The building of the SS Great Eastern


Measuring 692 feet and over 18,000 tons, at the time of its launch, the SS Great Eastern was the largest ship ever built. The third steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), it was intended to service a non-stop route between Britain and Australia with capacity for 4,000 passengers.

The shipbuilder was John Scott Russell (1808-1882). Construction began in February 1854 and appears to have taken place at his shipyard in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs, East London, or at the adjoining Napier Yard, which he leased from 1854. Work was delayed by a fire in May 1855 and interrupted again between February and May 1856 owing to financial difficulties. On 3 November 1857 a first, unsuccessful attempt was made to launch the ship.  After further problems the launch was finally accomplished on 31 January 1858.   

Brunel recognised the value of photography as a means of recording and illustrating work on the ship, and in late 1854 he commissioned Joseph Cundall and Robert Howlett to take a set of photographs showing construction progress for the information of the directors of the Eastern Steam Navigation Company.

In May 1855 Brunel felt the need to issue very specific instructions governing all aspects - timing, frequency, camera position - of the photography, writing '...what I want is a clear representation of detail.' He additionally requested that a date should be made visible on each image for easy reference (though this did not always happen).

Together the photographs evidence the unprecedented scale of the project and some of the huge technical and logistical challenges associated with it. They also document details of Brunel's revolutionary engineering designs, including the double-layered hull and the compartmentalising bulkheads.

The photographs presented here have been organised into chronological order as far as this has been possible.

Click on the images below to find out more or visit the exhibition gallery by clicking on the link to the right.