January 2008 marks the 150th anniversary of the launch of the SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last great steamship and for several years the largest ship ever to be built.
She was conceived as a passenger liner which would be capable of taking passengers from England to the Far East and Australia without needing to refuel, and the vast proportions of the ship were designed to allow it to do so. However, the ship was actually too large to fit down the Suez Canal and therefore travelling to the Indian Ocean and beyond was too slow for the needs of many people, who could gain passage on a smaller, faster ship for less money.
The original grandeur of the interior with its elaborate state room and white and gold 'Grand Saloon' was removed when the Great Eastern became a cable-laying vessel in 1864, just six years after her original launch. She laid one of the first transatlantic telegraph cables.
The ship was seen by some as cursed due to the large number of disasters and accidents that surrounded her. The shipbuilders went massively overbudget; the launch was a shambles with the ship being dragged a few inches a day for three months after the intended launch date of November 1857; several people died in accidents during the launch; and there is a story that a man fitting rivets to the hull was trapped and that a ghostly hammering continued for years to come. His body was said to have been discovered when the Great Eastern was broken up. The ship also bankrupted several companies that took her on. She ended her career in Liverpool as a floating billboard, before being broken up in 1888.
To commemorate the anniversary, Kate and I have curated a small display of some of the library and manuscript collections relating to 'the Big Ship'. Highlights include sheet music written especially to commemorate the ship in the early 1860s, a manuscript report from Captain James Walker detailing damage sustained by the ship during a storm off the coast of Ireland in September 1861, and a Great Eastern-themed children's alphabet book from 1862.
Other Great Eastern items in the collection include:
- An 1857 pamphlet with details of the ship including cross-sectional plans (PBA5283)
- A manuscript diary kept by James Ford, crew member, during a cable laying voyage on board the Great Eastern, 1866 (JOD/227)
- A medical log from the ship kept from 1869-1870 (LOG/M/17)
- A logbook kept by Robert Halpin, commander on a cable-laying voyage to Newfoundland and back, May-Sep 1873 (LOG/M/37)
- A sketch shewing the position of the Great Eastern when trying to recover the end of the Atlantic telegraph cable (MRY298:10/3)
- "Particulars and conditions of sale of the steam ship Great Eastern which will be sold by auction ... on the 28th day of October 1885" (PBC5463)
- Papers relating to the Great Eastern and the first Atlantic cables (TCM/16)
- Journals kept by Norman Scott Russell on the Great Eastern's maiden voyage (MSS/82/100.0 and MSS/82/100.1)
Tanya (Reader Services Librarian)