It’s weird how you think you know a place and particularly its history very well, and yet it turns out that you actually know very little. You can pass by something many times and yet not notice or be aware of the relevance of its past.
Well – my little jaunt out to the ‘smoke’ this week, took me to a specific location on the Isle of Dogs, an area I believed I knew extremely well, having worked in Canary Wharf for the last 16 years of my career – however, I had absolutely no knowledge of this specific spot, nor its relevance to a historic event.
The subject matter for publication onto my London Shoes website for this week is all about “Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the building of the SS Great Eastern Steamship at the Millwall Ironworks Shipyard” !!!
My research on the topic read like ‘a bad day at the office’.
The “SS Great Eastern” was an iron sailing steamship designed by the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it was built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at the Millwall Iron Works on the Isle of Dogs, right alongside the River Thames.
At the time of its design and construction it was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of its launch in 1858.
It measurements were 600 ft x 65 ft x 30 ft – six times larger by volume than any other ship afloat at that time, and it was also the first ship ever to be constructed almost entirely of metal.
It had the capacity to carry 4000 passengers, and the intention was for it to provide ‘non-stop’ travel from England to Australia, without the need to re-fuel.
Having been promised a budget of some £500,000, the expectation on Brunel was to knock-out this unique ground breaking vessel promptly and without any problems.
However, following its agreed design, and just before construction of the ship was to commence – Brunel’s budget was slashed considerably down to just under £250,000 – which had a massive impact on the project and meant that the strategy behind its ‘build’ had to be completely revised, and several corners had to be cut.
One of the first tasks was to look for a ‘cheap’ but suitable dock where the vessel could be constructed and then launched.
The commissioned ship builder, J. Scott Russell & Co, did have their own shipyard at Millwall, with a highly skilled workforce – but the yard itself was far too small to cope with the scale of the design for the SS Great Eastern.
However, at that time, an adjacent “Napier’s” dock yard was empty and available – and so J Scott Russell & Co took a lease out on Napier’s yard and then went and built a railway line connecting the 2 dockyards, so that the extensive materials could be moved around easily between the 2 sites.
Because of the sheer size of the ship, and the lack of space in the dockyards, it was decided that the SS Great Eastern would have to be built ‘sideways’ on to the River Thames.
The other reason that it had to be built ‘sideways-on’ was because the actual launch site opened out into quite a ‘tight’ bend in the Thames between Millwall and Deptford, and there was a concern there may be problems if the ship was launched the conventional way.
So – to deal with the sideways-on construction approach, Brunel ordered the construction of 2 huge wooden ‘slipways’ running from the Millwall dockyard into the Thames, which would carry the SS Great Eastern sideways into the River.
With all the plans and everything finally agreed, albeit with a hell of a lot of cost-cutting, work on the construction of the SS Great Eastern commenced in the spring of 1854, and was completed and ready for launch in November 1857.
Because the whole project had been one crisis after another, and because it was the first time a ship of this size had ever been launched sideways, Brunel insisted on a low-key affair for the actual launch event.
However, against his wishes, the Great Eastern’s financers had decided to sell 3000 tickets for spectators to enter the ship yard to watch the event.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the main financier insisted that his young daughter Henrietta be selected to conduct the formal naming of the ship ceremony and the actual launch – however, and for some unknown reason, she christened it with the wrong name – calling it the “Leviathan”….
Problems were compounded further when the launch totally failed, because ship didn’t actually ‘move’ when it was supposed to, as the steam winches and other mechanical contraptions that were in place to move the Great Eastern into the Thames – were not strong or powerful enough!!!
Brunel made 2 other attempts throughout that month to try and launch the ship – using much more powerful hydraulic equipment – but those attempts all failed as well.
Eventually the ship was finally launched (sideways) on 31 January 1858, and by more luck than judgement, this attempt was aided by an unusually high tide and strong winds and using more powerful specialised hydraulic equipment.
Following the successful launch, the ship was formally re-named in 1858, back to what it should have been…the SS Great Eastern.
However, the ship’s ‘curse’ didn’t end there.
On its maiden voyage in 1858 the Great Eastern was badly damaged by an explosion – and cost an absolute fortune to repair.
If that wasn’t bad enough, and just a few months after its fated maiden voyage, poor old Isambard Kingdom Brunel, at the age of only 53, died from a fatal stroke.
With all the calamities happening to it, the SS Great Eastern just became too costly to operate as a passenger ship, it had originally been intended – and in 1866 it was sold at auction, but then had a new lease of life pioneering the laying of telegraph cables across the Atlantic from the UK to North America.
Between 1869 and 1874 it had laid down 6 more cables from Europe to America, repaired two earlier ones, and laid another across the Indian Ocean…..so she wasn’t a complete waste of space!!
Within the short period of time following its original launch – bigger, more effective and faster ships were being built – and by 1888 the SS Great Eastern was sadly considered ‘out-of-date’ – and she ended her days as a floating ‘billboard’ sailing up and down the Mersey advertising Liverpool’s Lewis Department Store.
Sadly, the poor old SS Great Eastern was finally bought up, and broken down for scrap in 1889.
Now – the reason for my little trek to the Isle of Dogs this week – is because, in the middle of a housing estate at the south eastern tip of Millwall, in “Burrell’s Wharf” not far from Canary Wharf – and totally unbeknown to me – are the actual remains of the SS Great Eastern wooden slipway launch ramps, that Brunel had constructed to move and launch, what was the largest boat in the world, into the River Thames.
So my quest was to simply go down there, seek out the site and photograph these historical relics from what I feel is an amazing story.
Before making my way back home – I just had to have a couple of ‘cheeky’ beers in none other than the ‘Great Eastern’ pub, just a short walk from the launch ramp ruins, and right nearby Island Gardens Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station.
The Great Eastern is a Grade II listed building that now has a ‘Brunel Lounge’ in commemoration of the great man who designed the record breaking ship of the same name, just down the road.
Today this pub doubles as a pub and a tourist backpackers hostel, but interestingly, back in the day, the pub used to be called the “Waterman’s Arms” and was a well-known music pub, often frequented by local ‘faces’ and ‘celebs’ – also, some scenes from the ‘Long Good Friday’ were filmed there, and it also featured in a number of tv productions of the time, including The Professionals.
Hope you enjoy the photos and found the story interesting.