The black iron monster that was the Great Eastern steamed with dread and disaster across the North Atlantic nearly a century ago, wrecking lives, high hopes and fat fortunes

Peter Davidson December 15 1949


The black iron monster that was the Great Eastern steamed with dread and disaster across the North Atlantic nearly a century ago, wrecking lives, high hopes and fat fortunes

Peter Davidson December 15 1949


The black iron monster that was the Great Eastern steamed with dread and disaster across the North Atlantic nearly a century ago, wrecking lives, high hopes and fat fortunes

Peter Davidson

LATE IN the afternoon of January 31, 1858, the black hull of an enormous iron steamer slid into the Thames from a shipyard at Millwall, near London. Huffing little tugs, like water beetles under a cliff, towed the monster to her moorings in the river. At 6 o’clock a message to Queen Victoria, sent by electromagnetic telegraph to Windsor Castle, respectfully informed Her Majesty that the biggest ship in t he world had now been launched. It was named Great Eastern.

The new giant was not only immensely big. She was also immensely unlucky so unlucky that people talked of her as a ship under a curse. Nearly every time she sailed she killed or maimed at least one man on board. She ruined the company that built her, every successive company that bought her, and all but two of her charterers.

Every sailor in England was sure she was haunted. Doom and disaster rode with her to the end of her days; and when she was at last broken up for scrap, after 30 years of fantastic misfortunes, she had firmly established herself as the outstanding white elephant of maritime history.

The Great Eastern was as much bigger than any other ship of her day as an express locomotive is bigger than a farmer’s buggy. Even now there are only 14 longer ships afloat (she measured 692 feet), and only 51 larger by gross tonnage (hers was 22,500). And no ship, not even t he mighty Queen

Elizabeth, has ever equaled her width —120 feet at t he paddle boxes.

She could carry 800 first-class passengers, 2,000 second-class and 1,200 third, and had a crew of 800. The largest of her public rooms, the grand saloon, was 60 feet wide and 120 feet long. The main mast (she had six masts altogether) towered 207 feet above her acre of deck, and her five funnels were 100 feet tall. Her 56-foot paddle wheels (she also had a screw propeller which weighed 60 tons) were as big as the centre ring of a circus.

She cost £1,500,000 to build. Allowing for the difference between the buying power of money in the 1850’s and now this represents about $40 millions.

Designed by Isambard Brunei, the most famous engineer in all England, the giant was meant to be not only the largest but the fastest, safest and most comfortable ship ever built. On paper she seemed to be just. that. At sea, and even before she slid down the shipyard ways into the Thames, things turned out very differently.

During construction, which took four years instead of the expected two, the Great Eastern killed a boy and five men, counting two riveters who mysteriously vanished while they were working on her. Launching her, which should have taken t hree minutes, took three months, killed two more men and crippled nine others for life. On her trial run

she killed seven more men; and Brunei, desperately ill from overwork, died when he heard the news.

Far from proving the wonder ship Brunei hoped for, in 20 voyages she hung up an all-time record of failure—a fantastic tale of ruin, death, disappointment and sheer farce, filled with such improbable matters as the Affair of the Silly Spy, the Restlessness of the Noisy Ghost, the Mystery of the Vanished Riveters, and the Insomnia of the Emperor of France.

Her few real successes came when she was laying submarine telegraph cables, a thing she had never been intended to do. Most of the 30 years she lasted were spent at anchor under the watchful eye of the commissioners for bankruptcy. Seven years before Confederation she brought the 60th Rifle Regiment from Liverpool to Quebec; and that run to Canada as a troop ship was the only happy and prosperous ocean crossing she ever made.

The reason Brunei designed a ship so staggeringly big was quite simple. The Great Eastern was built to carry passengers and cargo between England and Australia. The largest steamers then on the Australian run—1,800-tonners the monster could almost have hoisted aboard as lifeboats—always lost money at it because they couldn’t take on much coal at one time. They had to refuel at St. Vincent’s, the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius outward-bound, again when they got to Australia,

and still again at the same three ports on the way home. As of August 1853, when the specially formed Eastern Steam Navigation Company announced it was going to build the Great Eastern, the best Australian run any steamer had ever made left her owners £1,000 in the red, although the ship had a full cargo both ways and all the passengers she could carry. And other steamers had been known to lose as much as £20,000 in a single round trip.

Brunei figured that if a ship were built which could carry enough cheap English coal to take her to Australia and back she would make a profit instead of a loss—a thumping 40% a year in fact.

To Launch Her, Three Months

THE shareholders were naturally delighted at the prospect of terrific dividends, and saw nothing out of the way in Brunei’s idea. But ordinary folk, when they realized it meant building an iron steamer nearly 700 feet long, decided he must have gone crazy. Newspapers had a field day with him. Punch, already established as the one humorous paper an English gentleman could decently laugh at, poked solemn fun at the whole project. And the editor of the Record, a religious weekly, told his readers point blank a ship that big was contrary to the will of God.

Brunei and the Eastern Steam Navigation

Company went ahead anyway. The first step was to get the £1,200,000 of capital they thought would be enough (it wasn’t, and by the end of a year and a half they had to stop work until they could raise more money). The next was to lay the keel, which was done in Scott Russell’s shipyard at Millwall on May Day, 1854. What happened next was described by a writer in the Quarterly Review:

“The voyager up and down the Thames has noticed with astonishment the slow growth of a huge structure on the southern extremity of the Isle of Dogs. At first a few enormous posts alone cut the sky line and arrested his attention, then, vast plates of iron, that seemed big enough to form shields for the Gods, reared themselves edgeways at great distances apart, and as months elapsed a wall of metal slowly rose between him and the horizon.”

Wandering openmouthed through the vast hull the Review’s man decided that the Great Eastern would be too enormous to pitch or roll in the waves.

But the iron giant soon got under way on her career of heartbreak.

After lying more than a year at her moorings off the shipyard while a new company was formed to take her over from the Eastern Steam Navigation people for £330,000—they had been bankrupt by the unexpected extra cost of her three-month launching which set them back £120,000 —the new ship sailed on a trial Continued on page 39

The Ship That Was Cursed

Continued from page 13

run to Portland in the west of England. Plans for an England-Austria service were shelved.

Brunei had been working desperately hard in the interval to get her finished in time for the sailing date announced: September 6, 1859. The day before sailing he was almost too tired to hold his head up, but when a photographer came to take a picture of him standing by one of the funnels he posed with his shiny black top hat in one hand and his stick in the other. Twenty minutes later he fell to the deck, paralyzed by a stroke; on September 15, nine days after the ship had sailed without him, he died.

In the early morning of the 7th, as the Great Eastern rounded the coast of Kent, the wind began to blow hard from the west. By noon it was half a gale and the small excursion steamers which had put out from the Kentish ports to see the wonderful ship were having a hard time; but the Great Eastern, as one newspaperman aboard wrote, was “as firm and immovable as Buckingham Palace.”

Soon after 5 (a telegram from a shore station had just reported her “steaming grandly past Margate”) there was a terrific explosion. This was followed by a savage hissing of steam and the smashing crash of glass and wood from the grand saloon, the forward end of which was completely wrecked.

Fortunately there was nobody in it, and no passenger was even scratched; but it was another matter for the crew. A steam pipe had burst in the casing of No. 3 funnel and the funnel itself had shot into the air like a huge shell, taking with it a quarter-acre of deck planking and most of the skylight of the saloon. Down in the boiler room five stokers were killed by the sudden jet of live steam and two others so horribly scalded they died later in hospital at Portland, where the Great Eastern arrived on schedule.

The court of enquiry which investigated found that the explosion had been caused by failure to open an escape cock in No. 3 vent pipe. This piece of inexcusable negligence would have been bad enough, but what was really damning was the fantastic organizational muddle the enquiry disclosed.

The Great Eastern’s power plant consisted of four boiler:., delivering 3team to her main engines—one of 1,000 h.p. which turned the paddles, and another of 1,6C0 h.p. which drove

the screw propeller. Each set of main engines was run by totally separate staffs and the two chief engineers were barely on speaking terms. The result was that when the boiler room reported an alarming rise of pressure in No. 3 vent pipe, neither officer would accept responsibility for ordering the escape cock opened.

Although the double curse of being too big for her day and age and being hopelessly mismanaged made the Great Eastern a killer it quite often transformed her into something straight out of a comic nightmare. Her abortive fourth Atlantic run is a fine example of this perverse hellishness, and there are still old sailors alive who talk about it with amazement and disgust.

Several of the 400 passengers who joined her kept diaries and a number of others wrote angry letters to the newspapers when they finally got ashore again, so it is possible to reconstruct the whole business.

Crew’s Quarters Like a Jail

It is also possible to say what the Great Eastern looked like that September 10, 1861, when the passengers boarded her at Liverpool. The vast hull was black, one energetic passenger noted, except for a yard-wide while band painted entirely around the ship at the bulwarks. The paddle boxes, the five funnels and the six masts (Brunei having foreseen that the engines might break down had rigged her so she could travel under sail alone) were a pale cream color. Her deck was littered with ropes ends, scraps of paper and other messy objects.

Below decks the ship was fairly clean, he said. At the bow were the crew’s quarters, which reminded him of a jail and a steam laundry. Going aft from the laundry he came to a special saloon for lady passengers in the first class, and then the grand saloon. These immense rooms were furnished with cut-glass chandeliers, chairs and sofas of carved walnut upholstered in red Utrecht velvet, and had paneled walls and thick-pile carpets with a design of cabbage roses.

Still farther aft came the three dining saloons furnished with much the same fusty grandeur. Running along both sides of the saloons were the firstclass cabins, which measured about eight feet by 14 and had two bunks (a few had four), a washstand, and a narrow closet for clothes. Passage in these cost $80 one way (at 1861 money values) including meals; the secondand third-class cabins, arranged around

the sides of the four decks below the saloon level, cost $65 and $30.

Meals were served four times a day. Breakfast at 9, a lunch of beer and biscuits at noon, dinner at 4 (wine was extra, but the most expensive on the list cost only $3 a bottle), and a kind of high tea, with boiled eggs and meat pies, at 7.

The voyage began that September day on a note of farce which for once was no fault of the Great Eastern’s management. The Civil War had broken out in America earlier in the year and the sympathies of many Englishmen were with the southern states. The merchants of Liverpool, making fortunes out of importing slave-grown cotton, were especially pro-Confederate and didn’t mind saying so. Since the Great Eastern was bound for a northern port the counter-' espionage service of the northern armies sent a young officer to England in civilian clothes with orders to make the crossing with her and report any unusually rabid supporters of the South on arrival.

The officer chosen doesn’t seem to have been a very talented spy (one account has him edging up to groups of passengers and cupping his hand to his ear).

Nearly a Waterloo at Sea

After this diverting start all went well for the first day—well, that is, except that the speed was a mere 11 knots instead of the 18 she was designed to make. There was also a little trouble among the crew who complained they were being kept awake by loud mysterious noises coming from somewhere in the space between the inner and outer plates of the ship (the Great Eastern had a double hull and 13 watertight compartments, and was therefore unsinkable—-just like the Titanic which was built the same way). Some of the older and more superstitious seamen claimed the noise was being made by a ghost.

In the morning of the second day the wind veered to the north and worked up to a full gale by dark. The Great Eastern, which had never before run into such dirty weather, pitched and rolled so fearfully almost all the passengers took to their cabins and were very seasick. And toward midnight a sudden surge of the gale wrecked both her paddles, carried away most of her seaboats and snapped her 10-inch iron rudder post in half, leaving her completely helpless.

One of the passengers later wrote to the Times that “she lay like a huge log in the trough of the sea” from the night of Thursday, September 12, until the following Sunday. During that time every piece of china and most of her furniture was smashed to splinters. The cooks, flung wildly against the galley stoves, were too badly burned to do their work. And the rest of the crew, a sorry lot of ruffians from the slums of the Liverpool waterfront, broke into the liquor storeroom and went on a wild three-day drunk.

On Sunday afternoon the rudder was repaired after a fashion and the Great Eastern headed for Ireland.

When the ship reached Cork harbor on the morning of September 20 (she had spent two days and a night lumbering around in the approaches, but couldn’t get in because of her damaged rudder) the passengers were as mad as hornets. They were also frightened for the Great Eastern’s curse had struck again.

Just as the ship came to anchor, with everyone on deck watching, the massive steering wheel suddenly spun on its axle and smashed the helmsman’s head to a pulp in front of their eyes.

After this they passed a resolution condemning the management of the Great Ship Company (the outfit that had bought her from the Eastern Steam Navigation crowd) and demanded to be put ashore with their baggage at once.

Then came the final blow. During the gale hundreds of tons of water had got into the baggage hold, and three days of churning and sloshing had reduced trunks and boxes to a kind of porridge. Just about everything was smashed except jewelry and spare sets of false teeth which lay scattered in a yard-deep layer of mush on the floor of the hold. Furious owners groped around in their bare feet.

The Great Ship Company had to send the 400 passengers on to America free of charge in other ships. When one of the passengers, Sir William Forwood, finally reached New York he was arrested and held in jail for 12 hours while he and his luggage were searched. He was told that a Northern agent had heard him on board the Great Eastern speaking unfavorably of the Northern government. Another passenger, Cornelius Walford, was arrested on much the same charges when he got to Boston. The young spy wasn’t as silly as people thought.

Somehow the reputation of the Great Eastern survived this disastrous unfinished voyage. Curse and all (two of her sailors fell overboard and were drowned as she tied up in New York on her fifth run; they floated to the surface when her paddles churned the river as she left) the unhappy monster made four more trips between Liverpool and New York.

On the sixth, outward-bound near Sandy Hook, she struck a reef and ripped a 100-foot hole in her bottom, but was kept from sinking by her double hull and watertight compartments. The cost of repairing this, and her growing unpopularity (she once sailed with 45 passengers instead of a possible 4,000) finally ruined the Great Ship Company, which went bankrupt in the fall of 1863.

In early July 1861, however, she made the only successful and profitable voyage of her career as a passenger carrier when the British Government chartered her to take the 60th Rifle Regiment to Quebec. Everything went splendidly for everyone, with the exception of two horses which caught cold and died when she came too close to an iceberg. And the commanding officer of the troops, Colonel Mauleverer, wrote to a friend from Toronto on July 22 saying, “With regard to the ship herself, and speaking as a passenger, I have no fault to find with her. I had the easiest and most comfortable passage in my 27 years’ service.”

Valenda to Heart’s Content

There were plenty of visitors to the Great Eastern as she lay in the St. Lawrence off the Citadel at Quebec. Excursions were run from places as far away as Toronto. The steamer Bowmanville left Wyatt’s Wharf on Front Street there on the 10th of July, direct for Quebec (“making,” the advertisement said, “a Day Light Trip through the magnificent scenery of the River St. Lawrence and Rapids.”). The whole excursion took nine days, including two days at Quebec and one at Montreal; the fare, including meals and berth, was $4, which, even considering that $1 in 1861 would buy what $5 will buy today, was fabulously cheap.

The Great Eastern left Quebec for Liverpool on August 6, with only 344 passengers and very little cargo. The crossing took 12 days, lost her owners a

couple of hundred thousand dollars, and killed one man (he fell into an open hatchway and landed on his head 60 feet below). Consequently it was one of the monster’s typical runs.

After the Great Ship Company went into receivership, Cyrus Field, pioneer in submarine telegraph cable work, thought the Great Eastern would serve perfectly to lay the new cable from Valentia in Ireland to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, made necessary by the breakdown of the original cable of 1858.

Field’s Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company took her over in the early part of 1864. Most of her cabins and all her main saloons were

torn out and replaced by enormous tanks, 75 feet wide and 60 feet deep, to hold the coils of the cable.

The first attempt to lay the cable failed in August 1865 when the strand parted and was lost at a point 604 miles east of Newfoundland. But in July of the following year, after 29 tries at catching the lost end in her grapnel gear, she finally made it and a few days later finished the job by landing the cable at Heart’s Content.

Back at anchor in England after her first triumph the Great Eastern lay idle until January 1867, producing nothing for the receivers in bankruptcy who were now her owners except a great many preposterous rumors. Ac-

cording to one story the Sultan of Turkey was thinking of buying her and fixing her up with silks and jewels and marble pillars as a floating harem.

The Emperor Napoleon III of France, hearing this, was so upset he couldn’t sleep properly for a week. He had decided that some French company should charter her to run between New York and Liverpool (she couldn’t get in to any French port on account of her 30-foot draught) to bring rich Americans to the Paris Exposition of 1867.

in a dither of anxiety he waited to hear whether his idea could be carried out or whether the Sultan had beaten him to it; on the eighth day of waiting, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, he had the gratification to learn that all was well. A group of Parisian capitalists had made the deal (it cost them 250,000 francs to refit her as a passenger carrier and 20,000 francs a month for the charter). And on March 26, 1867, the Great Eastern sailed for New York under the French flag.

Jules Verne, author of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “Round the World in Eighty Days” and other wonderful scientific romances, was one of her passengers. His account of the trip was published as “The Floating City” soon after he got back home again, and all Paris read and talked about it.

Verne’s is an odd and fascinating hodgepodge of fact and fiction. On the factual side he seems chiefly to have been struck by the Great Eastern’s immense size, but he was also impressed by a number of other things. On Sunday, for instance, he was astonished to find that instead of beer and biscuits on the lunch trays the stewards brought around there were stacks of Bibles. He was fascinated by the pool organized (by a Canadian, incidentally, whom he calls the Honorable James Rose) to bet on the ship’s run. And he was appalled by the example he saw of the monster’s curse at work.

As she was getting up anchor at Liverpool a piece of the capstan gear broke. The 90-ton anchor, which was almost out of the water by then, plunged to the bottom of the River Mersey again. The great chain, wound around the capstan drum, set the capstan spinning like a child’s top. The flailing bars knocked down all the 54 sailors who were heaving at them, kill-

ing four of them instantly and wounding 12 others badly. One of them died a few days later and was buried at sea.

The voyage itself was uneventful except for a storm in mid-Atlantic which set the ship rolling almost as much as she had done on her memorable fiasco in the Irish Sea. Her speed was wretchedly slow, barely 11 knots, and she was twice overtaken and passed by pert little Cunard liners (one of them unkindly offered her a tow). And on this and the three other runs she made for her French charterers she lost so much money that they went broke halfway through the exposition’s season.

She Lays a Line to India

The rest of the Great Eastern’s story is quickly told. In the summer of 1869 the receivers in bankruptcy, who were getting good and sick of having such a white elephant on their hands, chartered her to a French telegraph company for laying a cable from Brest to Sydney, Nova Scotia. She did it beautifully. Later the same year she laid another cable with equal success, this time from England to India, and came back to the exasperated receivers again.

In the early 1880’s they leased her, after 10 years at anchor, to a man who had her taken up the Mersey and permanently moored in that river near Liverpool, to serve as a floating dancehall and fun fair.

In 1888 the son of Captain Paton, one of her former commanders, was so outraged at this indignity to his father’s ship that he went to the Liverpool City Council and threatened to blow her up with gunpowder if they didn’t put a stop to it. The council gave in to him and ordered the lessee to clear out within a week. The receivers then sold the ship to shipbreakers for £26,000.

When she was broken up (she was able to travel to the breakers’ yard at Barrow-in-Furness under her own steam) the mystery of the vanished riveters was solved at last.

The curse of the Great Eastern had never struck more horribly. Between the inner and outer hulls the breaking crew found two skeletons, their bony hands still clutching at their throats. The men, out of sight in the dark space of the compartment, had been riveted into an airtight iron tomb. ★