In our final week in Tower Hamlets, the first of the five Olympic Boroughs, Ruairidh Anderson tells the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘Great Babe’. Built on the banks of the Thames in Millwall, the SS Great Eastern was supposed to be his crowning glory but sometimes things just don’t work out.
“Brunel was a real man of the old school, sporting mutton-chop whiskers, sleeping four hours a night and smoking forty cigars a day. Whilst his breath must have smelt like Bob Geldof on a good day, his mind was one of the sharpest engineering brains of his generation.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale,’Great Babe’.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Surely the greatest name anyone could ever wish to be christened. And whilst it does sound like a pimp from a Quentin Tarantino film, of course it belongs to one of the great men of the Victorian era. A real man of the old school. Muttonchop whiskers, four hours sleep a night and a 48 cigars a day smoking habit. So whilst he probably did smell like Bob Geldof on a good day, he however posses one of the sharpest engineering brains of his generation. He could build anything; underwater tunnels, railway systems, bridges, I mean you can forget about Steve Jobs. If Isambard was alive today you’d have iPads with 3-D graphics, MacBook Pros that never run out, iPods with surround sound. Although admittedly probably all steam powered.
But Isambard had a dream. He wanted to build about not just any boat but the largest man-made movable object in the history of the world. Bigger than the ark. ‘It can’t be done’, his critics claimed, ‘it is too expensive blah blah blah’. But work eventually began at Millwall in London’s Tower Hamlets. They had to build a shipyard and a slipway which can still be seen today, in order to get the boat in sideways into the Thames because it was that huge.
So action finally began but the money began to run out – no one telling Brunel this. The men were worked harder and harder. Soon strange events started to take place. Things went missing, people went missing, accidents, fires, bankruptcy.
The stress of all this began to wear Brunel out. Perhaps it was at this point that he only cut down to 30 cigars the day and a cheeky marlboro light at night. But eventually in 1857 thousands came out from the surrounding areas to see the SS Great Eastern be launched sideways in the Thames. But on this great day a winch snapped and another number of people got killed. And over the weeks and weeks that followed they had to slowly edge this great beat inch by inch by inch towards the Thames.
When the Great Eastern finally set sail Brunel was no longer around to see it. The stress had proved too much and he died, never getting to see his ‘Great Babe’ as he called it, finally kiss the waves.
On its maiden voyage engines blew and another five people died. And from the date it set sail until the date it was scrapped 30 years later, it was blighted by catastrophe after catastrophe. What began as the greatest engineering feats of the generation, ended up being sold for scrap metal.
But as these scrap merchants were pulling rusting panel from rusting panel they made a grim discovery. In the wall of this vessel were two riveters trapped in there from the very beginning. The boat was cursed before it ever set sail.