wagons to pass inside the hull. In the case of fresh meat etc, live cows, sheep, chickens, geese, ducks etc., were carried on board and the necessary pens and cages were provided on deck at the stern of the ship.


The rigging of the masts of the ship were decided on by Captain Harrison. The six masts were eventually named from bow to stern; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tuesday and Wednesday were square rigged, Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday were fore and aft rigged. Thursday was also equipped to carry square sails. The total area of canvas was 6,500 square yards.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"The Fore Yard of the "Great Eastern" weighing 11 Tons"

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

The masts were constructed of iron with the exception of the stern mast (Saturday), which was of wood, as the compass was to be situated on or near this mast. The iron masts consisted of two plates, each formed into half circles and butt jointed with internal plates. Discs of wrought iron reinforced with angle iron were riveted inside to give additional strength. Sizes of the various masts were as follows. Heights given are from keel to truck. Monday, 2 feet 9 inches diameter, 172 feet high. Tuesday, 3 feet 6 inches diameter, 216 feet high. Wednesday, 3 feet 6 inches diameter, 225 feet high. Thursday 3 feet 6 inches diameter, 216 feet high. Friday, 2 feet 9 inches diameter, 188 feet high. Saturday, 2 feet 9 inches diameter, 164 feet high. From the keel to the upper deck they were encased in a square tube of iron plate. The lower yards of the square rigged masts were also made of iron and were 126 feet long and 2 feet 6 inches diameter at the centre. The stays were of 7 ½ inch wire rope with the exception of the stern mast where they were made of hemp.


By August 1859 the fitting out had been completed and 30 August was given as the date of the first voyage but this was put back to 6 September. The destination was Weymouth, for which the fares were either £6 or £10 depending on the choice of cabin. From Weymouth a trial trip into the Atlantic would be made. After this the ship would make for Holyhead which was be its port for voyages to America. The company had an agreement with the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada to use Portland, Maine as its port of call in America. In preparation for this the railway had a special jetty built to accommodate the ship.

Great Eastern opposite Blackwall

The original schedule was as follows Great Eastern would leave her berth on Tuesday 6 September for the Nore where she would adjust her compasses. Then on to Portland Harbour where she would be open to visitors from 9 to 15 September. This would be followed by a trial trip of up to three days and then the ship would head for Holyhead. The ship would again be open to visitors from 19 to 26 September. Passengers for the trip to Holyhead would board on the 16th. Passengers, letters and parcels for America would be taken on board on Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 and the ship would leave on 30 September. The return journey from Portland, Maine would commence on 1 November. Following the explosion off Hastings the departure date for the trip to America was put back to 20 October. This was probably based on Russell’s estimate of needing three weeks to complete repairs.

Between 150 and 200 passengers boarded the vessel on 5 September. A further delay put back the departure back a day. At 7.30 am, on 7 September 1859, the Blue Peter was hoisted and with four steam tugs in attendance, Victoria and Napoleon at the bow with Punch and Victor at the stern the Great Eastern began moving down the Thames. The leading tugs were themselves attached to other tugs there to provide assistance in an emergency. The river was so crowded at the entrance to the West India Docks that the ship was forced to stop for a time. Because of this delay and other hold ups it was decided to moor at Purfleet for the night. The following day accompanied by hundreds of small craft and watched by spectators along the banks the ship moved out of the Thames and headed for Weymouth.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"General View from the Starboard Quarter"

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

All went well until the ship was off Hastings when there was a violent explosion which blew off the forward funnel and completely wrecked the Grand Saloon. The funnels were fitted with feed water jackets through which water passed on its way on its way to the boilers. This jacket served two purposes, it preheated the boiler water and it helped to reduce the heat in the saloons through which the funnels passed. The two forward funnels had been fitted with stop cocks, on the instructions of Brunel, and though both were open when the ship sailed both were closed when the accident occurred. One of the engineers on board having realised what had happened checked the other stop cock and finding it closed, opened it thus preventing a second explosion. The build up to the explosion began when officer of the watch Mcfarlane on duty in the paddle engine room who was having problems with the donkey engines which pumped water to the boilers, to overcome this he decided to bypass the feed water heaters. These heaters, full of water, were now sealed at both ends and heated by the funnels were an accident waiting to happen.

Repairs being carried out at Weymouth
following the explosion

Fortunately at the time of the explosion the Grand Saloon was virtually empty, the only one found there by Captain Harrison and the search party, was his own daughter who had been shielded from the blast by a bulkhead. A few minutes earlier it had been full of people. As he continued the search he came across a gaping hole in the floor and below were the open furnace doors. Those in the boiler room were not so fortunate. One stoker badly scalded jumped overboard and became entangled in the paddle wheels and was killed. Thirteen men were injured by boiling water and steam, which blew back into the engine room as a result of the explosion. Having established the ship was not in danger of sinking, Captain Harrison decided to complete the journey to Weymouth. Shortly after the explosion a collision was narrowly avoided by the prompt action of the Captain when a vessel sailed close across the bows of the Great Eastern.

Its arrival with flags at half mast put paid to the ceremonies that had been planned to greet the ship. Two of the men, John Boyd and Michael Mahon, died on board, with three others being taken to Weymouth hospital where they died the following day. The inquest, held at Weymouth, was opened on Monday 13 September, by Mr. H. Locke, the Coroner for the district of Weymouth. After some evidence had been presented the fifteen members of the jury and the Coroner made their way to the Great Eastern. Following an inspection of the damage the inquest was adjourned until the Saturday, eventually a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was recorded. The five members of the crew who died in the explosion were buried in Weymouth churchyard.

Part of the funnel itself was salvaged by the Weymouth Water Company, who at the time were building a new reservoir at Sutton Poyntz, near Weymouth. It was used as a water filter and was submerged for 143 years until recovered when Wessex Water carried out a major overhaul of the reservoir. The section 7 feet in diameter by 5 feet high was moved to the Great Britain Museum at Bristol on 14 December 2004.

Russell quoted a price of £5,000 and a time of three weeks to carry out the repairs both wildly optimistic. To help offset the cost the cash strapped company decided to allow the paying public aboard. Repairs complete the ship finally set off for its trial run and then to Holyhead. There were no passengers on board during the trial, those that had paid for the journey had a refund. Part of the reason for the choice of Holyhead as the ships port was that some of the directors were also large shareholders in the London and North Western Railway and plans were being made to offer discounted fares for Great Eastern passengers and to run cheap excursions from the Midlands to see the great ship.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"Group of Pilots on her passage to Portland"

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

Great Eastern weighed anchor at 3.30 pm on Saturday 15 October. Leaving Portland Harbour the ship headed for Portland Bill, which was reached at 4.30 pm. Bearings were taken on the lighthouse and the ship then headed for the Start Point lighthouse. The Start light was reached at 9.30 pm, the distance being 49 nm the average speed for this part of the trial was 12¼ knots or 14 mph. The ship then headed for Eddystone lighthouse, 25 nm away and arrived at 11.20 pm giving an average speed of just over 13½ knots. The next marker on the trip was the lighthouse at The Lizard, 38 nm distant which was passed at 3.20 am on the Sunday. During the journey to The Lizard a lookout saw a brig, without lights, on a heading to pass across the bows of the Great Eastern, the screw went full astern, the paddles were stopped and a collision was avoided. The two vessels were so close that there is no doubt that the Captain of the brig heard the forthright opinions of Captain Harrison regarding his actions.

Great Eastern stereoview:
Captain William Harrison

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

Great Eastern stereoview:
"Captain Harrison’s Daughter with her Dog "

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

Keeping well clear of the Scillies, the ship headed into the Irish Sea. At 10.00 am on the Sunday morning Captain Harrison ordered the sails to be set and at one point the ships speed reached 15 knots or 18 mph, with an average speed of just under 14½ knots. Due to poor visibility the Great Eastern sailed 20 miles past Holyhead and during the return the Captain stopped the screw and used just the paddles, though John Scott Russell was against this, a speed of 7½ knots was achieved. Then the screw was used on its own and a speed of 11 knots was recorded. The trial over the ship dropped anchor within the breakwater at 3.30 pm on the Monday afternoon. The ship was opened to visitors while preparations were made for its maiden voyage to America.

Captain William Harrison

On the night of 24 - 25 October a severe storm developed in the Irish Sea and at Holyhead it caused considerable damage to the breakwater. A number of vessels were sunk including the Royal Charter arriving from Australia and within sight of safety; 446 of those on board lost their lives. Captain Harrison decided to get up steam and using the paddles and screw succeeded in keeping the ship out of trouble. After this it was decided to move the ship to Southampton for the winter and from where any voyages to America would start.

The ship set out from Holyhead on Wednesday 2 November for Southampton. On trying to raise the anchors the donkey engine proved faulty and the anchor had to be hauled aboard by men on the capstan. One was hauled up but the second was so well fixed in the mud that it snapped leaving the bulk of the anchor behind. The ship set off using just the screw for the first hour as there were problems getting the paddle engines to work. The speed of both sets of engines was slowly increased throughout Wednesday night into Thursday morning. The run from the Longships lighthouse to the Lizard, a distance of 27 nm, was covered in two hours. From the Lizard to the Eddystone lighthouse an average speed of 14 knots was reached. From Eddystone to the Start lighthouse a speed of 15½ knots was achieved. St Catherine’s lighthouse was passed at 11 o’clock on Thursday evening and the ship sailed well clear of the coast until 8.00 am on Friday morning. Great Eastern made her way round the Isle of Wight and into the Solent where the pilot, Mr. James Bowyer, took over bringing the ship to her moorings off Netley. The local dignitaries were entertained on board and subsequently the ship was open to paying visitors. The South Western Railway providing cheap excursions to Southampton for those wishing to visit the ship.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"The Great Eastern in Southampton Water"

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

Over the next few months the board of the Great Ship Company went through a bad time with accusations and counter accusations flying around in all directions. It finished when a new board was appointed and authority was given to increase the nominal capital of the company by £100,000. This enabled the work required by the Board of Trade and other defects to be put right. The work, costing £20,000, was carried out by Messrs Langley, Penn & Field.

Another blow to the company came on 21 January 1860 when Captain Harrison, Dr. Watson the ship’s doctor, Captain Lay, superintendent purser and his nine year old son, Mr. Ogden ship’s coxswain and five of the crew set out from Hythe in one of the ship’s boats heading for the docks at Southampton. When the order to drop sail was given it stuck and a sudden gust of wind caught it and overturned the boat. Lay’s son, the coxswain and Captain Harrison were drowned. He was succeeded by Captain John Vine Hall.

During 9-10 June Great Eastern made a trial trip from Southampton, leaving at 2.00 pm on the Saturday. Sailing down Spithead and round the south coast of the Isle of Wight the ship headed for the Start Light, which was reached at 1.00 am Sunday morning. At this point the ship turned round and headed back along the same route. The engineers had problems with the paddle engine boilers which kept priming and it was found that the wooden casings fitted round the forward funnels to help get rid of the hot air didn’t work. They were eventually replaced with iron lattice work.


Those travelling included; three directors of the Great Ship Company; Daniel Gooch accompanied by his wife and son, Captain Carnegie RN and Mr. W. Barber.

Passengers included: Major Balfour, Mr Beresford, G. D. Brooks, H. Cantan, Mr Cave, Zerah Colburn, Captain Drummond, Mr Field, T. Harnley, Lt Col Harrison, G. Hawkins, Miss Mary Ann Herbert, A.L. Holley (New York Times), Mr Hubbard, D. Kennedy, R. Marson, H. Marin, Captain Morris RN, Captain McKennan RN, Mr McKenzie, Mr Merrifield, Mr Murphy (New York pilot), J. S. Oakford (London Agent, Vanderbilt Line), G.S. Roebuck, Norman S. Russell, Mr Skinner, Rev Mr Southey, Mr and Mrs Stainthorp, W.T. Stimpson, G.E.M. Taylor, Mr Taylor, General Watkins, H. M. Wells, George Wilkes A. Woods (The Times), A and M. Zuravellov.

Preparations were made for the ship to sail on 16 June 1860 and passengers boarded on the 14th. After visitors had been sent ashore the Captain announced he would not be sailing until the 17th as the crew were drunk. Gooch was not best pleased. The route taken by the ship was the more southerly of the regular steamer routes and this also annoyed Gooch as he had wanted the ship to complete the journey in nine days, it actually took 10 days 19 hours.

George Wilkes, editor of Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, gives his impression of the trip:

Monday, June 18. I was awoke this morning by the sun shining brightly through my port-hole (I should rather use the plural, for my sumptuous apartment was lit by two), and I rose to enjoy the luxury of dressing in a carpeted space as large almost as a room in the St Nicholas. Before I got up, however I lay for a few minutes to observe the silence and quiet of the vessel. In fact, there seemed to be no motion to her at all, and had it not been for the barely perceptible buzz of her bow - to which I was very near - as it split the water and passed it humming along the vessel’s beautiful wave-line, I should not have been able to decide with certainty whether she was going on or standing still. Vibration there was none, and as for the usual clatter of machinery, which is the distinguishing feature of a steamship, it could not be heard at all. Moreover, there was not any of the squeaking and squealing of timbers and tortured wood work, which makes up a hideous serenade on all other vessels, for our party-walls, our state-room floors and ceilings, are of iron, and so ribbed and morticed, and joined stiffly with the hull, that the ship, while passing through still water, seems to be one solid tube or beam. Indeed, I could not make it certain to my senses that she had not stopped, until, looking out of my port-hole, I saw the ocean passing by, and our vast mass moving gradually through it like a floating castle. When 1 went on deck 1 found the air cool and bracing, but all there was of wind was caused by our own motion. At eight o’clock her paddle-engines gave ten revolutions, and those for the propeller twenty nine, while the log, which was heaved a few minutes afterwards, credited her with a rate of ten knots. After timing the stroke of the engines I took a look at the rapidly-revolving paddles, and found that their original diameter of fifty-six feet, which had proved to be too large, had been reduced to fifty feet by reefing or drawing in the floats, or paddles, three feet on each arm. A large projection of useless iron consequently extends beyond the actual wheels to make an unnecessary resistance to the water, and I am told that the wheel would do better still if the floats were reefed in yet farther.

View of the “Great Eastern” from one
of the Paddle Boxes Looking Astern

I now took my first promenade around the deck, and though well instructed in its vast proportions, 1 could not help wondering, as I went on, to see the space unroll before me as it did. Standing at the stern and looking forward, the vessel seems almost to terminate amid-ships, but when you reach that point there appears to open up another ship before you. This illusion proceeds from the fact that two large life-boats, which had hung outside towards the bow, had been brought in at the request of the Board of Trade, and set on blocks in the centre of the ship to divide the view. These, however, will be removed as soon as the vessel gets into port, and then there will be restored a clean, unobstructed double avenue, through which our friend Hiram Woodruff might drive a double team, and go only four times round to make a mile. The deck is flush from stem to stern, and its only obstructions are the six masts, the five smoke-funnels in between, the raised skylights for cabin ventilation, and seven low structures, all of which run in a line with the masts and smoke-stacks. The two outermost of these-stem and stern-are sheds for the donkey or auxiliary engines; two are erections for the main cabin entrances; one spacious one in the centre of the quarterdeck is allotted to the captain; another of like character is the double residence of the first and second officers, and another still, of tolerable size, is given to the passengers as a smoking-room. These are the only obstructions which are found on deck, while around them runs a clean twelve-foot promenade, one side of which has been named Broadway and the other Fifth Avenue. The floor of the deck, like the hull of the ship, is of iron, and built like the sides, on the tubular principle, with twenty-one inches of space between its walls, and interlaced and strapped, crossed and recrossed, with welded bars, so as to give it not only the buoyancy of a life preserver, but almost incalculable strength. The facing of this floor is pine. Two men are usually placed at each of the wheels, so that eight are enabled to steer her; and four auxiliary wheels can be added, by which a force of thirty two men can be brought to bear. Only four, however, are now guiding her through the calm, mild weather of the morning. The course is given by the first officer, the man next the compass guides the motions of the rest; and if the direction of the ship requires a sudden change, an auxiliary compass, or indicator, which receives its impulse from the central bridge, directs them immediately what to do. But for this device it would be difficult to guide the ship without great loss of time; but now orders are communicated from end to end with the speed of light, and the leviathan answers to her rudder and points its nose as readily as if drawn with a hook, or ‘led’ by its tongue with a cord.

At noon, as the bugle summoned us to lunch, I timed the paddle-piston at ten revolutions and the propeller at thirty and a half, and the log at the same time reported twelve and a half knots. The run of the ship for the last twenty six hours was reported as three hundred miles. Latitude 49° 27', longitude 8° 45'. When we came up from lunch we found that a light breeze had set in upon our larboard quarter, and our jib and forward trysails were spread to take advantage of it. The wind freshened as the afternoon grew on, and at three o’clock the billows began to crispen at their tops and indicate a rising sea. At four o’clock a drizzling rain set in, and the still strengthening wind gave promise of a stormy night. Some of us had been apprehensive, from the mild manner in which we had set out, that the voyage might run through the entire length of its term in the same dull way, and thus, while it deprived us of the least possibility of becoming heroes, land us at New York without any further knowledge of the ship and her sea-going qualities than we could have learned by studying her while anchored in the Thames. The fear of such disappointment, however, was dispelled by the time we had wiped our beards from dinner, for on ascending to the deck at six o’clock and taking our position on the elevated grating in her bow, we saw the leviathan, before so dead, so apparently inert, and which had been passing through the waters like some spectral island, quicken with life and bend with a slow grandeur to the motion of the sea. ‘Thank God, she rolls!’ exclaimed an experienced officer on her first trial trip, when she was caught in a series of heavy billows off Portland Race, and it was with something like the same ebullition of delight that we saw the mighty ship cast her silent disposition off and make her obeisance to the still mightier deep. Her motion was a gentle and majestic swing from side to side, the extent of three or four degrees, and now and then when a billow fell away from her bow and a swell at the same time would roll underneath her stern she would mildly yield her head, not short and sudden, with a plebeian start, but with a monarch’s measured grace, as if she felt herself to be the master, and only yielding to the courteous laws of life. It was a great treat to see her thus leaning her way from side to side through the parting waters, while good-sized ships, which were then in sight, were rolling uneasily or pitching from stem to stern. It was like some accomplished swimmer, who sweeps forward gracefully hand over hand, compared to a clumsy novice who barely manages to keep himself afloat through the rapidity of a short digging motion. The ‘Great Eastern’ was alive; but mighty as she was, still she was amenable to that vast throb and pulsation of the sea which is mightier than the mightiest. Nevertheless she proved, by the comparison before us, her superiority to all ordinary ships, as well as to any disturbing motion. In fact, her soft undulations gave actual relief and pleasure to every one who stood upon her deck. And all the while this motion was upon her the skittles were played at one of the after-holds. Nevertheless, let it be noted here that the theory that ships above a certain size will march through the wave superior to the perturbation of the sea is ended by our experiment forever. No ship can be made large enough to entirely ignore the gigantic pulsation of the ocean. The foresail and foretopsail were drawing well at dark, and the wind, which now struck us almost astern, was whistling through our cordage with great noise.

Sheet music:
The Great Eastern Polka
by Charles Coote Jr.

A gale. Tuesday, January 19, I was awakened a little after midnight by the howling of the wind, the shouts of the men taking in sail, and a great tramping overhead. The vessel was rolling more than she had at any time before,-say about eight or nine degrees,-and I could now feel a little vibration of her bow, imparted by the screw as it smote and scudded into the water whenever the motion of the vessel lifted its blades above the surface. I went to my window, but the night was too thick for anything but darkness to be seen, and all I could distinctly hear was the measured wail of one hundred and twenty men (for both watches had been called up) in chorus, to ‘haul the bowline, haul,’ while engaged in trying to take in the mainsail and maintopsail. The wind seemed to soften a little at two o’clock, but perhaps that was the notion of my drowsiness, for I fell asleep at that hour, while the men were still as busily engaged at the mainsail as ever. I afterwards learned that it had employed them five hours to furl it in the furious tempest that prevailed. The cause of this difficulty was partly owing to the violence of the gale acting upon the immense area of the sail, and partly to the unhandy size of the tackle by which it must necessarily be worked. Everything is exaggerated in the way of size on board the ‘Great Eastern,’ and to be handled aloft as other ships she requires an extra breed of men. The gale subsided a little in its fury at four o’clock, but when I arose, at seven, I still found it blowing very hard, and the sea covered with a thread-like foam, which filled the hollows as well as whitened on the billow tops. Still the ship rolled only eight degrees, and her stately nod did not disturb a plate upon the table. The storm-rack was laid at breakfast to protect the dishes, but it was not needed, for my full tea-cup sat outside of it without being in the slightest peril of a slip. Nevertheless, a three-thousand-ton vessel would have been pitching sadly. The motion did not succeed in making a single person sea-sick, though there were among her passengers several who had never been to sea before.

The wind moderated still more during the afternoon, and we set all our topsails, but the ship kept up her motion, and went frolicking along her path as full of life as a clipper-brig or a pilot-boat. Nothing could be more beautiful than to stand upon an elevated grating in her bow and see her stern lift itself majestically against the sky as we dropped into some yielding wave before us, or to behold her rising sideways to her equilibrium, like some frolicking beauty lifting her shoulder in her downy bed.... The most striking idea of her size, however, and the greatest demand upon your wonder that she swims so lightly, is obtained by going down by her sponsons, outside and aft the paddle-boxes, which enables you to see her entire towering section abaft the wheel. From that point you face up and down her massive sides and see the black warehouse, for it looks not like a ship, grandly rise and fall in the hissing and downy foam which the wheels send flying by her run. This flying foam unites beneath her stern, and is there strewn into lace-work by the propeller, and goes seething on its broad path for miles. I think the scene from this lower platform of the gangway gives the finest idea, while in motion, of the vast power and grandeur of the ship. The deck and rigging, on the other hand, being seen altogether, lose in a little while their command upon the wonder, for their great symmetry so wins upon the eye that they mingle together in apparently usual degrees. It is only when in comparison with some other object that the ‘Great Eastern’ sensibly exhibits her huge proportions to an accustomed eye, and then everything else is dwarfed by her neighbourhood.

Wednesday, June 27. Fine weather, with a breeze which kept four of our trysails set, continued during the afternoon, but at six o’clock a very heavy fog set in, which condensed itself upon the rigging in huge drops that fell upon the deck like rain. So dense did this all-pervading mist become that the lookouts could scarcely see ten feet from the ship, and our lights could not have been distinguished at the distance of a hundred yards ahead; so out of mercy to the unwary who might possibly be in our path, at near reach to shore, we slackened our speed down from fifteen to seven and a half knots, and ran at this rate, with frequent warnings from our whistle, all night. Under this state of affairs it was thought prudent, moreover, that we should make soundings to ascertain with certainty exactly where we were, but the effort failed at every attempt, in consequence of the great height we were above the water, requiring more line than we could pay out while the vessel was in motion. We slowed her down to six knots, then to four and then to two, but still it would not answer, and the order went from the captain that the ship must be absolutely stopped.

It had been the particular pride of Mr McLennan, the chief engineer, who is a perfect enthusiast in his duty, that the ship’s engines, which had been so much abused and misrepresented for the last year, should perform what scarcely, if ever, had been done before: and that was to make a first Atlantic voyage without a single moment’s pause from port to port. When, therefore, he heard the order to stop the ship he received it like a man who was smitten with a sentence, and asked with the greatest earnestness if we could not get along without. The answer was against him, and the lungs of the monster were folded from their respirations, and after ten minutes’ run with silent wheels and blades, and final reversal of her wheels, she sat still upon the waters. This event took place at 11.40, but a cast of one hundred and fifteen fathoms of line gave us no bottom, and we went on again, at twelve o’clock, still, however, continuing only at half speed. At ten minutes to five this morning we made another pause to heave the lead again, and this time with a cast of sixty-five fathoms we found bottom on George’s Bank, and at ten minutes past five went on again. The fog having lifted, we now resumed our speed and proceeded at our usual rate of thirteen and fourteen knots. During these two pauses the engineer rapidly examined such of the screws and nuts as were not accessible during the action of the engines, but did not discover one that was out of place or that required tightening, -a great proof of the excellence and condition of her machinery.

Thus ended the first transatlantic voyage of the ‘Great Eastern’, and though it may be regarded as a failure in the way of speed, it will be perceived there were interests at stake which transcended that consideration, and which doubtless justified the commander in the unusual care he took to keep the great ship safe.

Captain Vine Hall is one of the most experienced navigators of the English East India trade, but in addition to the caution which he naturally felt incumbent on him from the fact that he had never crossed the Atlantic before, he was doubtless deeply impressed with the paramount importance, not only to his employers and the cause of science, but to England and the whole world, of giving a substantial proof that ships of the size of the ‘Great Eastern’ could safely cross the deep. It was therefore properly a matter of secondary consequence to him whether the enthusiasm of his passengers or the ardor of his engineers or officers should chafe at his divergences or extra care; he accomplished the great point that was required, and we who left England with him but ten days before are here to approve his action. When he returns to England in September he will give the leviathan its head, and she will then prove for herself that speed is one of her attributes as well as safety. In fact, she has proven it already by the manner in which she has accomplished this voyage, and there is not a passenger who crossed in her but views her as beyond all comparison the most superior passenger-ship that ever floated. The extra distance which she ran on this trip is certainly equal to more than a day’s travel, and when we add to this that twenty-four hours’ margin is always allowed to a new ship’s first voyage, and take into consideration also that not an officer on board ever made a voyage in her, that the men were all raw recruits, fresh levied within three days of starting, and that even the stokers did not know how to spread coal to advantage on the fires, we cannot help regarding even the time she made as a great triumph. As to her comfort and convenience as a passenger-ship, it is hardly possible to say too much in praise of her. She meets all the requirements of the most luxurious hotel, and when the weather drives her inhabitants below they can promenade through her cabins upon long walks, or lounge about superb divans, listening to music that would not discredit the most pretentious concert. By her continued steadiness sea-sickness is entirely ignored, and in the way of strength no iron structure that ever has been made can at all compare with her.

This was impressed upon us by every sway of the sea, and the idea which she continually enforces on the mind, above all others, is her absolute safety from all ordinary dangers of the ocean. Against the risks resulting from contact with a solid body she is beyond all calculation stronger than anything which has been seen afloat. The manner in which her vast weight stood poised upon two single rests in the builder’s yard for weeks before her launch, and the thundering against her sides of the huge battering-rams that smote her inch by inch towards the water, give evidence of what she can endure. No shoal or beach could break her before all her passengers could escape, for ‘her scales are her pride, shut up together as with a close seal. They are joined one to another, they stick together that they cannot be sundered.’

Above all other ships she should be chosen by the timid, and it really is a puzzle to me how so many intelligent men who had read the history of her construction, and who were about crossing to New York at the date of her departure, could be induced to choose any other vessel. She is certainly exempt from all the ordinary dangers of the sea, and any one will go into her bow and look at the fourteen feet of matted iron in that welded beak, will credit her with sufficient power and impulse to split and push aside any ordinary iceberg.


The first announcement of the ship’s arrival was the publication of a message received via the Sandy Hook telegraph station that ‘A large steamship has stopped outside the bar and from present appearances I am most sure it is the Great Eastern as she shows a great many lights.’

At high tide under the guidance of senior pilot Mr Murphy the Great Eastern slowly made her way to her berth at Hammond Street, passing on the way, the USS Niagara, dressed overall, once the largest vessel in the world. Also there was the Cunard liner Asia firing its guns in salute. Every craft available was providing escort and every vantage point was crowded with people.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"The Great Eastern. From foot of Hammond Street."

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

3 July saw the ship open to the public at $1 a head but only 1,500 of the vast crowds paid to go aboard on the first day. After a week the price dropped to 50 cents and by 30 July over 140,000 had visited the ship.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"Steamship Great Eastern.
Lying at the Dock foot of Hammond-Street, New York."

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

The agents for the company advertised a two day excursion to Cape May at $10 a head, 2,000 bought tickets. It was stated food and refreshments would be available on board at reasonable prices and mattresses would be available for the men with the cabins being reserved for the ladies and children. The ship set sail at 3.00pm on 31 July so as to arrive at Cape May early the next morning to allow those who wanted to go ashore the time to do so.

As the escorting vessels were left behind those on board attempted to avail themselves of refreshments. Unfortunately the catering staff were overwhelmed, insufficient stores had been taken on board and the whole affair turned into a shambles. The following morning those who had slept on deck found themselves covered in a layer of soot and ash mixed with rain or morning dew. When they attempted to clean up they found that there was a shortage of fresh water. The ship arrived off Cape May at 7.00 am had to stand six miles offshore because of the shallows, the tender chartered to take them ashore arrived two hours late. When the time came for those on shore to return to the ship the tender failed to turn up and Cyrus W. Field chartered a steamer to return him and his family and the other passengers back to the ship. A number of newspaper reporters had left, returning to New York by train; they were replaced by a number of people travelling back to New York.

A second excursion to Hampton Roads, fare $6, and Annapolis, fare $8, started the next day, this time with just 105 passengers, reports in the newspapers of the Cape May trip putting most people off. Around 4,000 people paid their 50 cents to go aboard. Around 5.00 am the next morning, Sunday 4 August, the ship anchored in Chesapeake Bay about seven miles off Annapolis. The attraction here was the offer of 5,000 tons of free coal from the Bay Line Company, certain southern ports wanted to establish a regular steamer link with England.

As the ship was being coaled visitors were transported to the ship by Bay Line steamers, including President Buchanan who paid a two hour visit on the 9th. The ship then returned to New York with thirty four passengers who had paid $20 for the trip, this time including refreshments and a number of stowaways who had paid 50 cents for their journey. On arriving in New York on the 12th the ship was served with a writ for infringing an American patent of using paddles and screw in combination to propel a ship. The writ was declared invalid and the ship set sail on the 16th for Halifax with a total of 102 passengers on board, 46 of them bound for Halifax.

The ship covered the journey from New York to Halifax in forty six hours beating the previous record by 5½ hours. On arrival at Halifax, a demand for light dues of £350 soured the visit and Great Eastern left at 8.00 am the following morning, Sunday 19, with seventy two passengers on board. Her average speed on the return journey had been between 13 and 14 knots, below what was expected and it was thought that her bottom needed cleaning, but when placed on the gridiron at Milford Haven, it was found that the hull was quite clean. Once the ship was safely beached Captain Hall, the manager, the chief engineer and all but twelve of the crew were discharged.

The official report of the first Trans Atlantic voyage was as follows:

    Latitude Longitude Run since yesterday
June 18 49° 27' 08° 45' 285
  19 48° 41' 16° 12' 296
  20 47° 40' 27° 54' 276
  21 46° 16' 30° 03' 304
  22 44° 50' 36° 22' 280
  23 42° 50' 42° 40' 302
  24 41° 01' 48° 52' 299
  25 40° 58' 56° 10' 325
  26 40° 58' 63° 41' 333
  27 40° 13' 68° 56' 254
  28 40° 28' 74° 00' 234
      Total 3,188 miles

2,877 tons of coal consumed.


On its return to England, to the delight of the directors, the ship was chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Canada. The 4/60th Rifles, consisting of 2,144 officers and men, 473 women and children and 200 horses embarked at Liverpool. Modifications to the ship had been carried out by the Birkenhead Iron Works. In addition forty paying passengers were on board.

With Captain James Kennedy in charge, the ship set out from Liverpool on 25 June 1861. Kennedy’s strategy was simple, he pointed the ship at Quebec and went at full speed throughout most of the trip. One hundred of the crew had been crimped or press ganged aboard and on the first morning at sea, some of them refused to carry out their orders. Captain Kennedy picked out the ringleaders and with the help of the troops on board forced them, at bayonet point, into the rigging, where they were left all day, choking on the smoke from the five funnels. He had no further trouble. The ship ran into fog on 2 July but speed was not reduced, 320 miles being covered, in fog, in twenty four hours. A near miss, with the Cunard liner Arabia off Cape Race, brought him to his senses. The ship docked in Quebec, 8 days and 6 hours after leaving Liverpool. Great Eastern stayed for a month returning at the beginning of July with 357 paying passengers, to the news that the troop charter was a one off. On return to Liverpool, Captain Kennedy left the Great Eastern to take up another position.


While beached the chance to rectify some defects was taken. A number of complaints had been made about the poor surface of the deck and it was decided to coat it in pitch and then resurface it with 2 inch pine planks. The stern bearing supporting the propellor shaft metal lining had been forced out and it was decided to shrink a brass lining on the shaft and line the bearing with lignum vitae.

Though the ship had cleared about £14,000 on its first trans Atlantic voyage the company finances were still in a parlous state. The shares continued to drop in price not helped by the threat of a £60,000 lawsuit from the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada for not making Portland, Maine its port of call as originally agreed. Another problem was that of the award of £18,000 made to John Scott Russell by arbitrators for work carried out after the explosion. The company successfully appealed but the judge would not set aside the amount. Russell applied to the courts and the Chief Justice found in favour of Russell. The company again appealed and with rumours about that the ship was about to leave the country, Russell’s solicitors took possession under a Sheriff’s warrant. The company lost its appeal and had to pay up.

Great Eastern spent considerable time on the gridiron at Neyland, Milford Haven in the period 1860-1862. Simon Hancock’s article for the Pembrokeshire Historical Society tells the detailed story of this period.


For the second trip to New York, Captain Carnegie RN, a director of the Great Ship Company, was to be in charge. His problems began almost immediately. John Scott Russell had been awarded £18,000 by arbitrators against the Great Ship Company. To cover this and the expense of a second voyage to the USA, £35,000 was raised by means of debentures.

To help its finances the company sacked six of the ten senior officers and one third of the crew. Captain Carnegie resigned, refusing to sail without a full crew. Captain William B. Thompson replaced him. 100 passengers booked for the second voyage, scheduled to leave Milford Haven on 1 May 1861. As the passengers were being taken to the ship the tender ran aground and all attempts to free it failed. Small boats rescued them and their luggage and took them to the ship.

Four days out the ship ran into a severe gale and the failure to screw down furniture and fittings resulted in such items being thrown around the saloons. Even after this demonstration these items were never screwed down. The trip took nine days, thirteen hours and twenty minutes. The ship’s arrival in New York passed almost unnoticed, the Civil War grabbing the headlines. It was opened to the public at 25 cents this time but there was little interest. The return journey was advertised for 25 May at $130 for a first class cabin and $75 for ‘very superior accomodation in second.’ 194 passengers boarded and 5,000 tons of wheat was also carried.


For the first time the ship was to carry its full complement of passengers, 400 having booked passage to America. In addition she carried a great deal of cargo.

Great Eastern left Liverpool at 1.00 pm on Tuesday 10 September with Captain James Walker in charge. The docks and banks of the Mersey were lined with thousands of people giving the great ship a great send off. Fares were £20 and £28 for first class cabins and £7 or £10 steerage.

All went well and the ship was making a good 13-14 knots until the second day out when the wind started to increase in strength and by 4.00 pm had reached gale force. The ship began to roll heavily, the port paddle wheel disappearing under the waves. After one such roll as the paddle reappeared Captain Walker heard a scraping noise and on inspection found the paddle wheel was scraping against the hull and the floats were being broken up. He ordered the paddle engines stopped. The ship then began to lose headway the screw not being powerful to keep her head into wind. The ship was now broadside on and a large wave pushed the port side under and when it recovered the port paddle wheel had disappeared altogether. Shortly after this one of the lifeboats broke loose and had to be cut away, a similar fate fell on the remainder of the boats over the next three days.

When the boat nearest to the starboard paddle wheel broke loose Captain Walker ordered the remaining paddle wheel and screw to be put into reverse to prevent the boat from becoming entangled. Before the screw went astern the starboard paddle wheel was smashed to pieces. The First Officer Henry Machin heard banging coming from the stern and when he got to the auxiliary tiller room where the rudder post entered the ship he found the steering chains and rudder post smashed. The post was made of cast iron and was eleven inches in diameter set in a waterproof box and a wooden collar which contained cannon balls as bearings. The post had sheared off two feet above the collar. The rudder was swinging free and was hitting the screw and was being chewed to pieces.

Captain Walker held a meeting with his officers away from the passengers. He told them not to say anything to the passengers concerning their predicament. He ordered a trysail to be hoisted but it was ripped to shreds in seconds. His next attempt to bring some sort of control to the ship was to throw a four-ton spar overboard secured with a hawser it worked for a while but then it was torn away.

By the end of the second day some of the male passengers had a good idea as to the state the ship was in and they formed a committee, with Liverpool shipping merchant, George Oakwood as chairman. The captain agreed to meet him and allowed him to inspect the ship. What he found was far worse than any of them had anticipated. None of the cargo had been stowed properly and it was all rolling around loose in the holds. Hamilton E. Towle an American civil engineer visited the rudder room an after inspecting the damage came up with a plan to regain control of the rudder. Henry Machin took it to the captain, but he failed to act on it. As night fell on the third day the Magnet a brig out of Nova Scotia appeared. Captain Walker asked her Captain if he would stand by. He agreed, but there was little he could do. After several hours the brig left, later succeeding in a claim for demurrage from the Great Ship Company for the delay.

Towle now took his scheme to the passengers committee and they pressured the captain into letting him try it out. When the party arrived in the rudder room they found that the chief paddle engineer had tried to remove a large nut which held the rudder to the rudder post. Before trying out his own plan Towle had to tighten the nut. By lashing the handle of the wrench to the frames and leaving sufficient movement to fit and remove the wrench to and from the nut, he used the swing of the rudder from port to starboard to tighten it, and then would remove the wrench before the rudder swung back to port. This took three hours.

Towle then had a 100 foot chain comprised of 60 lb links wound around the rudder post below the break, then both ends of the chain were secured by block and tackle to the port and starboard frames of the ship. Two lighter chains were brought down from the wheelhouse and attached to the heavy chain and also secured to the frames of the ship. Now at least with limited movement of the rudder the ship was steerable. Robertson still said it wouldn’t work and wanted to try his own solution. This involved putting a man over the stern in a bosun’s chair with a rope which had to be passed under the rudder and drawn up the other side. Attached to this rope would be heavier rope and then a hawser. After several of the crew had been subjected to near drowning and a battering against the ship’s stern the idea was abandoned.

On the Sunday morning the storm abated, and Sunday services were held. The passengers committee, with Towle, went to see Captain Walker and insisted he try the rudder repairs. Eventually the Captain ordered the screw engines to be started and at 5.00 pm on the Sunday after 75 hours of drifting out of control the ship answered the helm and was gently turned on a heading towards Ireland, nearly 300 mile distant. On the Monday morning the Cunard liner Persia, came up on the Great Eastern, circled round her and then headed off for America, with those on board no doubt wondering why she was sailing in the wrong direction. On arrival at Queenstown the harbourmaster refused to let the ship enter because she was not under full control. The injured passengers were taken off by lighter and the ship stood off for three days until towed in by HMS Advice. A quartermaster was killed by the wheel as the ship was entering the harbour. On entering harbour Great Eastern collided with the American barque Samuel Maxley, damaging the stern, removing the davits and an anchor and chain.

The first the company knew of the return of the ship was a telegram from Ireland to say that the Great Eastern was off Queenstown her rudder and steering gear damaged and her paddles missing. Company Secretary John Yates and Director Captain Carnegie RN set off for Cork. Arrangements for temporary repairs were put in hand and the ship was once again opened to visitors, this time at 2/6 a head. Passengers were offered free passage to America in other ships. Hamilton E. Towle on arriving in America, no doubt angered by the failure of the Great Ship Company to acknowledge his efforts in saving the ship, put in a claim for salvage and was awarded $15,000. At the rate of exchange at the time the company needed 24,000 visitors to clear the debt. Once the repairs were completed the ship, with an escorting tug made her way to Milford Haven where permanent repairs could be carried out during the coming winter. New smaller 50 feet diameter paddle wheels were fitted, and major improvements were made to the steering. In March 1862 while being moved Great Eastern collided with HMS Blenheim, removing the frigate’s bowsprit, main yard, jib boom and moorings.

On his return to America the Rev D. V. Maclean, of Easton, Pennsylvania, wrote the following letter to the Easton Express about Captain Walker.

(Captain Walker) behaved with great courage and coolness after the disaster, and laboured most incessantly night and day to save his ship and passengers: yet it is my deliberate conviction that he is greatly to blame, and that his conduct before the disaster was reckless. He took the ship only a few days before she sailed, a stranger to her: he ought to have known how she was provided for sea, as to ballast and in other respect, and if not suitably provided, should have had the defects remedied, or refused to have taken command of her. There is every reason to believe he went to sea under instructions, and himself determined to make the shortest possible passage. The new steamer, New York, was to sail the day after we did and it was presumed she intended to try her speed. The Persia was to sail four days after us, and it was known she had put on coal of an extra quality, determined to do her best. Under these circumstances and feeling that if he made a very short passage, his own reputation and that of his ship would be made, there was every temptation.


A new voyage, a new captain. Captain Walter Paton was in charge on this voyage, which left Milford Haven on 7 May with 31 cabin class and 107 steerage passengers and arrived in New York on 17 May. The ship was opened to visitors and around 3,000 a day paid a visit. The return journey, to Liverpool, proved more profitable, with 173 cabin class and 216 steerage passengers and 3,000 tons of freight. The crossing took 9 days 12 hours, cutting 12 hours off the previous record.

The second voyage of the year arrived in New York on 11 July with 376 passengers including the President of Liberia J. J. Roberts. The return journey in late July carried 200 cabin class and over 300 steerage passengers plus 8,000 tons of cargo. The ship arrived at Liverpool on 7 August.

Turn round was swift and the ship left on 17 August with 1,530 assorted passengers on board and a considerable amount of freight. Her draught on this voyage being 30 feet. The ship encountered a gale but Captain Paton maintained full speed and the ship arrived off Montauk Point at midnight on 27 August. Rather than risk crossing the Sandy Hook bar with his deep draught he decided to moor in Flushing Bay. The pilot came on board at 1.30 am and the ship moved slowly ahead. At around 2.00 am a rumble was heard and the ship heeled over slightly. The pilot said she had probably rubbed against the ‘North east Ripps’, later renamed ‘Great Eastern Rock’, it was subsequently removed. The captain sent an officer down to check for damage and he reported no leaks. The ship however had a list to port.

After the passengers and cargo had been put ashore Captain Paton sent for a diver to carry out an inspection, he found a gash 80 feet long and 4 feet wide in the outer hull, but missed another ten small splits in the plates. The ship’s New York agents put the captain in touch with Edward Renwick, a consulting engineer, and his brother Henry. They decided they would cover the gash with a caisson held in place by chains around the ship. It would take two weeks to complete the repairs and the brothers said they would only take payment if successful. Renwick fitted the caisson 104 feet long by 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep to the hull but the seals didn’t work. So he hollowed out a channel around the caisson and placed a 3 inch fire hose in it, and filled it with water; this time it held. Access was by a pair of 6 feet square wooden shafts on the outside of the hull which reached up to the deck or by the inspection manholes in the inner hull.

When the first workmen went down they heard banging within the hull, they came up saying the ghost of the supposed lost riveter was down there and they refused to go down again. Captain Paton went down and found it was a loose hawser tapping against the hull. The demands of the Civil War caused problems in getting supplies of the iron plates required and instead of two weeks the repairs took three months. The cost to the company was £70,000. The ship left New York on 6 January 1863, with 1200 passengers and 3,000 tons of wheat, for Liverpool. During the voyage Captain Paton’s wife Eliza gave birth to a son, James. On reaching Liverpool the Great Eastern was beached and trenches were dug to gain access to the repairs. The Board of Trade insisted on full repairs being carried out including the ten small splits. At the same time some boiler repair work was done. By May she was ready for her first Atlantic trip of 1863.


May saw the first trip of the year this being followed by one on 1 July and the third in August. On the three return trips 2,700 passengers were carried to New York and 970 made the return. In addition a large amount of cargo was carried in both directions. On the final outward journey she ran into a gale and one of the paddles was damaged, the voyage being completed using the screw. On the return journey in September she ran down a small sailing vessel, the Jane off the coast of Ireland. The company lost nearly £20,000 on these voyages mainly caused by a price war between the Cunard and Inman Lines which reduced the turnover by £20,000 over 1862 earnings. The company had debts of over £142,000 and the ship was laid up.

A scheme was put forward whereby the ship would be offered in a lottery, to be run from Frankfurt, lotteries being illegal in England. Nothing came of it and the ship was put up for sale on 14 January 1864 in the Cotton Room at the Liverpool Exchange. The auctioneer, Joseph Cunard, of Cunard Wilson and Company, opened the bidding at £50,000. No further bids were offered and the ship was withdrawn. The auctioneer made the following statement.

“The Great Eastern will be offered at a peremptory sale without any reserve in three weeks time.”

Daniel Gooch, who had had talks with Cyrus Field concerning his attempts to raise capital for another Atlantic cable, approached Thomas Brassey and John Pender to see if they would be willing to put up cash to buy the Great Eastern. They set a limit of £80,000. The opening bid was for £20,000 and after waiting some minutes John Yates, who was acting for Gooch, put in a bid for £25,000. No further bids were received and the ship, which was worth around £100,000 in materials alone, was sold to them. The three immediately set up a new company, The Great Eastern Steamship Company. The Great Eastern was chartered to the newly formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, (Telcon), for £50,000 of its shares, and it would be responsible for carrying out the necessary conversion work on the ship.


Loading the 1865 Atlantic cable aboard
Great Eastern at Sheerness

After the failure of the 1858 cable Cyrus Field began the task of raising further capital for another attempt. He approached the British Government to guarantee the interest on the capital raised. Unfortunately this request came around the same time as the failure of the Red Sea cable to which the Government had made an unconditional guarantee of interest payments whether the cable worked or not. While it was prepared to subsidise the company to the tune of £20,000 per annum and guarantee the interest on the capital of £600,000 at 8% this was to be conditional on the cable working.

At the same time the Board of Trade set up a Committee to look into the failure of these cables; it consisted of the following.

Captain Douglas Galton, Royal Engineers, representing the Government.
William Fairbairn, President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Professor Charles Wheatstone, Electrician.
Josiah Latimer Clark, Telegraph Engineer.
Edwin Clark, Telegraph Engineer.
George Saward, Secretary of The Atlantic Telegraph Company.
George P. Bidder.
Cromwell F. Varley.

The Committee sat for two years taking evidence from everyone involved in the submarine telegraph cable industry. All the above signed this statement:

London, 13th July, 1863

We, the undersigned, members of the Committee were appointed by the Board of Trade, in 1859, to investigate the question of submarine telegraphy, and whose investigation continued from that time to April, 1861, do hereby state, as the result of our deliberations, that a well-insulated cable, properly protected, of suitable specific gravity, made with care, and tested under water throughout its progress with the best known apparatus, and paid into the ocean with the most improved machinery, possesses every prospect of not only being successfully laid in the first instance, but may reasonably be relied upon to continue for many years in an efficient state for the transmission of signals.

Following the recommendations of the Committee the Atlantic Telegraph Company published its requirements and invited tenders. A Consulting Committee consisting of the following members, Captain Douglas Galton, William Fairbairn, Professor Charles Wheatstone, William Whitworth and Professor William Thomson, was set up to investigate the seventeen tenders received. Following exhaustive tests on the samples of cable supplied the Committee recommended that the tender from Glass, Elliot should be accepted. It was realised by all that the Gutta Percha Company and Glass, Elliot and Company could not carry the cost of manufacturing the cable individually and it was decided to merge the two companies, to form The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon).

A considerable amount of experience and knowledge had been gathered since the 1858 cable, the Gutta Percha Company having manufactured 9000 nm of core in that time, and this was put to good use in the manufacture of the 1865 cable. The conductor consisted of 7 strands of copper wire each 0.048 inches. in diameter. Six of the wires were wrapped around the seventh, which had already been coated with a mixture known as Chatterton’s Compound, which consisted of 3 parts gutta percha, 1 part resin and one part Stockholm Tar. The completed conductor was then coated in Chatterton’s Compound, followed by a layer of gutta percha. In all four layers of Chatterton’s Compound and four layers of gutta percha were applied alternately, followed by a layer of jute soaked in catchecu and then layers of tarred hemp. The armouring wires, which had been wrapped in tarred hemp, were then added. For the shore ends a second layer of tarred hemp and armouring wires were applied.

The armouring wire was supplied by Webster and Horsfall of Hay Mills, Birmingham from steel produced at their own mill at Killamarsh, Derbyshire. Up to this point the total yearly output of steel at Killamarsh was 400 tons. The contract for the wire was signed on 9 May 1864 and the firm was then committed to supplying 1,600 tons of .095 inch diameter crucible cast steel wire in 14 months. James Horsfall quoted a final price of £45 per ton, £40 in cash and the rest in shares of the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

To store the cable prior to its transhipment to the Great Eastern at Sheerness new storage tanks had to be built at the Telcon works. Eight were built using 5/8 inch iron plate for the bottom and first upright tier the rest being ½ inch iron plate, four were circular in shape 34 feet diameter by 12 feet deep each capable of holding 153 nm of cable and the other four were elliptical in shape 36 feet long, 27 feet wide and 12 feet deep each capable of storing 140 nm of cable. Cable was manufactured at the rate of 80 nm per week.

The contents of these tanks, as they became full, had to be transferred to the Great Eastern. and for this service the Lords of the Admiralty granted the loan of two sailing ships which had been “laid up in ordinary” (i.e. mothballed) at Chatham, HMS Amethyst and HMS Iris. These ships had to undergo considerable alterations to render them suitable for the work, portions of the main deck being removed fore and aft to make room for watertight tanks to hold the cable.

The old frigate Iris with her freight of cable alongside the Great Eastern at Sheerness. The cable passed from the hulk to the Great Eastern.
From The Atlantic Telegraph by William Russell, illustration by Robert Dudley.

Amethyst was fitted with two tanks measuring 29 feet diameter by 14 feet 6 inches deep, each capable of holding 153 nm of cable, and Iris was also fitted with two tanks, one 29 feet diameter by 14 feet 6 inches deep holding 153 nm of cable, and the second 24 feet diameter by 17 feet deep holding 110 nm of cable. The rate at which the cable could be taken on board was about two miles per hour to each tank.

Copy of a painting of the Great Eastern, from an
original by John Bentham-Dinsdale [1927-2008] which
hung in the "Green Room" at STC, Greenwich.
Image courtesy of David Watson

The Great Eastern itself was fitted with three tanks built as those on shore, the forward tank being 51 feet 6 inches diameter by 20 feet 6 inches deep with a capacity of 693 nm of cable, the midships tank being 58 feet 6 inches diameter by 20 feet 6 inches deep holding 899 nm of cable and the aft tank 58 feet diameter by 20 feet 6 inches deep holding 898 nm of cable. The total capacity was 2490 nm of cable. The cable machinery on board had been designed by Samuel Canning and was built by Messrs Penn and Company of Greenwich.

On 29 May the last mile of cable was passed into the storage tanks at the factory and on 14 June Amethyst arrived with the last load of cable. Great Eastern left Sheerness on 24 June and took on board a further 1,500 tons of coal at the Nore, this brought her total deadweight to 21,000 tons, of which 7,000 tons was cable.

At noon on 15 July Great Eastern, under Captain James Anderson, weighed anchor and set out for Ireland. By midnight on the 16th she was off the Lizard. The following morning she caught up with the Caroline which was carrying the 27 nm of Irish shore end which weighed 540 tons. She had left ten days before the Great Eastern but had had to take shelter in Falmouth Harbour for a week because of bad weather. The weather was not much better when the Great Eastern took the Caroline in tow which continued until the Wednesday morning when the tow broke about twenty miles from Valentia. Caroline made her way to Valentia and Great Eastern put into Berehaven to load coal and other stores.

The following travelled on the ship from the Nore:

Mr. Gooch, MP., Chairman of the Great Eastern Company and Director of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company; Mr. Barber (Great Eastern), Mr. Cyrus Field; Captain Hamilton, Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company; M. Jules Despescher; Mr. H. O’Neil, ARA.; Mr. T. Brassey, Mr. W. Fairbairn, Mr. R. Dudley, the representatives of some of the principal journals, and several visitors.

Samuel Canning, chief engineer of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) was in charge of the laying with Mr. Clifford supervising the machinery. They were assisted by Messrs Temple and London plus eight engineers and mechanics. The cable laying staff was provided by Telcon.

The Electrical Staff on board Great Eastern were.

C.V. de Sauty, Chief Electrician.
H. Saunders, Electrician to the Malta and Alexandria Telegraph.
Willoughby Smith, Electrician to Telcon.
W.W. Biddulph, H. Donovan O. Smith, J. Clark, Assistant Electricians.
J.T. Smith, J. Gott, Instrument Clerks from Malta and Alexandria Telegraph.
L. Schaefer, Mechanic.

The Staff at Valentia Cable Station

J. May, Superintendent. T. Brown, W. Crocker, Assistant Electricians.
G. Stevenson, E. George, H. Fisher, Instrument Clerks from the Malta and Alexandria Telegraph.
Mr. Glass was in overall charge.
Mr. Varley, chief electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company, was on board to oversee the laying of the cable, and ensure that the conditions laid down in the contract were complied with. Professor W. Thomson, LL.D., FRS, of Glasgow, along with his staff, Messrs Deacon, Medley, Trippe and Perry were to provide technical assistance.


On 19 July a channel was cut from the cable hut to the shore, into which the shore end of the cable would be laid, then on the 21st the earth cable was laid well clear of the shore end channel. The shore end which was manufactured by the W.T. Henley Telegraph Works under sub contract to Telcon was laid the following day. Caroline who had sailed to Foilhummerum Bay began passing out the shore end over a chain of assorted small boats linked bow to stern, towards the beach and up to the cable hut. Unfortunately those in the boats thought that when the cable reached the shore, their task was over and they threw the cable overboard. It was recovered by under running and everything was completed satisfactorily by 12.45 pm. At 2.00 pm Caroline, towed by Hawk and escorted by Princess Alexandra and Advice began laying the remainder of the cable, following a line of buoys laid out the previous day by Lt. White aboard HM Tender Advice. Caroline buoyed the end of the cable, in 75 fathoms of water, 26 nm out from Valentia at 10.30 pm and immediately sent a signal to the Great Eastern that everything was ready for the laying of the main cable.

Great Eastern left Berehaven at 1.45 am on 23 July accompanied by HMS Sphinx and HMS Terrible met up with the Caroline and the end of the main cable was brought up and passed over the stern sheave and down to the boats of Sphinx and Terrible who took it over to Caroline, who had recovered the shore end. The end of the main cable was brought on board and work began immediately on splicing the two cable ends, this being completed the cable was dropped overboard at 4.30 pm and with HMS Sphinx and HMS Terrible in attendance Great Eastern, with Captain James Anderson in charge, set sail heading towards Newfoundland.

The speed of paying out was gradually increased until it reached 6½ knots and this rate was maintained until 3.15 am on the 24th when the light from the mirror galvanometer disappeared off the scale. So began the long slow process of recovery which involved, placing iron shackles on the cable which in turn were secured by a wire running along the side of the ship, cutting the cable and releasing it overboard, moving the shackles along the retaining wire, from the stern to the bows and turning the ship around. While this was going on the donkey engines which powered the picking up machine were fired up. When picking up started it was found that one of the donkey engine boilers was faulty and steam had to be provided by the ship’s boilers. All this and the actual picking up took until 9.00 am on the 25th by which time between 10¼ and 10½ nm of cable had been recovered before the fault, which was caused by a small piece of armouring wire piercing the insulation, came on board.

The offending piece and the recovered cable was cut out and the cable ends spliced. Finally Great Eastern got under way again to the relief of those on board. It was shortlived after about half a mile of cable had been payed out the galvanometer light disappeared off the scale once again. The process of picking up was set in motion, then for no apparent reason the light reappeared in its normal place on the scale. The cable was thoroughly tested and found to be in working order and so at 4.15 pm after losing a total of 37 hours on the two stoppages, laying got underway once again.

Throughout the 26th all went well though the rate was dropped to 5 knots as a heavy sea developed. HMS Sphinx was unable to keep up and eventually was lost to sight and was not seen again throughout the remainder of the expedition. This was to cause problems as HMS Terrible didn’t carry sounding gear so it was impossible to take soundings throughout the rest of the expedition. All went well throughout the 27th and 28th. In the afternoon of Saturday the 29th it was obvious from the activity in and around the Testing Room that something was amiss and at about 3.10 pm the ship came to a halt. Another fault had appeared and once again the process of picking up was set in motion. Just picking up the cable took over six hours with the fault being brought on board at 11.50 pm. By the time the splicing had been carried out it was well past midnight so it was decided not to start laying again until daylight partly because of the dense fog and drizzling rain.

Sunday 30 July brought no improvement in the weather, laying commenced just after 10.00 am. By noon the ship was just over 650 nm out from Valentia with a total 745 nm of cable having been payed out. On the Monday when the recovered cable was examined it was found that the same problem had occurred, a piece of armouring wire had pierced the insulation. This and the fact that the same gang were in the tank when both faults appeared, for some confirmed that it was sabotage. The cable was shown to the men involved and they agreed that it was deliberate and it was also agreed that from then on someone would be on watch in the tanks while laying was in progress. Laying continued throughout Tuesday without interruption reaching a rate of 7 knots per hour.

This continued until 8.00 am on the Wednesday morning when another fault appeared. One of the men working in the tank shouted, “There goes a piece of wire” unfortunately the warning never reached the man on watch and the faulty cable went overboard. Once again the picking up procedure got underway. As the cable was being cut at the top of the tank one of the foreman noticed a piece of wire sticking out from one of the lower coils and when he pulled it out it was found to be similar to those that had caused the previous faults, but in this instance had not penetrated the cable. At least this put paid to the idea of sabotage.

A strong wind was blowing on the starboard beam and so the cable was brought along from stern to bows along the port side. The ship was drifting across the line of the cable which began to chafe against one of the hawse pipes on the bow. An additional shackle was attached below the chafe as a precaution. Picking up began and after about two and a half hours, two miles of cable had been recovered, when there was a jerk on the cable possibly caused by the movement of the ship in the heavy sea. As this happened the cable jumped out of the large bow sheave, landing on the smaller sheave and a few seconds later it parted at the point where the chafing had occurred, the end of the cable disappearing overboard before anyone could do anything to stop it.

The cable breaks and is lost overboard

As the cable went overboard Captain Moriarty, the ship’s chief navigator, was coming on deck to put up the ship’s position and previous days run. He remarked; “I fear we shall not feel much interest now in knowing how far we are from Heart’s Content.” The details were. Distance travelled from the previous day 116.4 nm. Cable layed including slack and shore end 1186 nm. Distance from Valentia 1062.4 nm. Distance to Heart’s Content 606.6 nm. Before the cable broke 2 nm had been recovered.

Samuel Canning decided to try and recover the cable, though none had been recovered from a depth of more than 700 fathoms and here it was estimated to be 2,000 fathoms. The Great Eastern sailed about 12 nm away from the point where the cable had been lost and took up position about 3 miles away from the line of the cable and at right angles to it. A grapnel was attached to a wire rope and put overboard at 5.20 pm and it reached the sea bed just after 7.45 pm, 2,500 fathoms of wire having been payed out. The ship was set to drift and it did so throughout the night until 6.00 am on the Thursday morning when word passed around that the cable had been hooked. About three quarters of a hour later the slow process of hauling in 2,500 fathoms of wire rope and the cable began.

The wire rope was not one continuous length but consisted of 100 fathom lengths linked together with iron shackles. By 7.15 am the first 100 fathoms had been recovered and 40 minutes later the second had been brought on board. By 8.10 am with 400 fathoms recovered a fault in the machinery caused the rope to break, fortunately the stoppers prevented it from being lost overboard. From then on it was decided to use the capstan instead of the picking up machine. All went well until 3.50 pm when the eleventh section was being hauled aboard, the lower shackle broke and 1400 fathoms of wire rope and the cable were lost.

Buoys used during the attempted recovery of the 1865 cable

Immediately work was put in hand to make another attempt; a new rope was made up and a buoy was prepared to be launched at the point where the previous attempt had failed. Fog prevented the taking of a sight and the ship’s position could only be guessed at, so the same manoeuvre was carried out as with the first attempt, with the difference that the Great Eastern sailed parallel to the line of the cable for three miles before moving away. The fog was still present on the Friday morning and while waiting for it to clear it was decided to try and get a sounding.

A large lead weight was attached to 2,500 fathoms of manilla rope and this was put overboard. From this attempt it was estimated that the depth was 2,300 fathoms but it wasn’t confirmed as while it was being hauled in it parted and 2,000 fathoms of rope was added to the pile on the seabed. While this was going on a raft was built on which to place a buoy to be used as a guide as to where the line of the cable was, as no one had been able to take a sighting to fix the ship’s position for three days. The buoy was put overboard at 10.00 pm. Finally a sighting was obtained and it was found that the ship was 46 nm east of the point where the cable had been lost.

Saturday saw no improvement in the weather and it was not until 2.30 pm that HMS Terrible signalled the Great Eastern that it had the buoy in sight. Just over an hour later Great Eastern reached the buoy and using it as a marker set sail to take up position to attempt to grapple the cable. Unfortunately the wind was not in the right quarter to enable the ship to drift over the line of the cable. On the Sunday morning during a brief lifting of the fog the HMS Terrible was sighted about 6 nm away and the Great Eastern sailed towards her and the buoy to await an improvement in the weather.

Finally on Monday 7 August it was decided to try again even though the weather had not improved and Great Eastern sailed away from the buoy. Just after 1.45 pm the grapnel was put overboard and about an hour later reached the seabed. After six hours of grappling it was realised that the cable had been hooked and the slow job of hauling in began. The rope came aboard at the rate of about 100 fathoms per 40 minutes and by 7.30 am on the Tuesday morning 1,000 fathoms had been recovered and hopes were rising that this attempt would be successful. But half an hour later it was over when one of the shackles failed.

Samuel Canning decided to have one more try. A rope consisting of 1900 fathoms of wire rope and 500 fathoms of manilla rope was made up and the third attempt was begun. A buoy had been launched to be used as a marker for the third recovery attempt. By now the wind had reached gale force and it was impossible to even carry out any work on the deck of the ship. By the morning of 10 August the weather had improved dramatically and about 10.30 am the grapnel was thrown overboard. The ship then began to drift slowly towards the line of the cable, with the help of the fore and aft sails and later the fore and main topsails. At just after 11.00 am it was thought that the cable had been hooked but it was not so. By 3.30 pm it was realised that the cable had been missed and the recovery of the grapnel and rope was put in hand. On recovery at 5.20 am on the morning of the 11th it was found that the chain attaching the grapnel to the rope had fouled the flukes and it would have been impossible for the cable to have been hooked.

Repair work to the rope was put in hand on those sections of rope that were showing signs of strain and 200 fathoms of hempen rope was used to make up the shortfall. Great Eastern returned to the second buoy and then set out once again to grapple. At 2.00 pm the grapnel was again thrown overboard. Fore and aft sails were set and the ship again drifted towards the line of the cable. One and a half hours later the cable was hooked and hauling in began. At 3.30 pm the strain on the rope began to increase and it was obvious the cable had once again been hooked. Hauling in began and all went well until 9.40 pm when 765 fathoms had been recovered when shouts of “Stop it” were heard. But it was too late; the rope had parted. Plans were immediately put in hand to sail back to England. HMS Terrible was to continue to Newfoundland to take on sufficient coal for her journey back to England.

At first at the Foilhummerum Bay cable hut nobody was too concerned about the loss of contact with the Great Eastern. It had happened before and eventually contact would be re-established. However as time went on and nothing was heard speculation began that the ship had sunk with all hands. On arrival at Crookhaven at 7.00 am on Thursday 17 August the ship was greeted with the message; “We did not know what to make of you. Many think you went down.” On the Saturday she made her way to Brighton where some of the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company went on board. From there she made her way to Sheerness arriving around 1.00 pm on the Sunday.


The Atlantic Telegraph Company now set about raising capital for a new cable. A prospectus was issued and money was received. An order for the new cable was given to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Then the Attorney General overruled decisions made in the lower courts that as the company had been set up under an Act of Parliament it could not raise fresh capital without Government consent. Work on the cable was stopped. Cyrus Field approached Daniel Gooch for advice and it was decided to set up a new company and The Anglo-American Telegraph Company was formed in March 1866. All monies paid to the Atlantic Telegraph Company were returned to subscribers. Work on the cable restarted.

Great Eastern leaving Sheerness with the 1866 Atlantic cable on board

The manufacture and procedure for the 1866 cable was the same as for the 1865 cable with the exception of the armouring wires which this time were galvanised. The cable was again stored in tanks at the works then transferred to Great Eastern at Sheerness using the naval hulks Iris and Amethyst.

While this was going on improvements were made to the paying out and picking up machines. Great Eastern, again under Captain James Anderson, left Sheerness at midday on 30 June 1866 heading for Valentia where William Cory had already laid the new 30 nm shore end on 7 July. It had been decided to commence laying on Friday 13 July and on that day at 3.00 pm Great Eastern set sail, heading once more for Newfoundland. This time with HMS Terrible leading the way charged with the task of preventing any vessel getting in the way of the expedition. The Medway who was carrying the Newfoundland shore end and also a cable to be laid across the Cabot Strait, between Cape Ray and Cape North, took station on the port side with Albany taking up position on the starboard side.

Great Eastern entering Heart’s Content on 27 July with 1866 cable
Image courtesy of Porthcurno Telegraph Museum,
from a painting by C. Lewis

After the trials and tribulations associated with the 1865 cable the laying of the new cable went very smoothly, on two occasions the cable got tangled up and the ship had to be stopped to enable it to be sorted out. The laying took fourteen days and on Friday 27 July the Great Eastern sailed into Heart’s Content. When Cyrus Field tried to send telegrams to New York he found that the cable across the Cabot Strait between Cape Ray and Cape North had not been repaired. The board of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company had decided not to go ahead with the repair as there was no guarantee the Atlantic cable would succeed. A steamer, the Dauntless, was chartered to take the telegrams to the mainland for onward transmission. Cyrus Field arranged for the charter of the steamer Bloodhound to carry out the repair to the cable using some of the cable on aboard the Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern at sea, 1866
Painted by Henry Clifford,
who designed the paying-out machinery


Following the celebrations Albany and HMS Terrible set out on 1 August to locate the end of the 1865 cable. Albany succeeded in grappling the cable and began hauling it in but the weather turned rough and the cable was buoyed. In the storm that followed the wire supporting the cable snapped and the cable was lost.

After loading coal shipped out from England aboard five colliers, a sixth having been lost at sea, Great Eastern, with Medway in attendance, set out on 9 August to help in the recovery of the lost cable. The next step was to buoy the line of the cable leaving sufficient distance between to allow grappling to take place. It was not until the 17th August that the cable was actually brought to the surface and became visible to all for about 5 minutes before it broke and was lost again. The next two weeks were a mixture of rough weather and disappointment. HMS Terrible was forced to leave as her coal stocks were practically exhausted and the crew were on half rations. On one occasion Albany signalled she had hooked the cable but when it reached the surface it was found to be a piece about two miles in length.

Stamp inscribed Heart’s Content. First Trans-Atlantic cable landed 1866

Following the earlier failures it was decided to bring the cable up in stages. On Friday 31 August the cable was hooked, this being the thirtieth attempt, and was lifted to about 1,000 fathoms below the surface and buoyed, the ships then moved along the cable, grappled, lifted and buoyed again. Medway then carried out a third lift, during which the cable broke but was safely held. Great Eastern then began hauling in, this taking from midnight Friday until Sunday morning. When the cable broke surface two men were put over the side to secure it with ropes. On being brought on board the cable was taken into the Test room cleaned up and connected and the message; “Canning to Glass” was sent to Valentia. Once a reply had been received Field enquired about the 1866 cable and the one across the Cabot Strait, which had not been repaired when he left Newfoundland. Back came the message; “Both OK.”

The two cables were spliced, Albany was detailed to recover the buoys and Great Eastern accompanied by Medway set out for Newfoundland. Apart from a storm which lasted for 36 hours nothing untoward happened and the two vessels sailed into Heart’s Content on 7 September. With the laying complete, Great Eastern prepared to head home to England, Medway was getting ready to lay the Cabot Strait cable with HMS Terrible assisting. Albany after recovering the buoys made her way back to England. The Great Eastern Steamship Company paid a dividend of 70% following the success of completing the two cables.


Following her return to England and with no cable work in prospect the Great Eastern was laid up at Milford Haven. In 1867 the company leased the ship for £1,000 a month to a French company, La Société des Affréteurs du Great Eastern, which was set up to transport wealthy Americans over to the Paris Exhibition sponsored by Napoleon III. It was agreed that the French company would pay for all the work required to make the ship suitable for carrying passengers. A Liverpool company was awarded the contract to refit the ship and the work had to be completed in time for the first sailing in March 1867. All the cable gear and tanks were removed and the ship was returned to its former glory. The engines were overhauled and power steering was fitted. In addition three dining saloons were built on the main deck.

The refit was carried out on the gridiron at New Ferry on the Cheshire side of the River Mersey between 19 January and 21 February 1867. This watercolour by Edwin Arthur Norbury (1849-1918) shows the work in progress on Great Eastern during that period.

Watercolour of Great Eastern signed and dated Edwin Arthur Norbury, 1867
Image courtesy of Greg Page-Turner

Born in Liverpool, Norbury was later a member of the Royal Academy of Arts, but in 1867 he was only about 18 years old. Despite his youth, his painting of Great Eastern was published as a wood engraving in the Illustrated London News issue of 16 February 1867 to accompany a short story on the refit.

The Great Eastern Under Repairs on the Cheshire Shore of the Mersey
Illustrated London News 16 February 1867

Note that the ILN’s wood engravers have restored the two rear funnels that do not appear in Norbury’s watercolour.

“We present an illustration of her position, and of the operation now going on, which is that of coating her vast bottom and sides with McInnes's patent preservative composition-a substance having, when laid on and dried, the texture almost of polished marble, with a dark green colour, and which has proved sufficient to defend the iron plates from rust since the Great Eastern was last overhauled and repaired.

Following the refit, the sailing date was set for 23 March 1867, but it was delayed for three days, and so the French company had to provide hotel accomodation for the thousand passengers who were sailing to New York. Among those passengers was Jules Verne who used the round trip as the basis for his book, ’The Floating City.’ As the ship prepared to get underway a pin broke in a coupling between a capstan and its donkey engine, this threw the full weight of the port anchor onto the capstan which caused it spin violently throwing the twelve men manning it in all directions, resulting in one being killed and several seriously injured. The dead and the seriously injured were taken ashore and those with minor injuries were treated on board. The ship finally got under way and the journey to New York took fourteen days, as Captain Sir James Anderson did not want to cause problems with the new parts fitted to the engines. On arrival in New York the ship received a great welcome.

This lithograph of Great Eastern is undated and does not have an artist’s or publisher’s name. As it is marked “Made in Germany” it must have been published after 1887, when country of origin identification was first required in the UK. The ship is shown fitted out for passenger service and the deck is thronged with people, but the four-funnel configuration was a result of the conversion to a cable layer in 1865, and as Great Eastern was also used for laying cables in 1866 and again in 1869, it is believed that the lithograph almost certainly shows the ship in 1867.

Plans were immediately put in place to receive an expected 4,000 passengers for the return journey, but when the ship sailed there were only 191 on board. Jules Verne who covered the outward journey in great detail summed up the general feeling on the return journey by commenting. ‘Twelve days later we reached Brest.’ Sir James Anderson stood off on reaching Brest to prevent anyone seizing the ship for debt. Passengers were sent ashore by tender and no visitors were allowed on board. The company chartering the ship already knew they were effectively bankrupt when they received details of passenger numbers via the cable which had been laid by Great Eastern in 1866. The ship made her way back to Liverpool where the crew were discharged. They then put in a claim for wages for the three months for which they had signed articles and they were told to sue the French company, something they could not afford to do. Through solicitors they presented affidavits to the Court of Admiralty, resulting in the Great Eastern being seized by the Receiver of Wrecks in lieu of a claim of £4,500 in unpaid wages.

Eventually the Great Eastern Steamship Company offered £1,500 and the crew accepted; they had little choice, as with mouths to feed they needed the money. Great Eastern’s Captain, Sir James Anderson found himself in an embarrassing situation when he was summonsed at the Liverpool Police Court for the amount outstanding to local traders who had worked on or provisioned the ship; in all a sum of £21,000 was claimed. Sir James pointed out that until the full liabilities were known no claims could be paid out, once this had been ascertained the Great Eastern Steamship Company would sue the French Company. But with that company having spent around £80,000 in refitting the ship, paying harbour dues and other expenses it was in no shape to pay its remaining creditors.


The success of the two Atlantic cables completed in 1866 led to Baron d’Erlanger and Julius Reuter, with the help of British finance, to set up a company to lay a cable from France to the United States of America. The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company was awarded the contract and payment was partly in the form of shares in the new company. The cable fleet consisted of CS’s Great Eastern, Scanderia, Chiltern, Hawk and William Cory. Because of the extra cable required for this expedition the size of the main tank was increased to 75 feet diameter by 16 feet 6 inches deep. As in 1865 and 1866, the cable was transferred from the factory to Great Eastern using the naval hulks Iris and Amethyst.

The Great Eastern left Portland Harbour, Dorset, England at about 8.30 pm on Saturday 19 June 1869 heading for Brest, accompanied by CS Scanderia. The ship arrived in Brest at around 3 pm on the Sunday and found CS Hawk and CS Chiltern already there. The shore end, which had been laid by CS Hawk, was spliced on to the cable aboard and preparations were made to sail as soon as possible. Great Eastern finally got away at 2 am on the Monday morning and by noon was 41 miles out from Brest. By noon on the Tuesday the distance from Brest was 171 miles and 178 miles of cable had been paid out which included the 107 miles of intermediate cable.

Everything went well until around 3.30 am on the Thursday when a fault appeared. The ship was stopped and 1¼ miles of cable was brought aboard, the faulty piece cut out and laying started up again. The fault, a small hole in the gutta percha, was thought to have occurred during manufacture and the strain on the cable opened it up. Another fault appeared on the Saturday requiring the recovery of ¾ of a mile of cable before the fault came aboard. As well as these faults one other gave the electricians problems in that they were unable to locate or isolate it. On the Saturday afternoon Willoughby Smith reported that the fault had cleared itself, only for it to return later. Wednesday 30 June, a gale was blowing when the light on the Mirror Galvanometer flew off the scale, only to return, then flew off again, this time staying off. The ship was stopped and preparations made to haul in the cable. The strain on the cable caused it to break, fortunately this occurred between the paying out gear and the picking up machine and was prevented from going over the side. Buoys were launched and the Great Eastern sailed around them until the gale blew itself out. By early Friday morning the sea was calm enough for the recovery of the cable to go ahead. Work started around 4.30 am and the fault was cut out and the ship was underway by 10.30 am. This fault was caused by one of the scarfs (used to join the ends of the armouring wires) breaking off and piercing the gutta percha. Thoughts of sabotage occurred to members of the technical staff and from then on an engineer or ship’s officer was stationed in the cable tanks. However Daniel Gooch sent a message to Telcon suggesting they find a new method of jointing the armouring wires to prevent similar problems happening in the future.

Other than another gale laying went well and early in the morning of Monday 12 July Great Eastern arrived off St. Pierre with CS Scanderia taking over the splicing of the main cable and the shore end. The Gulnare (a Canadian survey vessel) took the electricians and equipment to the St. Pierre cable landing site. Great Eastern then proceeded to Miquelon to meet up with CS William Cory who had previously laid shore ends at both St. Pierre and Miquelon. On its return Great Eastern made for the town of St. Pierre where Sir Daniel Gooch visited the Governor to pay his respects and invite him to dinner aboard the Great Eastern. With all the pleasantries over Great Eastern headed for England while CS’s Chiltern, Scanderia and William Cory began laying the cable from St. Pierre to Duxbury, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where CS Robert Lowe belonging to the Anglo American Telegraph Company had already laid the shore ends. This company was taken over by Anglo American in 1873.


Four vessels, Great Eastern carrying 2375 nm of cable, Chiltern, 260 nm, Hibernia, 915 nm and Hawk, 10 nm, were originally chartered for the expedition. Later William Cory was added to the fleet to carry part of Hibernia’s load, which had been reduced to 615 nm to allow her to carry extra coal and so sail direct to Aden without stopping for refuelling. Great Eastern sailed for Portland Harbour on the 23rd October to finish coaling, then sailed from there on the 6th January 1869. On the same day Chiltern left Greenwich, both ships bound for Bombay via the Cape of Good Hope.

To help reduce the temperature while in the tropics Captain Robert Halpin had the Great Eastern painted white. It had the effect of reducing it below decks by 8° when the ship reached India. Great Eastern stopped at St. Vincent, Cape Verde Islands for five days and then sailed for Cape Town, arriving there on the 22nd December, Chiltern having arrived there on the 14th. Both vessels left Cape Town on the 31st December, sailing together for a time, then Chiltern went ahead, arriving at Bombay on the 26th January 1870. Great Eastern arrived at night on the 27th and stayed outside the bay until the following morning.

Great Eastern leaving Portland Harbour with the
British-Indian Telegraph Company cable on board

[Illustrated London News 20 November 1869]

The normal entertainment machine swung into action on arrival in Bombay. All the local notables were invited on board and the ship was opened to paying visitors at 2 rupees. While all this was going on coaling was taking place and soon a fine black dust settled everywhere. The guests usually dressed in white left with patches of black on their clothes, collected whenever they came in contact with the surface of the ship. Captain Halpin mindful of the approach of the monsoon season realised the coaling was not going speedily enough and so he put it to the crew that if they would help they could have two days on shore. All agreed and not one was missing when the ship sailed, though whether some of them were in a fit state to work is debatable.

The shore end was picked up by CS Chiltern and jointed to the main cable aboard the Great Eastern, which set off at around midday on 14 February to lay the Bombay - Aden section.

Shipping had been warned by the Admiralty that the Great Eastern accompanied by one other vessel would be travelling slowly towards Aden and was to be avoided. Chiltern had raised her screw and was using sail and was completely hidden behind the Great Eastern when the troopship HMS Euphrates, unaware of the other vessel, decided to cross the bows of the Great Eastern to give everyone on board a clear view. It was only at the last minute that the two captains saw each other, Captain Edington of the Chiltern put his helm hard over and just missed the troopship. What passed between the two captains was not recorded.

Great Eastern laid almost 2000 nm of cable, completing the leg to Aden on 27 February. On arrival the wind began to blow very strongly and with a rising sea it was decided to cut and the buoy the cable. This was carried out on the orders of C.V. de Sauty, who had been Chief Electrician on the 1865 cable expedition and was now based at Aden. The cable was attached to two buoys and dropped overboard. The following morning Chiltern picked up the first buoy and found the cable was missing, as it was from the second. Due to the weather one of the buoys, when launched had finished up under the stern of the Great Eastern and it was feared that the cable had fouled the screw. Captain Halpin transferred to the Chiltern and set about recovering the cable. It was six hours before they hooked it and a further twenty minutes before it was on board. The cable was once again buoyed and work finished for the night. While this was going on news was passed to the Chiltern that the cable had not fouled the Great Eastern’s screw. At dawn the next morning the cable was brought on board jointed to the shore end which had been laid previously by Chiltern.

Four days later Chiltern began laying the shore end of the Aden - Suez cable, but the cable machinery jammed and pulled the cable out of the cable hut three quarters of a mile away. From Aden Great Eastern laid a further 325 nm in the Red Sea with Hibernia taking over. On completion of the lay Hibernia buoyed the cable and leaving Chiltern as guard ship went off in search of Hawk and William Cory. William Cory laid and buoyed its cable and so all three vessels returned to Chiltern who then proceeded to lay the final section.

From Suez to Alexandria telegrams passed over the landlines of the Egyptian State Telegraph system.

The Great Eastern returned to the River Mersey and was to spend nearly three years there before being called once again to lay another cable across the Atlantic.

Great Eastern at sea in the 1870s


In 1873 La Société du Câble Transatlantique Française was taken over by the Anglo American Telegraph Company. Prior to the takeover plans had been drawn up to lay another cable between Brest and the USA via St. Pierre. The route was then changed to Valentia - Heart’s Content. Great Eastern was again used and the laying commenced on 14 June 1873 with Heart’s Content reached on the 27th. Escorting her were CS’s Hibernia and Edinburgh. On 1 July Hibernia laid the shore end and the cable was handed over to Anglo American on the 5th. On her way home the Great Eastern carried out repairs to the 1866 cable.


As the 1873 cable had been manufactured for the Brest - St. Pierre route there was around 1,000 nm of cable left over after the expedition so Anglo-American had sufficient cable manufactured to enable a further cable to be laid. Laying commenced on 26 August, this time from Heart’s Content to Valentia, and was completed two weeks later. CS Minia acted as escort to Great Eastern and laid both shore ends. This was the last cable expedition for the Great Eastern.


In 1876 the Milford Haven Docks Committee awarded a contract to Frederick Appleby to construct two dry docks. It was found that the Great Eastern was beached on the site of one. Rather than move it Appleby decided to use it as a platform for the pile drivers and later the builders, who built the dry dock around the ship. In so doing a substantial sum of money could be saved. However when the dock was flooded and attempts were made to tow the Great Eastern out it was found that the dock gate was too narrow to let the ship float free. Surveyors working for Appleby found that if the paddle boxes were removed there would be enough clearance for the ship to leave the dock. The ship floated clear and was beached nearby. Appleby was then instructed by the Great Eastern’s owners to replace the paddle boxes and so the money saved on the construction was swallowed up by the additional work of getting the ship out of the dock.

Following all this £8000 was spent on repairs and cleaning and the rumour mongers and wags had a field day. Among the suggestions were to use the ship to remove London’s sewage, a serious problem at the time, a floating hotel moored on the Thames, or even a smallpox hospital. One of London’s soap box orators suggested loading all the aristocracy aboard and sailing the ship out into the Atlantic and scuttling her!

On 19 November 1880 Sir Daniel Gooch finally parted company with the ship, resigning as Chairman and Director of the Great Eastern Steam Ship Company. Thomas Brassey’s son Henry replaced him.


In September 1881 the company put the ship up for sale with a reserve price of £75,000. The best offer received was £30,000. In 1883, the acting chairman Mr. Barber, reported to the board that all attempts to sell or charter the vessel had failed. A few months after this, Edward de Mattos made an offer of £50,000 and placed a deposit. This offer didn’t last as de Mattos withdrew it and reclaimed his deposit, claiming breach of contract in that he was refused permission to examine the ship. The company denied this and the dispute went to arbitration. Following on from this the company employed a firm of shipbrokers to obtain the best charter they could. Barber and fellow director Marsden in conjunction with a commissioner for the forthcoming New Orleans Exhibition set out to get the charter and take the ship over to New Orleans. They were offered £3,000 by Messrs Mumm for the champagne franchise and £1,000 by Schweppes for the mineral waters franchise. Barber offered the broker’s agent a fee to recommend their offer of £500 per month for twelve months. Barber was later arrested and charged with fraud and bribery. In February 1885 Barber’s son in law, the mortgagee of the ship, foreclosed and took possession.

The High Court of Justice ordered the ship to be auctioned and the date was set for 28 October. Louis S. Cohen, Managing Director of Lewis’s Department Store in Liverpool, made a private offer of £20,000 for the ship, but this was rejected by the mortgagees and the auction took place under the watchful eye of Mr. Justice Chitty. The first offer was £10,000 and it gradually rose to the final bid of £26,200 offered by Edward de Mattos, the representative of London Traders Ltd. This company intended to load the ship with coal, sail it to Gibraltar, and use it as a coal hulk. Cohen who had had his private offer rejected and was subsequently outbid at the auction offered to charter the ship for a year on condition that it was made available for the Liverpool Exhibition of Navigation, Travelling, Commerce and Manufactures to be held in 1886. Cohen then arranged for a party of 200 to travel on board from Milford Haven to Liverpool.

Four days was spent getting the outside of the ship ready to sail including the removal of around 300 tons of marine growth from the hull. When it came to starting the engines the paddle engines were past repair. The paddle wheels were secured and the floats removed, work was then concentrated on the screw engine. Three times it was started and three times it stopped after a few revolutions. A great deal of time was spent plugging, sealing and patching leaks. Finally the engine was started up again and the ship began to move astern. Then the new skipper, Captain Comyn, gave the order, “Stop” and “Go Ahead”. Stop she did, but Ahead no! As the tide turned the attempt to sail her out of port was abandoned until the following day. Peter Jackson the engineer hired by Comyn sent a telegram to George Beckwith asking him to join the ship. With his help the ship got under way at noon making a steady five knots towards Liverpool. But as open water was sighted the engines stopped once again, three holes were found in the main steam pipe.

The passengers were not pleased at the predicament they were in, the previous day they had arranged for a messenger to take telegrams ashore to let their friends and relatives know that they were still alive. The following morning with the ship out in the open sea a fire alarm sounded, some rotten wood had fallen on to the boilers, it was soon extinguished.

The Great Eastern at the 1886 Exhibition

While all this was going on painters were at work within the ship and a number of sign writers were busy painting advertisements on the ship’s sides. By the time the Great Eastern reached Liverpool the port side facing Birkenhead carried the slogan ‘LADIES SHOULD VISIT LEWIS’S BON MARCHE CHURCH STREET’, while on the starboard side facing Liverpool:

Towards the stern:


Lewis’s name was painted in 30 feet high letters.

Towards the bows:




On the paddle box:


When the ship arrived on 1 May, just six days were left to get the entertainment for the expected crowds ready. The main and aft cable tanks were converted into ‘Music Halls’, the Grand Saloon into a bar (the spit and sawdust variety), and the Ladies saloon became a dining room. As well as all the stalls and sideshows spread around the ship, a group of trapeze artists performed their act between the Tuesday and Wednesday masts. In the first month some 50,000 people paid their shilling to go aboard and during the four days of the Whitsun Bank Holiday 20,000 visited the ship. In all around 500,000 people visited the ship during its stay. A very successful charter for Louis Cohen certainly one of very few to have made money with the Great Eastern.

Great Eastern stereoview:
"The Grand Saloon"

Courtesy of Ken Rosen Image Archive

One of the most popular attractions was a lithographic press where on payment of one penny, pictures would be printed on the visitor’s own handkerchief of the Great Eastern; the late David Lewis, founder of the firm; and the five stores owned by the company, along with a detailed listing of the Great Eastern’s specifications.

Lewis’s Great Eastern handkerchief
Detail of the ship

With the failure of the Gibraltar scheme, and having seen how many people paid their shilling to go aboard the Great Eastern while it was in Liverpool, de Mattos decided to take the ship to various ports around the country. In the Spring of 1887 the ship was towed to Dublin; it was a financial disaster. Very few were interested in the ship or the advertisements for tea which now adorned its sides, so she was towed back to Liverpool where following the refusal of a liquor licence de Mattos put on an exhibition of arts and industry, which was also a flop. The ship was then towed to the Clyde and moored near Greenock, but again the scheme failed to pay its way. De Mattos put the ship up for auction and had posters printed publicising the sale.

The poster read:

TO BE SOLD AT PUBLIC AUCTION on Thursday 20th October 1887 at 12 O’Clock, at the Brokers’ Saleroom, Walmer Building, Water Street, Liverpool, if not previously disposed of by private treaty, THE CELEBRATED, WORLD-RENOWNED, MAGNIFICENT, IRON PADDLE AND SCREW STEAMSHIP ‘GREAT EASTERN’, as she now lies in the Clyde. Lately steamed from Dublin to Liverpool and then to the Clyde with her screw engine, which is 1,000 h.p. nominal; paddle engines are 1,000 h.p. nominal. She has lately been painted and decorated.

She was sold to Mr. Craik for £26,000. He was de Mattos’s manager and was there to prevent the ship being sold off too cheaply. About a month after the failure to sell the ship de Mattos accepted an offer of £16,500 from the firm of Henry Bath and Sons, shipbreakers, with offices in Liverpool, London and Swansea.

On completion of the sale, company executives Morrice and Greer began the process of arranging the break-up of the ship. First they went to Barrow-in-Furness and approached the Royal Navy harbourmaster, Captain Barnett, to see if they could lease the new Ramsden Dock in which to break up the ship. From there they made their way to Greenock to assess the value of the various metals. On seeing their prize, the idea of scrapping the ship disappeared. They began making plans to put in new engines and overhaul everything and then use it to transport cattle or even as an oil tanker. On hearing their plans on their return to Barrow-in-Furness the harbourmaster refused their request to use the dock.

The two decided to bring the Great Eastern back to Liverpool and so they engaged a crew of a hundred ‘runners’ i.e. seamen who take ships on their last journey to the scrap yard. Escorted by the tug Stormcock, Great Eastern left the Clyde on the 22 August 1888 the screw engine struggling to push the ship along at 4 knots and so it was decided to take a tow from her escort. Shortly after the tow was begun the wind got up and eventually the Great Eastern broke free and drifted for four hours before the wind dropped. With the tow re-established the two vessels once again headed for Liverpool, the whole journey taking three days.

Henry Bath and Sons broke with tradition and auctioned the various metals from the Great Eastern, the plates fetching £25,000, the copper and brass £7,000 and gunmetal £4,000. Souvenir hunters from all over the world came and helped push the total up to £58,000. They company estimated it would take 200 men one year to break up the ship at a cost of £20,000, ensuring a tidy profit. The Great Eastern had other ideas. In all it took the 200 men, working round the clock, two years to break up the ship. Henry Bath and Sons like so many owners lost money.

Just as the construction of the ship brought about the development of new machinery, so did the break up. Unable to separate the plates by normal means they used a demolition ball, designed to spring the rivets and so enable the plates to be separated.


Much has been made of the riveter and possibly his boy who were supposedly sealed up between the two hulls of the Great Eastern during construction. When the ship was broken up the breakers made no mention, in their records, of finding a skeleton, nothing was reported in the local press at the time and there are no records of an inquest being held following such a discovery. Brunel twice ordered the space between the two hulls to be cleaned out once before the ship was launched, following the pumping out of the water pumped in to stop her floating off. The second inspection and clean out was made in June 1859 during fitting out. Should anyone have become trapped between the hulls they could have escaped through the inspection hatches in the inner hull.


Length (between perpendiculars) 680 feet
Breadth 83 feet
Breadth over paddle boxes 120 feet
Height (keel to deck) 58 feet
Gross Tonnage 18,914 tons
Displacement 27,384 tons
Speed 141/2 knots
Floats 30 at 13 ft x 3 feet
Weight of one paddle with floats 185 tons
Paddle wheels diameter 56 feet
(Later reduced to 50 feet)
Diameter of screw 24 feet
Pitch of screw 44 feet
Number of blades 4
Weight of screw 36 tons
  Paddle engines 836 tons
  Screw engines 500 tons
  Boilers (Paddle engines) 4
  Boilers (Screw engines) 6
Coaling capacity 12,000 tons
Sails 6,500 square yards


Captain J. Anderson:
1865 Valentia, Ireland - Heart’s Content, Newfoundland (Cable lost)
1866 Valentia, Ireland - Heart’s Content, Newfoundland
1866 Recovered 1865 cable and completed it
Captain R.C. Halpin:
1869 Brest, France - St. Pierre & Miquelon
1869 St. Pierre - Duxbury, USA
1870 Back Bay, Bombay, India - Aden
1870 Aden - Suez, Egypt
1873 Valentia, Ireland - Heart’s Content, Newfoundland
1874 Heart’s Content, Newfoundland - Valentia, Ireland
  Carried out five repairs on 1865 and 1866 cables

See the Maritime Quest website for further images of Great Eastern

On the subject of the 1865 cable expedition, see also:

Original letter from Sir Daniel Gooch describing the loss of the cable on the 1865 Great Eastern expedition

John C. Deane’s diary of the 1865 expedition

Letter from Sir Robert Peel to John C. Deane, later Secretary of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, concerning the loss of the cable

Detailed description of the Recovery of the Cable in 1866, from Henry M. Field’s book

On The Causes Of Failure Of Deep-Sea Cables - 1884 article by James Graves

Last revised: 2 June, 2022

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