When the Great Eastern was launched in 1858 it was the largest ship in the world. It was designed by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was built at Milwall on the River Thames. There was no dry dock large enough for it, and it had to be built alongside the river and launched sideways. It took several attempts to finally push it into the water. It would be 40 years before a ship so large was built again.
The ship was designed to carry 4,000 passengers, plus crew and could travel around the world without refuelling. It was powered by sails, plus paddle wheels and also a screw propeller. It had five engines with a total power of 8,000 hp. It had six masts named after the days of the week from Monday to Saturday, which could carry a huge amount of sail.
On its maiden voyage in 1860 an explosion killed several of the crew and it became a financial disaster as a passenger ship. Eight years after it was launched, it was refitted as a cable laying ship. It laid the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic from ireland to the United States, being about the only ship afloat that could hold the necessary amount of cable for such a task. First under Captain James Anderson and later under Captain Robert Halpin it laid over 48,000 km (30,000 miles) of telegraph cable from 1866 to 1878. It ended life as a floating music hall and gym.
It was broken up in 1889 and took 18 months to dismantle. ‘Thursday’ one of the masts from the Great Eastern, is now the flagpole at Liverpool Football Club. There are stories, not fully verified, that when it was being dismantled, the bodies of one or more workers who had disappeared during the build, were found between the inner and outer hull.
The Great Eastern was 211 metres (692 ft) long, 25 m (83 ft) wide and had a draft of between 6 and 9 metres (20 to 30 ft) between empty and full load.
The Great Eastern, with Robert Halpin as First Officer, laid the first successful trans Atlantic telegraph cable from Valentia Island off the coast of Kerry, to Hearts Content in Newfoundland, Canada in 1866. This was at the second attempt after a failure the previous year, 1865.
The first cable cable broke after 1660 miles (2670 km), just short of half way across.. Next year they tried again, this time with success, when Halpin really made his name. He navigated the ship back to the first broken cable in 2000 feet (610 metres) of water, picked it up, spliced it and finished the job.