SS Great Eastern in the Mersey, 1876

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the Mersey of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Eastern. Brunel had come up with the idea of a super-ship in 1851 with the purpose of transporting emigrants to the United States. The ship was to be six times larger than any other ship and posed huge technical and financial problems, particularly the latter. After numerous problems, including the shipbuilder going bankrupt, the ship was launched sideways into the Thames. Powered by a single screw plus two paddle wheels, the ship also had six masts, although the sails could not be used at the same time the paddles and screw were under steam, because the hot exhaust from the five funnels would set them on fire. Her maximum speed was 24 km/h (13 knots).
In 1859, after fitting out, the ship set out on its maiden journey to Weymouth. It had just passed Hastings when there was a huge explosion, the forward deck blowing apart with enough force to throw the No. 1 funnel into the air, followed by a rush of escaping steam. Five stokers died from being scalded by superheated steam and others badly injured. Finally, in June 1860, Great Eastern set out for America, a trip completed in just under 11 days.
Upon Great Eastern’s return to England, the ship was chartered by the British Government to transport troops to Quebec. This was its first trip to Liverpool, arriving on June 4th, 150 years ago. Over 2,000 officers and men, 473 women and children and 200 horses were embarked at Liverpool along with 40 paying passengers. The ship sailed on 25 June 1861 and went at full speed throughout most of the trip arriving at her destination 8 days and 6 hours after leaving Liverpool. Further voyages proved the ship had no great commercial value. Used for laying telegraph cables across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans at least prolonged her active life. At the end of her cable laying career, she was refitted once again as a liner but, once again, efforts to make her a commercial success failed. Finally, and degradingly, the ship was purchased as an advertising hoarding?sailing up and down the Mersey for Lewis’s Department Store before broken up for scrap at Rock Ferry in 1889.
What would Liverpool give now for such an “embarrassment”? As a great port, one thing missing from its attractions is a great historic ship. Bristol has Brunel’sGreat Eastern, London has the Cutty Sark and Portsmouth has the Mary Rose and HMS Victory – but Liverpool has nothing. What a shame for the most important trading port of the nineteenth century. At least Liverpool FC have the Great Eastern’s main mast at the Kop end – but that is not the same as a great ship for people to marvel at.

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