Today (September 6) in London History – The Crystal Palace of the Sea


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Some story. Some history. Some sight. You were there, you saw it, you’d never forget it, you’d never stop talking about it.

The date was today, September 6th, 1859. 

What you saw was The Floating City, the Crystal Palace of the Sea sailing out of a Millwall shipyard on her maiden voyage. The maiden voyage of The Great Eastern, the Wonder of the Seas, the Mighty Home on the Deep – a ship six times larger by volume than any vessel float. A ship so large she had to be launched sideways into the Thames. Where she was built, the Thames was just a thousand feet wide, too narrow to receive a seven hundred foot ship head-on. 

In the last analysis, what was built there on the Isle of Dogs and launched and set sail on its maiden voyage, in the last analysis what happened there was a technological explosion. 

The statistics alone are a feast. I think of each of those stats as a dot. Those dots tell the story. There’s no need for me to connect them – they connect of their own accord.

Let’s feast. 

The Great Eastern was a steamship five times the size of the biggest vessel afloat then. It was designed to carry 4,000 passengers. 4,000 passengers – that’s almost twice as many as the Great Eastern’s great-grandchild, the Queen Mary, launched 77 years later, carried.

The Great Eastern was 692 feet long. Let that sink it. That’s way over two football fields long. Or another way of looking at it, that’s just under twice the length of the British Museum’s frontage. So, yes, two British Museums placed end to end. Capacity-wise, the equivalent of five capital hotels.

The Great Eastern had six masts and five funnels. No other ship has ever carried that many. She had two sets of engines. Those two sets of engines – that was a metamorphosis moment if there ever was one. You’d be touring the Great Eastern with its creator, Isambard Kingdom Brunel – his name almost as magnificent as his ship – and when he got you to the engine rooms he’d whisper, “you’re looking at 11,000 horses – enough to run all the cotton mills in Manchester.”

And why two sets of engines, two power plants? One of them turned the 58-foot paddle wheels. The other drove the 24-foot screw. 

The superlatives just keep on rolling out. Fully laden, the Great Eastern outweighed the combined tonnage of the 197 English ships that fought the Spanish Armada. 

She carried 6,500 square yards of sail. That’d cover about 21 tennis courts. Wimbledon has 18 championship courts.

The Great Eastern was 120 feet wide – too broad for the Panama Canal opened half a century later.

The Great Eastern abolished seasickness. She was longer than the trough of the longest storm wave oceanographers had measured. 

The Great Eastern could steam nearly round the world without refuelling. She had capacity for 15000 tons of coal. She was an ocean-going coal mine. Her coal supplies were bunkered around and over her ten boilers. The Great Eastern’s crew passed fore and aft through a six-foot iron tube buried in coal. 

The Great Eastern was constructed of 30,000 iron plates and three million rivets. Each of the iron plates was seven-eighths of an inch thick and weighed a third of a ton. Each of those three million rivets was an inch thick. It had taken 200 rivet gangs a thousand working days – twelve-hour days – to do the needful with those three million rivets.

The Great Eastern had two hulls, one inside the other. They were three feet apart and heavily braced. They extended to six feet above the waterline. Inside, she had longitudinal and transverse watertight bulkheads, forming sixteen compartments. Yes, she was as nearly unsinkable as engineering genius could make her. 

The “Wonder of the Seas”, the Mighty Home on the Deep, was not built in dry dock. There was no dry dock large enough. She was erected on the soft riverbank under the West Ferry Road. For three years her 58-foot height dominated the huddle of riverside dwellings there. 

Finally, though, as always with London, the London story, the chapters in the London story – it’s always about people.

The Ship was called The Monster. The engineer who conceived her was called The Little Giant. Yes, back we go to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. That dynamic little man with his high beaver hat full of memoranda scribbled to himself and a leather pocket case holding 50 cigars. The Little Giant built railways, bridges, dry docks and steamships. Everything he did was outsize, brilliant and radical. You know any 20-year-olds? Brunel was 20 when he carried out the construction of the world’s first shaft under a river, the Thames tunnel.

The tunnel that made modern cities possible. 

Well, that’s some kind of a note to end on. 

But it’s not an end because the Today in London recommendation is our Thames Sightseeing, Brunel’s River Cruise Trip. It takes you through that tunnel. Takes you through that tunnel after you visit the site on the Isle of Dogs where the Great Eastern was built. The slipways are still there. We run the trip every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s masterminded – and often guided – by Robert Hulse, the former Curator of the Brunel Museum. Robert’s the man – nobody knows more about Isambard Kingdom Brunel than Oxford-educated, Brunel-author, and worldwide lecturer Robert Hulse. As waitpersons say in restaurants when they bring you your food, Enjoy. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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