At the South Eastern tip of Millwall, near Canary Wharf in the East End of London, lie the remains of the SS Great Eastern’s launch ramp. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the SS Great Eastern was built to carry passengers and cargo between England and Australia, and at the time of her launch in 1858 was the largest ship the world had ever seen. She was also the first ship of her time to be constructed almost entirely of metal.
Perhaps it is strange then that the launch site that was chosen for this behemoth was at a tight meander on the Thames, between the Isle of Dogs and Deptford. Why was this?
Right from the outset, Brunel and his business partner Scott Russell were under the constraints of an extremely tight budget for the building of the SS Great Eastern. Originally estimated to cost £500,000, this soon had to be whittled down to £377,000, and then further to £258,000. Because of these cost restraints it was decided that building a brand new dock to accommodate the ship was simply not feasible. Instead, Brunel and Russell were forced to look for an existing site suitable to build and launch the ship.
In the end a site called “Napier Yard” was chosen, which just so happened to sit next to Scott Russell’s own – albeit smaller – Millwall Dock. Napier Yard was also ideally placed right next to the Millwall Iron Works (also owned at the time by Scott Russell), and had good transport links to the rest of the country via the numerous railway lines that had recently been built in the area. Finally, being at the centre of 19th century shipbuilding, Millwall had a highly skilled shipbuilding workforce, something that was invaluable for a ship of the Great Eastern’s size and complexity.
Work began on the SS Great Eastern in the spring of 1854 and was completed by November 1857. It was planned that the ship was to be launched sideways into the Thames as it was too long for a conventional launch. To support this sideways launch, Brunel had ordered the construction of two slipways into the Thames which would support the Great Eastern into the water. This wasn’t the preferred solution however; Brunel had originally opted for a single, 700ft slipway but these plans were dropped due to cost concerns.
In the end the launch date was set for the 3rd November, and thousands of spectators turned up to see the event (much to the annoyance of Brunel who, due to the previously untried sideways launch method, had hoped for a quiet affair). However, when the words “I christen this ship… Leviathan” were spoken, nothing happened and the ship simply stayed put.
Over the next few days various investigations were carried out to determine why the ship did not move, and in the end it was decided that the steam winches were simply not up to the job of pulling the Great Eastern into the Thames. In fact, it took another three attempts and three months to finally get the ship into the water.
So why, with such a precision engineer as Brunel behind the helm, did it take three attempts to finally get the Great Eastern into the water?
In short, it is believed that the foundations for the slipway were far too slim to support the 12,000 tonne ship against the subsidence of the river bed. For the launch to work, both slipways had to be exactly the same height so that the ship was level. Unfortunately, the concrete foundations which supported the timbers and iron rails just weren’t thick enough, and in the end the slipway at the bow end became steeper than the slipway at the stern end.
To find the remains of these ill-fated slipways, simply head to the Island Gardens DLR station and turn right. Follow the river for a few hundred yards and look out for the sign posts leading you to the site. We’ve also included an extremely accurate Google Map below should you get a little lost!