The SS Great Eastern was Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last great engineering project. Drawings for this ship began to appear in 1854. The Great Eastern was designed to carry enough coal to get her all the way to Australia, and was the biggest ship ever built at that time. As the vessel grew in a dockyard at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs, she encapsulated the larger than life Brunel drama. The history of her building was itself fittingly dramatic. Brunel made the mistake of accepting a foolishly low bid for the tender to build the ship. His chosen marine engineer John Scott Russell could not complete the job for the price quoted, which led to great problems during construction. Brunel was by now ill with a kidney illness known as Bright's disease, but even so his almost superhuman energy saw the hull finally completed in November 1857. Problems continued, however, at the launch. Thousands of sightseers had flocked to Millwall. In the confusion and excitement of the launch, a crew manning one of the huge restraining cables were distracted. Hit by a spinning winch, two men were killed. The launch had to be stopped, and with initial momentum lost the ship was now marooned over three hundred feet away from the Thames. Launching was to take months, hydraulic presses pushing the ship inch by inch towards the river. It wasn't until Sunday 31st January 1858 that the hull was finally launched into the Thames.
The assumed site of this traumatic launching has been partially preserved just off the Thames Path at Burrell's Wharf, Millwall.
There are no facilities at the site. Cafe facilities can be found at nearby Island Gardens, with toilets signposted from there.
Directions: I suggest taking the Underground to Canary Wharf, and then taking the Docklands Light Railway to Island Gardens. From Island Gardens the launch site is sign posted. Simply take the ten minute walk along the Thames Path. The launch site is right beside the path. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Great Eastern launch site.
Opening Times: The launch site is in a public area. There are no restrictions to viewing.
Access: There is level access along the Thames Path to the launch site. Part of the viewing gallery would not be accessible to wheelchair users.