Great Eastern was Brunel’s crowning glory—but cost him his life

PUBLISHED: 21:00 15 July 2009 | UPDATED: 14:34 05 October 2010

Launching <I>Great Eastern</I> at Millwall (above), watched by Brunel (inset, right) and Scott Russell

Launching Great Eastern at Millwall (above), watched by Brunel (inset, right) and Scott Russell

BRUNEL is acknowledged as one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century, best known for the Great Western Railway, the Thames Tunnel at Wapping in East London and the magnificent Great Eastern steamship lunched at Millwall amid tragedy and death

By Sheeza Anjum

ISAMBARD Kingdom Brunel is acknowledged as one of the greatest engineers of the 19th century.

He is best known for creating the Great Western Railway and the Thames Tunnel at Wapping in East London, the world’s first tunnel under a navigable river and now a World Heritage site.

But he also built steamships including the magnificent Great Eastern launched at Millwall Docks amid tragedy and death.

It was the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851 and the expansion of the British Empire that created a need for fast, ocean-going vessels which would open up the Seven Seas for the British.


He had previously engineered the revolutionary Great Britain in 1837, the first propeller-driven ocean-going iron ship.

In 1856, following the Australian gold rush, Brunel and John Scott Russell designed and built the Great Eastern, the largest ship the world had ever seen, which could carry 4,000 passengers and crew and journey half-way across the globe without refuelling.

Thousands of spectators from all classes turned up at Millwall for its launching.

But disaster struck as they tried to launch the ship sideways into the Thames. The structure moved only four feet down the slipway when a chain snapped on one of the great drums, killing a shipyard workman and injuring others.


Brunel did not attempt another launch until a year later. The Great Eastern finally took to the water in 1858 and embarked on her maiden voyage to Weymouth for sea trials in 1859.

But there was more misfortune. A few days into the journey, a paddle engine boiler exploded, killing five stokers, as the ship was passing the Sussex coast.

This took a deep strain on Brunel who was already suffering a stroke. He died six days later.

The Great Eastern was acknowledged as an invention ahead of her time.

Its footnote in maritime history is having laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1865. The ship continued to be admired decades after her launch.

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