Sunday 16 October 2011

Deptford's extended shipbuilding legacy: Brunel's Great Eastern

The establishment and long-term success of Deptford's dockyard undoubtedly sparked the development of other shipbuilding works and associated businesses on both sides of the Thames at this point.

Directly across the river from the dockyard at Deptford,  Isambard Kingdom Brunel built his famous, iron steam ship the Great Eastern at the Millwall iron works owned at the time by John Scott Russell. At the time of her launch in 1858, the Great Eastern represented the next generation of vessels, being by far the largest ship ever built, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling. A few years ago the Deptford Dame wrote about her enduring delight in this particular aspect of shipbuilding heritage, and explained what it meant to her:

(National Maritime Museum)

"Yesterday's cycle ride, which passed the launch site of Brunel's famous Great Eastern ship on the Isle of Dogs, reminded me to share one of my favourite paintings. Building the Great Leviathan, by William Parrott, shows the construction of the great ship at Millwall Shipyard, with the domes of the Old Royal Naval College in the background.

It's not really the kind of painting I would have on my wall, but it moves me for a number of reasons. I am a great admirer of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his life and works continue to fascinate me. The fact that he is so inextricably linked to Deptford and surrounds by his involvement in the Thames Tunnel (through which the East London Line now runs) and the construction of the Great Eastern, pleases me more than I can explain.

Often when I'm gazing out across the River Thames from Millennium Quay, I try to imagine how the view would have been when Brunel's 'great leviathan' was finished and ready for launching, towering over all the buildings that surrounded it. I am sure that if it was there now it would still look impressive, even with all the tall blocks around it.

The painting is usually on display at the National Maritime Museum - you can find out more about the story of the ship at the NMM's website here.

(V&A museum)

Photographer Robert Howlett documented the construction of the Great Eastern for The Times, and his famous photograph of Brunel in front of a set of enormous chains was part of this work.

If you are interested in finding out more about Brunel, you should take a trip to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, which is housed in buildings at the top of the shaft from which the Thames Tunnel was driven.

Many books have been written about Brunel; I would recommend two in particular.

LTC Rolt's biography of Brunel has endured several decades; it might not have the glossy photos and diagrams of other publications, but the style and content is excellent.

For great pictures (including a large fold-out print of Parrott's painting) and a stylish design which is nonetheless not compromised by content, try Steven Brindle's excellent hardback book 'Brunel; The man who built the world'."

1 comment:


    MANY of our readers are aware that there is now growing into form and shapeliness, upon the shores of the Isle of Dogs, oppo- site the town Deptford, a fabric of enor- mous dimensions, which has lattly begun to assume the proportions of a ship. Un- like all other ships, however, it has not been cradled in docks or suspended on framework, but built upon solid earth; and from this cause, as well a« from the un- couth appearance it presented for many months, that portion of the public which passed up and down the river between London and Greenwich were slow io be- lieve that it was intended for a ship at all. Gradually the huge mast began to speak for itself ; the lofty walls that threatened to enclose an extensive factory, or unite in a range of warehouses, or a formidable forti- fication, vanished by degrees behind an outer covering, which assumed the unmis- takable contour of the swelling hull of a vessel, dispelled all doubt upon the sub- ject, leaving ia its place only amazement at the grandeur of the design, and the vast ness of the undertaking.