There was hardly an aspect of engineering that had not been affected by his genius

Patrick Beaver The Big Ship

Many people think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859) as the greatest engineer of the Victorian era. When he was born, ships were built of wood and were powered by the wind, as indeed they had been for thousands of years. This visionary went on to design ships that were made of iron and steel, powered by steam engines and screws – His revolutionary designs for railways, viaducts, bridges and ships transformed Britain and changed the world.

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In 1851, Brunel was 45 years old and at the height of his powers as a successful engineer. Sickened by the orgy of speculation following the railway boom of the 1840’s, Brunel turned his interest to steamships. The British Empire relied on sail power for communication and transport between the Mother Country and the Far East and Antipodes. Facilities for re-coaling steamships were few and far between, making intercontinental journeys almost impossible by His magnificent vessel the “SS Great Eastern” was the largest passenger ship in the world when it was launched in 1859. At over 200m in length and with a beam (width) of 25m, it was twice the size of his earlier design, the “SS Great Britain”, launched in 1843, when Isambard was 37.

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There was only one town in the whole of England that had the resources and the expertise to attempt the construction of a vessel the size of the Great Eastern. That town was London. And there was only one place that had the yards, the skilled workforce and the know-how to complete the plan, and that was Millwall, the Thames-side site in the heart of one of the largest ship-building communities in the land.

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The ship was so large it had to be launched sideways. Photographs taken at the time show that there were two timber-decked slipways set either side of the central paddle-wheel. Part of the slipway was excavated on dry land in 1984 during the rebuilding of the old shipyard off West Ferry Road, near Harbinger Road. Some of the timbers can still be seen there today. But down on the foreshore, at low tide, remains of both of the slipways can seen. These are now being recorded by our team of FROG volunteers during the fieldwork programme summer season in June at Burrell’s Wharf. Once the precise position and extent of the two slipways has been established in June, we will know exactly where the Great Eastern lay before she was launched.

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