London Leviathan

One of my favourite spots in London and one of the few places I can park my cab beside the Thames is Burrell’s Wharf. There on the bend of the River near the southernmost point on the Isle of Dogs you get some sense of the size that the River Thames has become before making its way to the sea. I knew from The Knowledge that the approach road was Napier Avenue and alongside that road where the remains of a slipway used to launch the SS Great Eastern.

[M]y fondness of the area has been tempered slightly when I read of this ill-fated ship, made more poignant at this time as we approach the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The Great Eastern was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and was by far the largest ship ever to have been built at the time. Measuring 680 feet in length it was nearly the size of the Titanic and was six times larger than any ship afloat. It would be 40 years before she was surpassed in size.

One innovation Brunel used in its construction was a double-hull which involved millions of hand driven rivets secured by 200 gangs of riveters. Unfortunately, because someone small had to squeeze inside the narrow space between the double-hulls young “bash-boys” were employed.

Twelve hour days would be spent in the cramped space with only a lighted candle providing illumination, listening to the deafening noise of the hammers. It was rumoured that some never came out and their skeletal remains were found when the ship was dismantled.

Whatever the truth was, the SS Great Eastern was certainly a jinxed ship. Its length too long to be launched stern first for fear the ship would hit the opposite bank of the Thames, she was built and launched parallel to the water.

220px-SS_Great_Eastern_in_New_York_Harbor_by_StacyWhen the massive blocks were removed the winch which was meant to control the slide spun out of control, killing one and injuring four others. The ship moved only 3ft its sheer weight drove down on the skids designed to slide it into the river and the vessel sunk into the ground. It would be some three months and all the money earmarked for fitting her out before she finally floated on the Thames.

A year elapsed before another company bought her and paid for the fitting out. Later during the sea trials, an explosion in the engine room killed at least five men and destroyed the forward funnel. In ailing health, Isambard Kingdom Brunel on hearing the news died soon afterwards. On the ship’s 4th voyage she suffered severe storm damage at sea and in 1862 when negotiating Long Island Sound on her approach to New York she hit a rocky outcrop leaving a 9ft wide by 83ft long gash and was only saved by her double-hull. The promontory which caused the damage once called North East Ribbs would later be renamed Great Eastern Rock.

The men who worked aboard the steamer complained of an eerie hammering noise constantly heard from far below decks. They said it often woke them from their sleep and was loud enough to be heard during storms. It was said to be made by the ghost of one of the souls left trapped between the hulls during construction.

Perhaps she is best remembered for laying the first successful trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866, at the time the only ship thought to be large enough to carry the huge cable, it was said to have taken five months just to load the cable on board.

After its cable laying days, the great ship was moored on the Thames for over 12 years. Its rusty hull was once proposed to be used as a floating prison, but in the end in 1888 she was cut up for scrap. The only reminder of this great ship is the old slipway and the shipyard’s owner remembered in the road beside it – Napier Avenue. Curiously another part of her is to be found at a football club. At the time of her break-up, Liverpool Football Club was looking for a flagpole for their Anfield ground and consequently purchased her topmast. It still stands there today, at the Kop end.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 6th March 2012

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