The SS Great Eastern was designed by the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was far ahead of his time in construction. The ship was built at the London yard of John Scott Russell and Company in Millwall. Work started on the ship, which at first was going to be called the Leviathan, in 1854.
There were many problems in building the ship and in trying to launch it, and the ship, now renamed the Great Eastern was not finally afloat until January 1858. The launch, however, failed, as the steam winches and manual capstans used to haul the ship towards the water were not up to the job. Brunel made another attempt on the 19th and again on the 28th, this time using hydrolic rams to move the ship, but these too proved inadequate. The ship was finally launched sideways at 1:42pm on 31 January 1858, using more powerful hydraulic rams.
After being fitted out at Deptford, the ship was ready for its trials on 5 September 1859. Brunel made a final inspection visit, but shortly after coming on board he collapsed with a stroke. In 1864, the Great Eastern was sold for a fraction of its cost to a cable laying company. The time that the ship spent laying cables for the new telegraph system was its most successful. It was used to lay the first telegraph cable to America.
The Great Eastern was finally broken up in 1888. The ship was built so strongly that it took 200 men two years to take it to pieces. Sir Daniel Gooch wrote ‘Poor old ship: you deserved a better fate’.
The launch site of the SS Great Eastern can still be seen today preserved at Millwall , right above Masthouse Terrace Pier. Many of the wooden parts of the slipway are also seen at low tide around the pier.