THE maiden voyages of the largest ships in the world have often been from Southampton, but in one famous case, this was only as the result of a tragic accident.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century.

He is probably best known for the Clifton Suspension Bridge across the River Avon in Bristol but, amongst many other projects, he was also responsible for the design of several famous ships.

The first was SS Great Western, launched in 1837 and the first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic. She made record Blue Riband voyages until 1843.

The next was SS Great Britain, launched in 1843, the world's first iron-hulled passenger liner. In 1884 she was retired to the Falkland Islands, where in 1970 she was raised, repaired and towed back to Bristol. She is now a visitor attraction and museum.

Then Brunel turned his attention to Great Eastern, which he called the “Great Babe”. At the time she was five times larger than any other ship which enabled her to sail to Asia and Australia without stopping to for coal.

The Great Eastern at sea.

The Great Eastern at sea.

Built in London, there was an attempt to launch her on November 3, 1857.

But the massive ship's size meant that the launch failed; two men were killed and others injured, leading some to declare her an unlucky ship.

She was finally successfully launched in January 1858, and spent eight months being fitted out. The spiralling costs concerned many investors and she was sold to a new company which decided she was best suited to the American market.

During her voyage from London to Holyhead, which was planned to be her home port, she suffered a massive steam explosion off Hastings that killed five men.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel, his health ruined by the project’s many problems, collapsed from a stroke and died on September 15, 1859.

On the night of October 24, 1859, a storm caused considerable damage to the breakwater at Holyhead and it was decided to move the ship to Southampton for the winter.

She set out on November 2, and was brought to moorings off Netley as Southampton’s docks were unable to cope with a ship of that size.

Local dignitaries were entertained on board and the ship was open to paying visitors with the South Western Railway providing special cheap excursions.

While she was there undergoing repairs, yet another tragedy occurred.

The late Captain Harrison.

Captain Harrison.

Her Captain, William Harrison, left in a boat with several others, stopping first at Hythe where his wife and daughter were staying.

After leaving there for Southampton, a heavy gust caught the boat and capsized it.

The Indus, lying in Southampton Docks, sent two boats and picked up the unconscious Captain, the surgeon and purser. The Captain died.

The purser’s son aged 14 was drowned. Five of the six crew survived but the Coxswain died later.

The Great Eastern’s eleven-day maiden voyage began from Southampton on June 17, 1860, with just 35 paying passengers and 418 crew.

She never returned to the city but to other British ports, probably because Netley was unsuitable for loading passengers and cargo.

The Great Eastern


She made only eight or ten trips across the Atlantic before being laid up in 1864 due to her very high operating costs.

She was later bought to lay cables.

In May 1865, as she laid the first Transatlantic telegraph cable, the end was lost mid-Atlantic. On the return in 1866 with a new line, the ship's first officer, Robert Halpin managed to locate the lost cable end.

The repaired cable made it to shore in Heart's Content, Newfoundland.

At the end of her cable-laying career in 1885 she was refitted as a liner but efforts to make her a commercial success failed.

She was sold at auction in 1888, fetching £16,000 for scrap value.

Brunel’s, and his Great Babe’s, connections with the City of Southampton are recognised today by Brunel Road in Redbridge.

Jack Wilson is a tour guide with .