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