SS Great Eastern Funnel, 1857

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The Object

  • This is part of the forward funnel from Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s third, and final ship, the SS Great Eastern. The funnel was the one nearest to the bow (front) of the ship and is now one of the few remaining pieces of the Great Eastern.
  • When it was built the SS Great Eastern had five funnels for its two engines. One engine was attached to two enormous paddlewheels on the sides of the ship, while the second engine turned a screw propeller. Both were needed to move the gigantic ship through the water.
  • Made from iron, and held together by metal pins known as rivets, the funnel was damaged during an explosion on the ship’s first voyage on 9 September 1859.
  • Following the explosion, the ship went to Weymouth, the nearest port. The damaged funnel was removed, and the Weymouth Waterworks Company bought this part of it. They then drilled lots of holes in the funnel, turning it in to a water strainer.

The Story

Maiden Voyage

The SS Great Eastern was launched into the River Thames in January 1858 and the following year was spent making the inside of the ship ready to carry passengers. In September 1859 it set out on its maiden voyage from London to Holyhead; however, as the ship steamed along the south coast of England disaster struck.

In a rush to get the ship ready, a temporary stopcock fitted to a heating tank next to the funnel was left closed. This led to a build-up of pressure which caused the casing around the front funnel to explode, damaging the deck and launching part of the funnel into the air. Debris and escaping steam filled the boiler room killing five crew members, and injuring dozens more.

Once the wounded men had been taken to the ship’s surgeons, the other engine was checked over to make sure the ship was not at risk of further explosions or sinking. It then made its way to Weymouth, the nearest harbour.

At the time there was no way for the ship to contact anyone to explain what had happened. People only knew that something had gone badly wrong on the voyage, when they gathered to see the SS Great Eastern arriving in Weymouth. To their surprise they saw the ship arrive with its flags at half-mast and one of the funnels missing.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was already seriously ill, died within days of hearing about the tragedy, on 15 September 1859. An investigation was later held into the explosion, but it could not work out who was responsible for it.

Continue The Story

The end of the SS Great Eastern

Following the explosion, the SS Great Eastern was repaired and used as a passenger ship between Britain and North America. It was then converted to a cable-laying ship, laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. The ship was then left moored on the coast of South Wales for many years as no one could find a use for a ship of its size. In 1885 it was sold to a Liverpool department store which took the ship to the River Mersey and used it as an amusement park and floating advert, where its enormous size helped to draw in crowds. This did not last for long and in 1888, only 30 years after it was launched, the Great Eastern was sold for scrap metal. The ship had been built using over 3 million rivets, holding together the two iron hulls, one inside the other. This design feature made the ship very strong, but when it came to take the ship apart, it took 200 men nearly two years to break up! Some of the rivets which were removed from the ship during the process, were sold off for charity at one shilling each.

Only one of Brunel’s 3 ships, the SS Great Britain remains to this day. In the past people saw no need to keep ships beyond their working life; Brunel’s first ship the SS Great Western was scrapped in 1856 despite it being the first steamship purpose built to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Nowadays ships like the Great Britain, and other structures with interesting histories, are often preserved to allow their stories to be told.

Extra Resources

Great Eastern Funnel on display in Being Brunel. BRSGB-2013.01901 - Courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust