Quilting the Thames Part Four: “She Moves!” at Deptford Reach

Thames Quilt - Deptford Reach

Brunel’s Great Eastern launching sideways at Deptford Reach: Thames Quilt Section Four

According to many maps of the Thames, Greenwich Reach follows straight on from Limehouse Reach. My trusty 1890 Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames, however, informs me that there is another distinct section of the River in between. Deptford Reach is “about a mile long, from the end of Limehouse Reach to Greenwich Ferry,” and here, I found traces of one of the most celebrated engineers of the 19th Century – Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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The legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – that great builder of bridges, railways, tunnels, ships and dockyards – can be found all over London. The Three Bridges of the Grand Junction Canal, Great Western and Brentford Railway, and Windmill Lane all crossing each other in Hanwell; the Wharncliffe Viaduct; the spans of Paddington Station – these are all part of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. There is a Brunel Museum, by the river in Rotherhithe, which is well worth a visit. The museum concentrates on two of Brunel’s projects – the Thames Tunnel and the SS Great Eastern.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel keeping an eye on Paddington Station

And a shade of the SS Great Eastern can be found at Deptford Reach. Along the Thames path, there is a strange wooden construction: the launch site of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern – or the Great Babe, as he nicknamed her.


In 1857 when she was built, the SS Great Eastern was the largest ship in the world – so big at 692 feet long that the River Thames was not wide enough to accommodate her unless she was launched sideways. And on 3 November 1857, thousands of spectators flocked to Deptford Reach to see this sideways launch, much to Brunel’s dismay. He had wanted to keep it low-key. And the launch failed – the winches and capstans that were supposed to haul the great ship towards the river were simply not strong enough.

Deptford Directions

On 4 November, the London Daily News reported:

We regret to announce that the first attempt to launch this great Leviathan has been a failure … Every available spot on both sides of the river where a glimpse of the ship could be caught was filled with expectant spectators. About 1 o’clock the excitement of all was raised to the highest pitch … The shout is heard, “She moves!” and so she does – the aft part faster, however, than the fore. Her speed is instantly checked, and she is still.

NPG P663; Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of 'The Great Eastern' by Robert Howlett

Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of the Great Eastern by Robert Howlett, albumen print, arched top, 1857 *

A further (unsuccessful) launch was attempted on 19 November, and reported by the Sligo Champion on 21 November 1857. The Champion’s description of Brunel is wonderful; his bulging pockets indicate a man more concerned with his work than with creating a public show:

A short man of five-and-forty, who must surely be a carpenter in his second-best suit, with a shocking bad hat, which he wears … with the slouch, as if the functions of a hat were to cover the nape of the neck. Our friend wears an invisible green coat, square and wide at the skirts, with two or three outside pockets, in one of which he doubtless carries a carpenter’s rule, and in the other bit of glue.

Thames at Deptford

The River Thames at Deptford where the SS Great Eastern was launched sideways on 31 January 1858

After another failed launch on 28 November, finally, on 31 January 1858, a successful sideways launch took place. This time, “She floats!” and she stayed afloat. But her first voyage in 1859 was beset with difficulties. In September, once the ship had left the Thames and was in the English Channel, a huge explosion led to the destruction of one of her funnels. Five stokers were killed, four or five others were badly injured, and one was lost overboard. Brunel suffered a stroke after his final inspection visit to the Great Eastern on 5 September 1859 and died shortly afterwards on 15 September 1859. He was just 53.

Thames Quilt - Deptford Shadows

As for the SS Great Eastern, she was broken up in 1889-90 at New Ferry on the River Mersey. Such was the strength of her construction, it took two hundred men took two years to complete the task.

Commercial difficulties, costly repairs, and bankruptcies seem to mean that the Great Eastern somehow represent Brunel’s moment of hubris. But I like to think of that first launch as a moment of hope and ambition – and tenacity. The excited cry of “She floats!” and the determination to try and try again were very much in my mind as I sewed Deptford Reach.

Thames Quilt - up the garden path

The Thames Quilt getting too long and leading me down the garden path….

* Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, NPG P663, reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence

Quilting the Thames Part Three: The Greenland Lads at Limehouse Reach

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Greenland Lads on a ship full of oil at Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt Section Three

Travelling further down the River Thames to Limehouse Reach,  I found myself at a loss. What should go into the Thames Quilt here?

I considered the E A Dupont 1929 Silent Film Piccadilly with its Limehouse scenes as a starting point. It didn’t work. Much as I love that film, it isn’t really a story of the river. I flirted with Sherlock Holmes and the silent films directed by Maurice Elvey starring Eille Norwood as Holmes, but that didn’t work either. I re-read Great Expectations to check whether Magwitch hides in Limehouse (he does, in a house with a “bow-window where he can see the ships sail up and down the river,” and watch Pip and Herbert Pocket rowing on the river in preparation for his escape) but I didn’t feel it was the right choice.

LowTide at Limehouse Reach

Low Tide at Limehouse Reach

Then I remembered a visit to the Museum of London, Docklands, where I had seen a great big pot, a remnant of a trade that perhaps we would rather forget today – a pot used in whaling. I do not condone or support whaling in any way, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Thames as a working river, and whaling is undeniably part of its working history. I was fascinated to discover that, if you make your way to Limehouse Reach and cut behind the river into Greenland Dock, you are walking in the footsteps of the Thames whalers. *

Limehouse Dock

Greenland Dock

And it was with the whalers that I found the theme for the Limehouse Reach section of the Thames Quilt. I have a long-standing interest in sea songs and shanties. Some of these songs are whaling songs – songs like The Greenland Whale Fishers (And when we reached that whale my boys / He lashed out with his tail / And we lost a boat and seven good men / And we never caught that whale), and Reuben Ranzo (O! Ranzo was no sailor – Ranzo me boys, Ranzo / He shipped aboard a whaler – Ranzo boys, Ranzo!).

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The Whale from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1920

One of my favourite sea shanties is The Bonnie Ship The Diamond. The final verse of the song looks forward to the whalers returning home:

It’ll be bright both day and night when the Greenland lads come home / With a ship that’s full of oil me boys, and money to our name / Here’s a health unto the Diamond bright, the skipper and the crew / Here’s a health to every bonnie lass that has a heart so true.

I used this verse as inspiration for the Limehouse Reach section of the quilt, but I must confess to geographically repurposing the song: I believe the real Diamond sailed out of Aberdeen rather than London. However, I wanted to make reference to Greenland Dock, so I used the Greenland lads to make a connection. You can see a rousing rendition  of The Bonnie Ship The Diamond by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir here.

A murky day on the River at the entrance to Limehouse Reach

The entrance to Greenland Dock from the River on a grey April day

Visitors to Greenland Dock today see a lovely stretch of water without the smell, mess and sound of London’s filthy whaling trade. But two and a half centuries ago, a day out to see a whale carcass was a great treat. On February 9 1762, The Derby Mercury reported that on Sunday an innumerable concourse of people repair’d to Greenland Dock to see the Whale lately brought there. The road was lined with coaches, chariots, post-chaises, horsemen and footmen, from morning till evening, like a fair. It is computed that there were not less than 50,000 persons of both sexes continually passing and repassing. Their journey, however, proved unsavoury at the end,  for the whale stank abominably.

Moby Dick Live

The return of the Thames Whalers? The empty stage at the end of Moby Dick Unabridged

In October 2015, whaling returned to the Thames when the Southbank Centre staged Moby Dick Unabridged – a  four-day live rendition of Herman Melville’s novel. An impressive reading relay was enhanced by art installations, sea shanties and dance performances. It is a matter of lasting regret that I didn’t experience the whole thing; I was only able to get along to the final afternoon when I became so wrapped up with Captain Ahab that I stayed, spellbound, until the end.

More recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick while sewing the Thames Quilt. There is a description of the whaling town of New Bedford near the beginning. In my head, I see not New Bedford but Greenland Dock:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled up upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one more perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.

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Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt detail

 

 

* I was lucky enough to be shown around Greenland Dock by Ken, the Old Map Man, who has developed a great walk about the docks in Rotherhithe – including the magical remains of Russia Dock. Find out more here and take a walk by the river.