The SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built on the River Thames, England. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling. Her length of 692 feet (211 m) was only surpassed in 1899 by the 705 feet (215 m) 17,274 gross ton RMS Oceanic, and her gross tonnage of 18,915 was only surpassed in 1901 by the 700 feet (210 m) and 21,035 gross ton RMS Celtic. Brunel knew her affectionately as the “Great Babe”. Her launch had, however, been delayed on several occasions and several fatalities had occurred during the construction. Brunel died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage.
30 August 1859 was given as the date of this first voyage but it had to be put back to 6 September. The destination was Weymouth, from which a trial trip into the Atlantic would be made. Following this the ship would sail to Holyhead, its home port for American voyages.
On 9 September the ship had passed down the Thames, and out into the English Channel, and had just passed Hastings when there was a huge explosion which blew the forward funnel into the air and ripped through the passenger saloon, fortunately empty at the time.
However many passengers were injured by the noise, steam and debris. One fireman had been so badly scalded that he threw himself overboard and was crushed by the ships huge paddle wheel, five more were to die later from their burns. The Great Eastern eventually arrived at Portland harbour with one funnel missing.
During repairs at Portland, local paddle steamer companies were quick to profit by running trips for visitors who paid two shilling and six pence for the privilege.
After these repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and America, before being converted to a cable-laying ship and laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865. Sadly during a later visit to Portland five young local men decided to take a closer look at the famous ship by rowing round her one Sunday morning. Their small boat unfortunately overturned and three of them drowned. The Dorset County Chronicle commented ‘that let this be a warning to other Sabbath breakers not to go boating on the Lord’s Day’!
The discarded funnel, which resulted from the explosion in 1859 was acquired by the Weymouth Waterworks Company and installed as a vertical filter pipe at the Sutton Poyntz works. This remained in use until 2006 when no longer required it is now on display at the S.S. Great Britain Museum at Bristol.
Times: Thursday, September 15, 1859, Issue 23412 – Explosion on board the Great Eastern . Inquiry resumed at Weymouth on the 14th. Lengthy report. Ship Incident, Misc News
Times: Monday, September 19, 1859, issue 23415 – Inquest on the bodies of those who lost their lives on the Great Eastern. Very long report. Ship Incident, Misc News
Times: Thursday, September 22, 1859, Issue 23418 – Weymouth to Guernsey Mail Steamer ‘Express’ Wrecked on the Grunes Houllieres, Channel Islands. Ship Incident, Misc News
Times: Tuesday, September, 27, 1859, Issue 23422 – Great Eastern; Repairs Portland Harbour. Lengthy report. Ship Incident, Misc News
Times: Friday, September 30, 1859, Issue 23425 – Letter to the Editor: Correcting miss-information regarding treatment of injured from the Great Eastern by the Weymouth Royal Infirmary by Surgeon, J. Moorhead. Misc News
Times: Wednesday, October 12, 1859, Issue 23435 – Great Eastern leaves Weymouth. Lengthy report.
Day of Loss: 9
Month of Loss: 9
Year of Loss: 1859