The Ghost of the Great Eastern

The other day I was cycling along the north side of the Thames Path (so much easier now that the foot tunnel’s (occasionally) back in operation. No such luck for her Woolwich sister…) and I chanced upon something I’ve been looking for for years which reminded me I hadn’t told the last of the ghost stories that Aliyahgator illustrated.

As you come blinking out of the foot tunnel and turn left out of the park, there’s a sign pointing to the launch-place of the Great Eastern, I.K. Brunel’s last ship, The Great Eastern, his ‘Great Babe’ - the ship that pretty much killed him with overwork. She was ill-fated from the start, and lurched from awkward failures and bad luck to rumours among the superstitious that she was cursed.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been along that stretch of path looking for the launch place, and failed to see the wood for the timbers. I know it sounds mad, but I was always looking along the river’s edge. It never occurred to me to turn my head to the right and the unassuming little patch of green grass by unexciting modern flats that, had I walked to the other side of the path, would have revealed this:

As you all know by now, my soul might be ethereal, but I have feet of very heavy clay indeed…

Mind you, Stephen got a couple of pics of the launch site at low tide – so clearly if I’d been there at the right time of day I’d have  seen this:

But I digress – again.

As you can see from the whopping great timbers above, the ship was not small – she was 100,000 tons – at the time, the biggest ship ever. So big, in fact, that they had to launch her sideways and she still got stuck on the launching dock, embarrassing for the great I.K. since, against his wishes, the company directors had sold 3,000 tickets to the public who thought it all highly entertaining.

However awkward she might have been, the Great Eastern carried a whole bunch of  ’firsts’ within her new double-skinned hull, a concept which is now compulsory for health and safety reasons, but was revolutionary at the time. Tuck that one away in your ‘for later’ head, folks.

She wasn’t a happy ship. The money ran out, several trips to the States were beset with problems and ‘stuff’ happened. A ventilator exploded, killing one and scalding others. The next month IK died of a stroke. She was caught in a storm, and badly damaged, then sailed over some uncharted territory and tore open her hull. Happily, if you recall, she carried the new-fangled double-hull which now proved its worth. No one died but superstitious sailors started to whisper about a strange knocking sound that could be heard coming from the very heart of the ship itself. The hammering was so loud that it could even be heard over the noise of sea storms.

As the century wore on, she lost what glamour she’d had in her youth and poor old Great Eastern ended up laying transatlantic cable before ending her days as a floating music hall and being broken up for scrap.

As she was being dismantled, a skeleton was found within the double hull. It was the master shipwright, who had disappeared mysteriously one day during construction and had, apparently, been trying to get out for the past 32 years.

Ghost stories. Go on – you love ‘em…


I’ve had an email from Charle, who works in the cable industry and is also a Master Mariner. He says:

After reading the article I started to wonder about the space available for the build and the sideways launch and what the Great Eastern would look like if it was there today (see above – TGP). I located a plan image of the Great Eastern and then pulled it into Google Earth along the Isle of Dogs shoreline. The attached shows the result. The photo of the timbers does not do the slipway justice! I was surprised at how much of the shore would have been occupied by the build. Measurements checked several times and it is correct!

Presumably the timbers have decayed over the years but that picture’s pretty incredible – what must it have been like to have that along the banks of the Thames for so many years. We had Ocean with us for a few months. Fascinating. Thank you, Charles…

the attachments to this post:

great eastern superimposed over map
great eastern superimposed over map

Great Eastern launch site 2 stephen low
Great Eastern launch site 2 stephen low

Great Eastern launch site 1 stephen low
Great Eastern launch site 1 stephen low

Great Eastern
Great Eastern

aliaghator greateastern_lg
aliaghator greateastern_lg

5 Comments to “The Ghost of the Great Eastern”

  1. Valoma says:

    There is a Thames barge at Faversham creek that is reported to be haunted.Worth giving a wide berth

  2. Dan says:

    Very chilling!

  3. Mary says:

    three things
    1. that ghost story was discredited years ago
    2. a notice about the launch site used to be painted on the river wall, was removed in the 1980s and never repainted.
    3. don’t talk down the cable laying – they would never have done the atlantic cable without her. The thing I really like is that when they got the (Greenwich made) cable connected after the fourth try at Heart’s Content – Great Eastern went off into the Atlantic to look for the broken end of the third try cable. Nothing was heard, winter was coming, it was thought the ship was lost. Then at Valentia the needles flicked – and it was the sign that Great Eastern crew had found the broken cable, hooked it up out of the sea and connected it to America. From that moment people could communicate round the world. She was the only ship big enough to get that done.

  4. Cool – thanks Mary.

    And I totally buy that the Ghost story’s untrue – but whoever read a ghost story for its verity?

  5. Julian says:

    There was a very interesting programme about this some time ago.

    I seem to recall that it took 3 or 4 attempts, on different days, to launch. Ultimately it was broken up nr Liverpool and that buried in the mud they found many of the millions of rivets used in its construction.