The Great Eastern Jinx

Great Eastern Jinx

There are a number of things that can affect the luck of a ship for good or for bad, but the seeds of bad luck were sown in the Great Eastern even before construction was finished.

The Great Eastern was truly was truly a magnificent ship in its time. She was planned in 1854 by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel who had already built the Great Western and the Great Britain. The Great Eastern was designed, at 692 feet long, to be five times larger than any vessel then afloat, a floating palace with a planned capacity of 4,000 passengers. She had six masts carrying sails plus huge steam powered paddle wheels the size of fairground Ferris wheels. But the Great Eastern was destined to be one of his few failures.

Construction consisted of building two iron hulls, one inside the other with a three feet space between. These hulls were braced with an ingenious arrangement of transverse and longitudinal watertight bulkheads. This was claimed to make her virtually unsinkable, but during her time afloat sinking seems to be the only calamity that the Great Eastern did avoid.

The keel of the Great Easter was laid down on 1st May 1854 while construction of the hull involved 200 rivet gangs 1,000 working days to drive home over three million inch thick rivets, all done by hand. During this time there were fewer fatal accidents than normal, a total of only four workers and one spectator. Sometime during this period one riveter and his apprentice mysteriously disappeared. It was only later that rumours began to circulate claiming that they had been accidentally sealed in the space between the double hulls. Workers reasoned that any screams for help would have been drowned out by the incessant noise of rivet hammering.

It was after this event that the problems started.

The price of iron plate increased and those financing the project ran out of money. Work stopped until Brunel could raise more finance. Rent of the dock space increased the debt, but Brunel eventually completed the hull.

The launch was planned to take place on 3rd November January 1857. At 12:30 pm Henrietta daughter of a major fundraise Henry Hope, and much to everyone’s surprise, christened the ship Leviathan. Brunel was heard to remark, ‘Call her Tom thumb if you like.’

The name was subsequently changed back to Great Eastern, ignoring the superstition that it is bad luck to change a ship’s name. Bad luck didn’t wait and struck at the launch. The Great Eastern moved no more than three feet towards the water and stopped. Further attempts to launch the Great Eastern took place on the 19th and 28th during which time chains snapped, barges sank, hydraulic rams burst under the strain and on one occasion the multiplying winch meant to control the launch spun out of control. Its operators were thrown into the air. One man died and another four were badly injured.

The Great Eastern was finally manoeuvred to the low tide mark on the shoreline and floated off on the high tide. She was never properly launched and the estimated cost of moving the ship into the Thames reached a staggering £1,000 a foot. This is a sum equivalent to millions at today’s prices. The total cost bankrupted the second company to become involved leaving no money to fit her out, but once again, another board of directors took over.

Brunel had designed the ship to partake in long voyages to India and Australia but instead of this, the new company placed it on the north Atlantic run to New York. At this time only the first class cabins were fitted out severely limiting the number of passengers she could carry. It took another nine years for the second and third class accommodation to be completed.

By this time and to the superstitious mind, the jinx had really set in.

The day before she set sail on her maiden voyage, her designer Brunel came down for a final inspection. After posing for a photograph, he collapsed with a stroke and died a week later. At the same time as he died, news arrived that one of the Great Eastern’s funnels had exploded while she steamed down the channel. Five men were scalded to death and another was blown into one of the great paddle wheels and torn apart. The sumptuous and highly decorated mirrored grand salon was also wrecked.

The planned maiden voyage to America was cancelled and repairs took longer than expected. The Great Easter jinx was gaining more notoriety.

To try to gain some return on their investment, the directors moved the ship to Holyhead in Wales opening it up to sightseers, but the jinx struck again. A severe storm tore the ship from her moorings driving her out to sea. A number of other ships were sunk but the Great Eastern rode out the storm for 18 hours proving the quality of her design. She was eventually towed back to port but the recently repaired grand salon was again completely wrecked.

Another nautical omen of bad luck is if the captain dies on or before a ship’s maiden voyage. As the Great Eastern prepared to restart her maiden voyage, the captain, the coxswain and the nine year old son of the chief purser were all drowned when a squall upset their gig as it traversed between ship and shore. On hearing this news the board of directors all resigned.

The next board of directors set a firm sailing date of 9th June, 1860, but this date passed by and the 300 ticketed passengers sailed on a rival company’s ship. When the Great Eastern, designed to carry 4,000 passengers finally sailed from Southampton on June 16 she carried only 35 paying passengers. The twelve day crossing was fairly uneventful and the Great Eastern arrived to a rapturous welcome. This soon changed at the exorbitant price of one dollar being charged to tour the ship. Sightseers set about pocketing souvenirs in an attempt to get their money’s worth.

In a further attempt to recoup some of their losses, the ship set sail on a two day excursion carrying two thousand passengers. The first problem was that the partly fitted out ship only had 300 beds available and most of the passengers had to spend the night on deck. Then a pipe burst in a storeroom ruining all the food supplies leaving nothing to eat except salt meat and rock hardship’s biscuits.

The passengers who had slept on deck woke to find themselves covered in grit and cinders. This had had rained down from the six funnels and with the burst pipe, there was no water available to wash themselves. Anxious to get ashore it was next discovered that an error in navigation had taken the ship 100 miles out to sea. With no food for breakfast or lunch the dirty, hungry and tired passengers virtually fought amongst themselves to be the first to disembark when the ship finally reached port. A second excursion was planned but so few people showed any interest that the great ship eventually sailed for England with only 90 passengers on board.

This return was not to be without incident. In mid-Atlantic a propeller shaft seized up and then, after finally reaching Milford Haven, the Great Eastern fouled the hawser of a pleasure boat drowning two of this boat’s passengers in the process. The jinx hadn’t finished its carnage. The Great Eastern then collided with the Royal Navy frigate Blenheim causing extensive damage.

The next captain to be appointed considered the ship to be short crewed and resigned before taking the ship to sea. The fourth captain sailed carrying only 100 passengers but the jinx struck again. In September 1861 the Great Eastern was struck by a hurricane powerful enough to sink most ships. She survived but all the lifeboats were torn away and both of her giant side paddles were ripped off. Her rudder was also damaged and this in turn damaged one of her propellers. Repairs cost over £60,000.

The following year off of Long Island she struck an uncharted pinnacle of rock which tore an 83 feet long, 9 feet wide gash in the outer hull. Again the ship did not sink but repairs cost a further £70,000.The owners gave up and offered her for sail.

The Great Eastern found a new occupation as a cable laying ship, but the jinx struck here as well. When over 1,000 miles out from Ireland on her way to Newfoundland, an accident broke the cable and this sank three miles to the ocean floor. All recovery efforts failed and the whole process had to begin again. This time she succeeded and on July 27th 1866 the first under sea cable messages were passed between Europe and North America. Following this in 1869 she laid a cable between Bombay and Aden. This was the only time she visited the oceans she had been designed to sail but the jinx wouldn’t rest long.

In 1847 the first custom built cable laying ships were launched bringing and end to the Great Eastern’s only profitable employment. Only 15 years after being launched the Great Eastern sat unused and rusting, but also blocking the shipping lanes at Milford Haven.

Twelve years later she was sold and taken to Liverpool crashing into and damaging the tug Wrestler in the process. Here this one time floating palace was used as an advertising billboard with slogans painted on her sides. She was then towed to Dublin for the same use and eventually, in 1889 she was sold to be broken up.

Had this once great ship with so much potential fallen foul of some curse or jinx? The problems started after the disappearance of a riveter and his young mate. Rumour had it that they had somehow become accidentally sealed between the double hulls. This led to the claim that it was their restless spirits bringing about the misfortune as they sought release from their tomb, yet no proof existed.

This was until the workmen dismantling the Great Eastern discovered two skeletons trapped inside the double hulls. The riveter and his boy apprentice could finally be laid to rest.  

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