The Great Eastern At Milford Haven

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 to 1859) was one of the 19th century engineering giants who played a major role in the Industrial Revolution.  He built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, three steamships that revolutionised naval engineering (SS Great Western in 1838, SS Great Britain in1843, and SS Great Eastern  in1859), and many important bridges and tunnels.

Brunel had many connections with Pembrokeshire beginning with the formation of the South Wales Railway Company in 1844 with Brunel appointed engineer. He was also engineer for the Great Western Railway and it was agreed that the latter would lease the South Wales line on its completion. The railway reached Haverfordwest on 28th December 1853. Brunel had in 1847 proposed that the railway should terminate at Abermawr on the St David’s Peninsula as a suitable deep water port for Ireland. However in 1851 Brunel decided to terminate the line at Neyland. The line opened in 1856 and connected with a new transatlantic terminal for ocean going ships.

One of Brunel’s aims was to connect London with New York.  For this he now had the Great Western Railway with a terminal at Neyland. His last project was to connect them with a suitably great ship.  For this he designed and built the SS Great Eastern.   She was the largest ship ever built up to that time. She was 692 feet long and displaced 22,500 tons and she had sail, paddle wheels and screw propulsion. She was intended to carry 4,000 passengers across the Atlantic at one time without refuelling. She cost £732,000 – double the estimate.  She was launched with difficulty on 31st January 1858.  Brunel did not live long after her launch and perhaps because of this she became an unlucky ship and her career was not as foreseen by Brunel.

The Great Eastern first arrived at Milford Haven on Sunday 26th August 1860 on her return from her maiden voyage to New York. Her visit coincided with that of eleven warships of the Channel Fleet.  Passing Stack Rock the Channel fleet anchored in a double line and the world’s largest commercial ship was greeted by the crews of the Channel fleet who had manned the rigging of their ships. The Great Eastern moored one mile below the Naval dockyard at Pembroke Dock.  Thousands of sight seers turned up to view the ship as well as the Channel Fleet.  There was not sufficient local accomodation for them all.  The Great Eastern was put ashore at Neyland for six months for essential repair work and during this time earned  much from visitors to the ship, many of whom arrived by special trains. She set out for New York on 1st May 1861.

The Great Eastern returned to Milford Haven on 7th October 1861 for repairs.   She had returned from a British Government charter to take troops to Canada carrying 2,144 officers and men, 473 women and children, 200 horses and 40 paying passengers. In 1861 she made her third voyage to America and this was followed by two voyages in 1862 and three in 1863.   But some of them proved financial losses. So in 1864 she was converted to a cable layer.  In 1865 she laid 4,200 km of transatlantic telephone cable. Between 1866 and 1878 she laid over 48,000 km of submarine cable.

The Great Eastern then returned for the third time to Milford Haven and as she dropped anchor in Hubberston Roads an artillery salute was fired.  She was then moved to the partially-built Milford Docks. This gave publicity to the Docks to show that they could accommodate such a large ship.  Two inscribed blocks of rock were inserted in the wall on Hamilton Terrace marking her length of 692 feet. She remained in the docks for the next five and a half years before being moved back to Hubberston Roads. She remained at anchor there until 22nd April 1886 when she sailed for Liverpool.   There she was sold for £16,000 for a crap and demolished with a ball and chain.  In all she spent around nearly eleven years in Milford Haven.    

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