The Great Eastern steamship deserves to be regarded as the eighth wonder of the world, beyond all question. She is at present by far the largest vessel in the world, and is the most magnificent creation of naval architecture that was ever launched upon the sea.
The substance of the following account of this interesting ship has been gathered principally from the Times and the Illustrated London News for 1859, the year in which the Great Eastern was launched, and from a pamphlet which was sold on board, by permission of the proprietors.
The Great Eastern was intended for the Indian and Australian route by the Cape of Good Hope. The result of large experience in steam navigation has proved that the size of the ship, (when steam is used), ought to be in proportion to the length of the voyage. Mr Brunel, the talented engineer to whose genius and perseverance this monster ship owes her existence, acting on this principle, calculated that the voyage to Australia and back being 22,500 miles—a vessel of 22,500 tons burden, (or a ton burden for every mile to be steamed), would require to be built, capable of carrying fuel for the entire voyage, it being impossible, without incurring enormous expense, to procure coal for such a vessel at intermediate ports.
The Eastern Steam Navigation Company undertook the herculean work. The total cost of construction was estimated at 804,522 pounds. Mr Brunel prepared the designs. A spot of ground was chosen on the banks of the Thames, in the building-yard of the company at Millwall, and the building was commenced, on the lines laid down by Mr Scott Russell, on the 1st of May 1854.
Every minute detail of the arrangements and building of this wonder of the world is fraught with interest. The mere preparing of the ground to receive her enormous weight was calculated to fill the minds of men with astonishment. Her supports and scaffoldings, and the machinery by which she was ultimately launched, taxed the skill of her engineers even more than her construction. A very town of workshops, foundries, and forges sprang into being round her hull; and as this rose, foot by foot, in all its gigantic proportions, the surrounding edifices dwindled down into insignificance, and the busy population of artificers clustered upon her like ants upon a prostrate monarch of the forest-trees.
The hull of the Great Eastern is built entirely of iron, and is 680 feet in length, 83 feet in breadth, and 60 feet in height from keel to deck. It is divided transversely into ten separate compartments of 60 feet each, rendered perfectly water-tight by bulk-heads, having no openings whatever lower than the second deck; whilst two longitudinal walls of iron, 36 feet apart, traverse 350 feet of the length of the ship.
The mind will be better able to realise the magnitude of these dimensions if we add that the Great Eastern is six times the size of the Duke of Wellington line-of-battle ship, that her length is more than three times the height of the Monument, while her breadth is equal to the width of Pall Mall, and a promenade round the deck affords a walk of more than a quarter of a mile.
There is no keel properly so called, but in its place a flat keel-plate of iron, about two feet wide and one inch thick, which runs the entire length from stem to stern. This is the base upon which all the rest is reared, plates and girders alike. The iron plates which form her planking are three-quarters of an inch thick. Up to the water-mark the hull is constructed with an inner and outer skin, two feet ten inches apart, both skins being made of three-quarter inch plates, except at the bottom, where the plates are an inch thick; and between these, at intervals of six feet, run horizontal webs of iron plates, which bind the two skins together, and thus it may be said that the lower part of the hull is two feet ten inches thick.
This mode of construction adds materially to the safety of the vessel; for, in the event of a collision at sea, the outer skin might be pierced while the inner might remain intact. This space may also at any time be filled with water, and thus ballast, to the amount of 2500 tons, be obtained.
Some idea of the magnitude and weight of the vessel may be formed from the fact that each iron plate weighs about the third of a ton, and is fastened with a hundred iron rivets. About thirty thousand of these plates were used in her construction, and three million rivets. The fastening of these rivets was one among the many curious operations performed in course of building. The riveting men were arranged in gangs, each gang consisting of two riveters, one holder-up, and three boys. Two boys were stationed at the fire or portable forge, and one with the holder-up. This boy’s duty was to receive the red-hot rivet with his pincers from the boy at the forge, and insert it in the hole destined for its reception, the point protruding about an inch. The holder-up immediately placed his heavy hammer against the head of the rivet, and held it firmly there, while the two riveters assailed it in front with alternate blows, until the countersunk part of the hole was filled up, after which the protruding head was cut off smooth with the plate, the whole operation scarce occupying a minute. In riveting the double part of the ship the holder-up and his boy were necessarily in the interior part of the tubes, and passed the whole day in the narrow space between, (of two feet ten inches wide), in comparative darkness, having only the glimmer afforded by a single dip candle, and being immediately under the deafening blows of the riveters.
The deck of the Great Eastern is double, or cellular, after the plan of the Britannia Tubular Bridge. The upper deck runs flush and clear from stem to stern, and he who takes four turns up and down it from stem to stern walks upwards of a mile. The strength of this deck is so enormous that if the ship were taken up by its two extremities, with all its cargo, passengers, coals, and provisions on board, it would sustain the whole. The deck has been covered with teak planking, and has been planed and scrubbed to man-of-war whiteness. Not even a stray rope’s end breaks the wonderful effect produced by its immense expanse. Her fleet of small boats, which are about the size of sailing cutters, hang at the davits, ten on each side. There are six masts and five funnels. The three centre square-rigged masts are of iron. They were made by Mr Finch of Chepstow, and are the finest specimens of masts of the kind that were ever manufactured. Each is made of hollow wrought iron in eight-feet lengths, strengthened inside by diaphragms of the same material. Between the joints, as they were bolted together, was placed a pad of vulcanised india-rubber, which gives a spring and buoyancy to the whole spar greater than wood, while at the same time it retains all the strength of the iron. The other masts are made of wood, and the canvas that can be spread is no less than 6500 square yards. On deck are four small steam winches or engines, each of which works a pair of cranes on both sides of the vessel; and with these five thousand tons of coals can be hoisted into the vessel in twenty-four hours.
The engines and boilers are of immense power and magnitude. There are both screw and paddle engines, the former being capable of working up to 6500 horse-power, the latter to 5000. There are ten boilers and one hundred and twelve furnaces. The paddle engines, which were made by Messrs Scott Russell and Company, stand nearly 40 feet high. Each cylinder weighs about 28 tons, and each paddle-wheel is 58 feet in diameter, or considerably larger than the ring in Astley’s Circus. The screw engines were manufactured by Messrs Watt and Company of Birmingham. They consist of four cylinders of 84 inches diameter and 4 feet stroke. The screw propeller is 24 feet in diameter and 37 feet pitch; and the engine-shaft is 160 feet long, or 12 feet longer than the height of the Duke of York’s Column. The paddles and screw, when working together at their highest pitch, exert a force equal to 11,500 horsepower, which is sufficient to drive all the cotton-mills in Manchester! The consumption of coal to produce this force is estimated at about 250 tons per day.
Besides these engines there are also several auxiliary engines for pumping water into the boilers, etcetera.
The passenger accommodation in the Great Eastern is very extensive—namely, 800 first-class, from 2000 to 4000 second-class, and about 1200 third-class passengers; or if troops alone were taken, it could accommodate 10,000 men.
The saloons are fitted up in the most elaborate and costly manner. The chief saloon is magnificently furnished. It is said that the mirrors, gilding, carpeting, and silk curtains for this apartment alone cost 3000 pounds. In the berths, of course, no attempt is made at costly decoration of this kind, though the fittings are good and sufficiently luxurious. The berths are arranged in three classes: those for parties of six or eight, and these are large rooms; those for parties of four; and the rest in the usual style of double cabins. All are very roomy, as cabins go—very lofty, well lit, and those on the outer sides exceedingly well ventilated. On the lower deck the berths are even larger, loftier, and more commodious than those on the upper. Both the berths and saloons here are in fact almost unnecessarily high, having very nearly fifteen feet in the clear. The kitchens, pantries, and sculleries are all on the same extensive scale, and fitted with all the large culinary requisites of first-class hotels. The ice-house holds upwards of 100 tons of ice; and the lofty wine-vaults—for such in fact they are—contain wine enough to form a good freight for an Oporto trader.
Miscellanea.—In addition to the boats of the Great Eastern (twenty in number), she carries two small screw-steamers, each 100 feet long, 16 feet broad, 120 tons burden, and 40 horse-power, suspended aft of the paddle-boxes.
As the captain’s voice could not be heard half-way to the bow, even with the aid of the ancient speaking-trumpet, that instrument is supplanted by semaphore signals by day, and coloured lamps by night; the electric telegraph is also used in connection with the engine-rooms. There are ten anchors, four of them being Trotman’s patent, weighing seven tons each. The cables are each 400 fathoms long, and their united weight is 100 tons. The tonnage of the Great Eastern is 18,500 tons register, and 22,500 tons builders’ measurement. The crew at first consisted of thirteen officers, seventeen engineers, a sailing-master, and a purser, four hundred men, and two or three surgeons, all under the command of the late Captain W. Harrison, (formerly of the Cunard line).
The launch of this leviathan was a most formidable undertaking, and was accomplished by means of powerful hydraulic rams, which propelled the vessel down the launching “ways.” The ship rested on two gigantic cradles, and was forced sideways down the inclined plane, until she floated on the river. By a complication of ingenious contrivances the great ship was regulated in her descent so as to proceed slowly and regularly down the ways. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to launch her, and several of the hydraulic rams broke down ere she floated on the bosom of Old Father Thames; and the cost of this operation alone is said to have been nearly 100,000 pounds.
The trial of the engines, both screw and paddle, took place for the first time on the 8th of August 1859, when the completion of the vessel was celebrated by a banquet on board. The first movement of the gigantic cranks and cylinders of the paddle engines was made precisely at half-past one, when the great masses slowly rose and fell as noiselessly as the engines of a Greenwich boat, but exerting in their revolutions what seemed to be an almost irresistible power. There was no noise, no vibration, nor the slightest sign of heating. The tremendous frame of ironwork sprang at once into life and motion, with as much ease as if every rod and crank had been worked for the last ten years.
The trial trip of the Great Eastern was an event that excited intense interest all over the kingdom. For the first time, she cast off her moorings on Wednesday morning, (the 7th September), and reached the Nore on Thursday, where she anchored for the night before proceeding to sea. On Friday morning, at ten minutes past nine, she started on her first salt-water voyage. A conviction of the extreme steadiness of the vessel must speedily have seized everyone on board. There was no perceptible motion of any kind. The giant ship was speedily surrounded by yachts, tugs, fishing-smacks, and, indeed, by a representative of almost every kind of vessel which is prevalent at the Nore. These accompanied her as far on her way as their limited sailing powers would permit. Although there were sharp squalls and a chopping sea nearly all through the trip, not the slightest inconvenience was felt by any of the visitors, not even among the fairer portion of the passengers. The morning, which was rather fine at starting, suddenly became clouded, and the shifting squalls increased in violence. Though the squally state of the weather damped the pleasure of all on board, yet it afforded an opportunity of trying the properties of the ship, now under paddle as well as screw; and it was the wish of Mr Scott Russell and all on board to meet a good gale of wind. At a moderate computation, the distance from the deck to the water could not be much less than forty feet, while the vessel is nearly seven hundred feet long. This area would, of course, present an enormous surface to the force of the wind, and formed the subject of considerable discussion as to the effect it would have on her sea-going qualities. The ship was as stiff and steady as though she still remained on her cradles in the Isle of Dogs, and her course was as calm and true as though she were on a lake without a capful of wind.
It is said that at one portion of the voyage she steamed nineteen miles an hour.
The explosion.—All went well till the ship had passed Folkestone. About half-past five o’clock, while the majority of the passengers were on deck, and a few gentlemen only remained in the dining saloon, a tremendous explosion occurred, and in an instant showers of broken glass, and fragments of wood and iron, came crashing through the skylight. Those in the cabin rushed on deck. The ship was still pressing onward; at either end all was still and deserted, while in the centre all was smoke, fire, vapour, and confusion. The great funnel, of eight tons weight, had been shot up as if from a mortar, and fell on the deck broken in two pieces. The whole centre of the ship seemed to be only one vast chasm, and from it were belching up steam, dust, and something that looked like incipient conflagration. Captain Harrison acted nobly on this terrible occasion. He had been standing on the bridge overhead, looking into the binnacle, and the moment he heard the report, and whilst the destructive shower was still falling fast, he jumped upon the deck, and ordered an immediate descent to the ladies’ saloon, in the firm conviction that they were all there as on the previous evening. But many of the men were panic-stricken, and had already shrunk away from the explosion. A foolish passenger had raised a cry of “The boats,” and, assisted by some of the sailors, was madly attempting to let them down. In one moment all would have been lost; for the rush to the boats would have been general, and hundreds been drowned, whilst the noble ship would have been left to certain destruction. But the voice of the captain was heard like a trumpet, calling out, “Men, to your duty; officers, to your posts; give me a rope, and let six men follow me!” The effect of this short address was electric. In an instant he had slid down the rope into the saloon, followed by his brave boatswain Hawkins, and six volunteers were not long wanted for the forlorn hope. One after another he dashed open the gilded panels; but the splendid apartment had, strange to say, only two inhabitants,—his little daughter Edith, and her pet dog. It was the reward of his gallantry that his own child should be thus the one to be so providentially saved. But even then he did not for a moment lose his self-command. Snatching up the child, and with one glance seeing that she was unharmed, he exclaimed, “Pass her along to the deck; there are more rooms to be searched.” In this way did he move about rapidly, but coolly, and did not again return to the deck until he had satisfied himself that not a single woman was in the burning, steaming, suffocating chamber. His intimate friend, Mr Trotman, who had followed him down almost immediately, found the poor lap-dog moaning under a heap of ruins, and was the means of restoring it to its little mistress.
The magnificent saloon was a mass of torn and shattered furniture, mirrors, and ornaments. Had the passengers adjourned to this apartment after dinner, instead of to the deck, the consequences would have been awful.
An eye-witness describes the scene of devastation as follows:—
“The mirrors which formed the covering of the funnel which had been the cause of so much mischief were literally smashed to atoms, and large fragments of the broken glass were hurled upon deck, a long distance aft of the paddle-wheels. The ornamental bronzed columns which supported the gilt cornices and elaborate ornamentation, were either struck down or bent into the most fantastic shapes; the flooring, consisting of three-inch planks, was upheaved in several places; the gangways leading to the sleeping-cabins at the sides were shot away; the handrails were gone, and the elegant carpet was concealed beneath a chaos of fragments of finery. The books on the shelves of the library remained unmoved; the piano was thrown on one side; and the floor presented huge upheaved and rent chasms, through which might be seen the still greater ruin in the lower cabin. Below the saloon, or drawing-room, is the saloon of the lower deck, which was, of course, traversed by the same funnel as the one above it. On each side of these spacious saloons were small staircases leading to blocks of sleeping-cabins, scarcely one of which would have been without its two or more occupants a few hours later in the evening. They were now blown down like a house of cards. The furniture which they contained formed heaps of dislocated chairs, and wash-stands, and basins; the doors were off their hinges, the partitions were forced outward, the staircases leading to them had to be sought in the splinters and broken wood which lay in heaps in the lower saloon.”
The unhappy men who were working in the stoke-holes and tending the furnaces were the sufferers by this catastrophe. Believing that one of the boilers had exploded, fears were entertained that the whole body of stokers and engineers attending the paddle engines were killed. Mr Trotman went down the air-shaft communicating with the other boilers. Seeing by the light of the furnaces a number of men moving about, he inquired if they were all right, and the response sent up from these lowest depths of the ship was, “All right at present, but we don’t know how long.” They were told to keep quiet, and stay where they were; that they could be of no service on deck, and all would be well in a few minutes. The gallant fellows remained by their fiery furnaces with resolute good-will. In the case of the firemen tending the other set of boilers a very different scene was taking place. Ropes were thrown down, and, one by one, wounded, bleeding, and staggering men were drawn up, their black, begrimed faces forming a ghastly contrast with scalded portions of their limbs and bodies. The men were taken aft to the hospital, and to the cabins, where mattresses and blankets were laid for them.
Two or three of these poor fellows walked up to the deck almost, if not quite, unassisted. Their aspect told its own tale, and none who had ever seen blown-up men before could fail to know at a glance that some had only two or three hours to live. Where not grimed by the smoke or ashes, the peculiar bright, soft whiteness of the face, hands, or breast, told at once that the skin, though unbroken, had in fact been boiled by the steam. One man walked along, and seemed quite unconscious that the flesh of his thighs, (most probably by the ashes from the furnace), was burnt in deep holes. To some one who came to his assistance he said quietly, “I am all right. There are others worse than me; go and look after them.” This poor man was the first to die. It was seen at once that but little hope existed for many, if not the majority, of the sufferers, who were twelve in number. Most of them seemed very restless, and almost, if not quite, delirious; but a few of those whose injuries were likely to be more immediately fatal remained quiet, half unconscious, or at most only asking to be covered up, as if they felt the cold. For these latter all knew that nothing whatever could be done, as, in fact, they were then dying.
The explosion had occurred in the double casing round the bottom of one of the funnels. We have not space to describe this minutely, and by the general reader the description, were it given, would scarce be understood; but it is well to remark that the piece of machinery which caused the deplorable accident had been previously condemned in strong terms by competent judges, and there is no doubt that the hot-water casing round the funnel ought never to have been there.
After the catastrophe, the Great Eastern kept on her course as though nothing had happened, although the force of the explosion was sufficient to have sent any other ship to the bottom. The damage was estimated at 5000 pounds. She arrived at Portland on the 10th, and remained there for some time undergoing repairs. Afterwards she continued her trial trip to Holyhead, where she arrived on the 10th of October. The results of the trial, excepting, of course, the accident, were most satisfactory. Her speed under disadvantageous circumstances had been good, and her engines had worked admirably. Against a gale of head wind she went as steadily as if in harbour, but with the wind a-beam she rolled considerably. Altogether there was good reason to hope that the Great Eastern would fulfil the sanguine expectations of her warmest admirers.
The following account of the continuation of her trial trip from Portland to Holyhead, as gathered from the Times, is exceedingly interesting:— When steam was up, and all ready for starting from Portland, the crew were sent forward to heave up the anchor. Eighty men sufficed to drag the Great Eastern up to and over her moorings. Bringing the anchor out of the ground, however, was not so easily managed; and it was not till all the musical resources known to sailors on such occasions were nearly exhausted that the tenacious gripe of Trotman’s patent was released, when a slow drift with the tide showed that the great ship was again set free. In another minute, without shouting, confusion, or hurry of any kind, and with less noise than is made by a 100-ton coaster, a slight vibration through the ship, with a thin line of foam astern, showed that the screw engines were at work and the vessel once more under way. With such ease, with such perfect quietness and good order was everything accomplished, that the occasional cheering from the yachts and steamers was almost the first token given to those on board that the trial trip had commenced. At a quarter to four the “way” on the vessel was rapid; her head went round like turning a pleasure-boat; and so little sign was given of the ship being under steam, that it seemed rather as if the breakwater had got adrift and was slowly floating past, than that the monster vessel was really cleaving the blue waves with a force which, as yet, we have seen no wind or sea to resist or check. Directly the anchor was fished, Captain Harrison passed the word to steam ahead with both engines easily, and the wheels began their revolutions, slowly at first, but nevertheless making a track of foam upon the water such as they never made on the first start from Deptford to the Nore. The accession of speed from working the paddles was at first but slight; not from any want of power, however, but simply from the fact that both engines were ordered to work slowly, and though propelling the great ship at something like eleven knots, were really scarcely driving at indicated half-speed.
Quitting Portland, it was necessary to make rather a round turn on leaving the breakwater, as right ahead on the starboard bow was a small light-ship, looking like the skeleton of a vessel, and marking the presence of a dangerous shoal, known by the most appropriate and significant name of “The Shambles.” Inside this lay a long and turbid ridge of angry water, where the Race of Portland ran, and where a deep rolling swell, like the Bay of Biscay on a reduced scale, kept tumbling and breaking into spray like drifts of snow against the high, gaunt cliffs. It, however, required no actual watching of the low green mounds of water, which seemed butting against the coast, to convince all on board that the Great Eastern was at sea. To the infinite relief and comfort of all the passengers, the vessel began to yield to reason, and to behave as much like another ship as she could consistently with her size. It would be too much to say she rolled at this time; for when the Great Eastern rolls, if ever she does roll, travellers may depend upon her accomplishing something in that peculiar style of ocean navigation quite in proportion to her bulk; but one thing is certain—that she went from side to side sufficiently to show that she was susceptible of the motion of the water, and that if ever she steams across a beam sea, she is likely to move to it with a will, though slowly and easily.
Continuing for a considerable time under little more than half steam, the Great Eastern averaged more than thirteen knots, (fifteen miles), an hour. The best guide to the rapidity of the ship’s progress was the way in which she passed fast-sailing schooners and overhauled the steamers. At this time nearly all the swell had ceased, and the monster ship was rushing over what to her were the mimic waves, and leaving less wake upon the waters than is caused in the Thames by a Gravesend boat. The only peculiarity about her progress was the three distinct lines of frothy water which the screw and paddles made, and which, stretching out in the clear moonlight like a broad highway, seemed as if the Great Eastern had fulfilled her purpose, and really bridged the sea.
For a considerable part of the way the paddles were working easily at from nine to ten, and the screw at from thirty-two to thirty-four revolutions per minute. It will give most readers a better idea of the tremendous nature of the size and speed of the engines which worked so easily, when it is said that, at ten revolutions, the paddle-wheels dashed through the water at something like 1600 feet per minute, and the screw revolved at 2500. When accomplishing this, the consumption of fuel was at the rate of 250 tons a day for both engines, the indicated power being above 5000 horses—about 2000 horses for the paddles, and a little over 3500 for the screw. In order to secure her going at full speed, however, under such circumstances, the great ship should have been down by the stern at least eighteen inches more than she really was, for not less than a foot of the screw-blades was out of the water, and the slip or loss of power was of course very great. Off the coast of Cornwall, the swell caused her to roll very considerably, as long as she was a-beam of the long swell.
Soon after this a small brig was seen right under the starboard bow. As usual with these small coasters, she was showing no light and keeping no look-out, and but for the anxious vigilance exercised on board the big ship, the brig would have been under the waves in two minutes more. Her escape was narrow enough, and nothing short of the instant stoppage of the engines and actually reversing the screw saved her from swift destruction. She drifted from under the starboard paddle within twenty yards—quite close enough to enable Captain Harrison to speak to her master, and to express a very strong opinion on his style of navigation and conduct generally.
Towards the close of the trip all the fore and aft sails were set. The look of her vast spread of canvas and the extraordinary effect it produced, as one stood at the wheel-house and gazed beneath the long vista of brown sails stretched to the very utmost, and sending off the wind with the sustained roar of a volcano, was something almost indescribable. No mere description could convey a fair idea of the curious effect of the long, unbroken avenue of masts, sails, and funnels,—like a whole street of steamships, if such a term is fairly applicable.
The rate of going throughout the whole trip was very satisfactory. Allowing for the want of trim on the part of the vessel, and consequent absence of immersion in both screw and paddles, it was calculated from this data, by all the nautical authorities on board, that, in proper condition, the vessel might be depended on for eighteen miles an hour throughout a long voyage, and under steam alone. That in a strong and favourable breeze she would at times accomplish eighteen knots, or more than twenty-one miles an hour, there was no reason to doubt.
Among other tests to which the Great Eastern was subjected was the terrible storm of the 25th and 26th October of that year, (1859), in which the Royal Charter went down. She lay at anchor in the harbour of Holyhead during that storm. So fierce was the gale that a large part of the breakwater was destroyed, and several vessels went down inside the harbour, while some were driven on shore. For one hour the big ship was as near destruction as she is ever likely to be. Her salvation, under God, was due to the experience and energy of Captain Harrison and his officers. During the whole gale the captain was on the watch, sounding the lead to see if she dragged, and keeping the steam up to be in readiness to put to sea at a moment’s notice. The gale roared and whistled through the rigging with indescribable fury. The captain, in trying to pass along the deck, was thrown down, and his waterproof coat was blown to ribbons. The cabin skylights were thrown open with a fearful crash, the glass broken, and deluges of rain and spray poured into the saloons. Two anchors were down, one seven tons, the other three, with eighty and sixty fathoms of chain respectively; but the ground was known to be bad, and the lee-shore rocky, while the waves came curling and writhing into harbour, straining the cables to the utmost, and dashing against the rocks like avalanches of snow. The dash of these billows on the breakwater was like the roar of artillery. All this time the red light at the end of the breakwater shone out cheerily in the midst of a turmoil of spray. At last masses of the timber-work and solid masonry gave way. The gale rose to its fiercest, and one huge billow came rolling in; it towered high above the breakwater; it fell, and the red light was seen no more. The danger was now imminent. The cables could evidently bear no more, and the gale was increasing; so the screw was set going, but the wreck of timber from the breakwater fouled it and brought it to a dead-lock. Then the wind veered round more to the north-east, sending a tremendous swell into the harbour, and the Great Eastern began to roll heavily. In this extremity the paddle engines were set going, and the ship was brought up to her anchors, one of which was raised for the purpose of being dropped in a better position. At this moment the cable of the other anchor parted, and the great ship drifted swiftly toward what seemed certain destruction; but the heavy anchor was let go, and the engines turned on full speed. She swung round head to wind, and was brought up. This was the turning-point. The gale slowly abated, and the Great Eastern was saved, while all round her the shores and harbour were strewn with wrecks.
After the gale the Great Eastern started on her return trip to Southampton, which she reached in safety on the morning of the 3rd November. In this, as in her previous experiences, the mighty ship was well tested, and her good and bad points in some degree proved. At the very outset the steam gear for aiding in lifting the anchors broke down, and one of the anchors refusing to let go, was broken in half. The condenser of the paddle engines seems to have been proved too small in this trip. For some time she went against a stiff head-wind and sea—which is now well known to be the great ship’s forte—with perfect steadiness; but on getting into the channel she rolled slowly but decidedly, as if bowing—acknowledging majestically the might of the Atlantic’s genuine swell. Here, too, a wave actually overtopped her towering hull, and sent a mass of green water inboard! But her roll was peculiarly her own, and wonderfully easy.
The vessel made eighteen knots an hour. She was under perfect command, even in narrow and intricate channels, and, despite her varied mishaps and trials, passed through this stormy period of her infancy with credit.
Disaster to “Great Eastern” in September 1861.—Having made three successful voyages to America, the Great Eastern, after all her troubles, was beginning to establish her reputation, to confirm the hopes of her friends and silence the cavils of her enemies, when the bad fortune that has been her portion from the cradle once more overwhelmed her, and shook, if it did not altogether destroy, the confidence in her capabilities which the public had been beginning tardily to entertain.
There is nothing more difficult to ascertain than the true state of the case—with reference to culpability, accidental circumstance, inherent or incidental weakness, negligence, unavoidable risks, etcetera—in such a disaster as that which happened to the great ship in September of 1861. And nothing could be more unfair than to pass judgment on her without a full knowledge of the minute particulars, and, moreover, a pretty fair capacity to understand such details and their various relations. Before proceeding with the narrative of the event referred to, we may remark that while, on the one hand, it may be argued, with great plausibility, that her numerous disasters and misfortunes prove that she is unfitted for the navigation of the sea, it may, on the other hand, be argued, with equal plausibility, that the very fact of her having come through such appalling trials unconquered, though buffeted, is strong presumptive evidence that she is eminently fitted for her work, and that, under ordinary circumstances and proper management, she would do it well. It is believed that any other vessel afloat would have been sunk had she been exposed to the same storm under similar circumstances. It must be borne in mind that, although other vessels weathered the same storm successfully, they did not do so with their rudder and rudder-posts gone, their captains and part of their crews new to them, and their chain cables, cabin furniture, and other material left as totally unsecured as if she had been a river steamer about to start on a few hours’ trip.
On Tuesday the 10th of September the Great Eastern left Liverpool for America with 400 passengers and a large, though not a full, general cargo. Between 100 and 200 of the passengers occupied the berths in the principal cabins; the remainder of them occupied the intermediate and steerage cabins.
All went on prosperously until the Thursday, when, as the ship was in full steam and sail, she encountered a terrific gale about 280 miles to the west of Cape Clear, and, in spite of the best seamanship, she failed to ride over the storm, which, with tremendous fury, swept away both her paddles. Simultaneously the top of the rudder-post, a bar of iron ten inches in diameter, was suddenly wrenched off, and her steering gear being also carried away, she broached to and lay like a huge log in the trough of the sea. From Thursday evening until two o’clock on Sunday, her bulwarks almost touching the water, she rolled about like a disabled hulk, the passengers and crew expecting that she would every moment go down. The working and rolling of the vessel, at one instant of dread, displaced and destroyed all the furniture of the cabin and saloons, and, broke it to pieces, throwing the passengers pell-mell about the cabin. Everything that occupied the upper deck was washed away, and a large part of the passengers’ luggage was destroyed. Between twenty and thirty of those who were on board, including several ladies, had limbs and ribs fractured, with numerous cuts and bruises. One of the cow-sheds, with two cows in it, was washed into the ladies’ cabin, together with other things on board, and caused indescribable consternation and confusion.
On Sunday evening, after two days of terrible suspense, a temporary steering gear was fitted up, and the disabled vessel with her distressed crew made for Cork Harbour, steaming with her screw at nine knots an hour. Her flag of distress was sighted at about three o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, off the Old Head of Kinsale, and H.M. ship Advice at once steamed out to her assistance and towed her to within a mile of the lighthouse off Cork Harbour by about nine o’clock.
Such is a general outline of this disaster—one which is rendered all the more remarkable from the circumstance that the vessel had only been recently surveyed by the officers of the marine department of the Board of Trade, when new decks and other requirements were carried out and completed at a cost of 15,000 pounds.
The scene during the storm in the grand saloon, as described in detail by various passengers, was absolutely terrific. None of the furniture had been secured, and when the gale became violent and the rolling of the vessel increased, sideboards, tables, chairs, stools, crockery, sofas, and passengers were hurled with fearful violence from side to side in a promiscuous heap. When it is said that at each roll the top platform of the paddle-boxes dipped into the sea, anyone who has seen the towering sides of the Great Eastern may form some conception of the angle of the decks, and the riot of unfastened articles that continued below during the greater part of the gale. The destruction was universal. The largest mirror in the grand saloon, which was about twelve feet high, was smashed to pieces by a gentleman going head foremost into it. Although much bruised and cut, strange to say he was not seriously injured. The chandeliers fell from the ceiling, and the crashes they made in falling added to the general din. One of the other mirrors was smashed by a large stove. Some of the passengers escaping from the dining-room were dashed against the iron balconies, which gave way with the pressure, and falling on the glass flooring at the sides, dashed it to atoms. The noise and turmoil of destruction below, together with the howling of the tempest above and the dashing of spray over the decks, whence it flowed in copious streams down into the cabins, formed a scene which cannot be fully conceived except by those who witnessed it.
On deck, the confusion was equally great and destructive. Many of the boats were carried away. The great chain cables rolled from side to side, until they were actually polished bright by the friction, while they were a source of perpetual danger to the crew in the performance of their duties. The oil-tanks broke loose, and after tumbling about for a time, fell down through the upper hatchway. And the two cows that fell with their cow-shed down into the ladies’ cabin were killed by the violence of the shock. The chief cook was flung against one of the paddle-boxes, and having put out his hand to save himself, had his wrist sprained. He was then flung towards the other side, and coming against a stanchion in the way, had his leg fractured in three places. One lady had a rib fractured; another her shoulder dislocated; another her wrist. These are only specimens, selected to show what the poor people were subjected to. It is said that there were twenty-two fractures altogether, among passengers and crew, besides innumerable cuts and bruises. The cabins were flooded to the depth of several feet, and broken articles of furniture floated about everywhere. The luggage in the luggage-room, which had not been secured, was hurled about, until trunks, boxes, valises, etcetera, striking against each other, and against the sides of the compartment, were utterly destroyed—the very leather of the trunks being torn into small shreds.
Throughout all this terrible scene, the passengers behaved, with one or two exceptions, admirably. The ladies especially displayed great courage—remaining, in accordance with the desires intimated to them, in their cabins; while the gentlemen did their best to keep order. On the Friday, they appointed a sort of committee or police force, of upwards of twenty strong, who took the duty in turns of going round the vessel, keeping order, carrying information to, and reassuring, the ladies and children. Four only of these, who were called directors, had the privilege of speaking to the captain during the storm—thus saving him from the annoyance of repeated and ceaseless questioning.
The crew also did their duty nobly. Captain Walker acted throughout with calmness, courage, and good judgment; and from the tenor of resolutions passed at an indignation meeting, held by the passengers after their return into port, it would appear that they entirely exonerated him from any blame in reference to the disaster. The fitting up of temporary steering gear, which was begun on the Sunday when the storm moderated, was a work of great difficulty and danger. It was accomplished chiefly through the courage and cleverness of two men—John Carroll and Patrick Grant—who volunteered for it, and were let down over the stern at the imminent risk of their lives; and an American gentleman, Mr Towle, a civil engineer, rendered great assistance in superintending and directing the work.
It was not until two o’clock on Sunday morning that the vessel got up steam in her screw boilers, and steered for Cork Harbour. The whole of the ironwork of both paddle-wheels was carried entirely away. The ladder leading up to the larboard paddle-box was twisted in an extraordinary manner. The boats on the starboard side were all gone, and those on the other side were hanging loosely from their fastenings. Altogether, the great ship presented a most melancholy spectacle as she was towed into port.
At the meeting of the passengers already referred to, the first resolution was expressive of their grateful acknowledgments to Almighty God for his kind care in protecting them during the storm, and bringing them in safety out of their danger. The second condemned the directors, and stated that “the Great Eastern was sent to sea thoroughly unprepared to face the storms which everyone must expect to meet with in crossing the Atlantic; and that, if it had not been for the extraordinary strength of the hull, and the skill which was manifested in the construction of the vessel and its engines, in all human probability every soul on board would have perished.”
It has been said that if the ship had been more deeply laden she would have weathered the gale more easily. This, if true, is an argument in her favour. But in viewing the whole circumstances of this and previous disasters, we cannot avoid being deeply impressed with the fact that the Great Eastern had not up to that time had fair play. In her construction and general arrangements there have been some grave, and numerous more or less trivial errors. From first to last there has been a good deal of gross mismanagement; but the Great Eastern cannot, with justice, be pronounced a failure. Latterly she has done good service in laying ocean telegraph-cables, a species of work for which she is pre-eminently well adapted. It is possible that she may yet live to ride out many a wild Atlantic storm, and perchance become the first of a race of ponderous giants who shall yet walk the deep,—to the utter confusion of timid croakers, and to the immense advantage of the world.