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By David Rooney on

Getting A Leviathan Off

A few days ago, I told you about riverfront industry in Greenwich. I recently made another Thames-side discovery.

Just by Masthouse Terrace pier on the Isle of Dogs, you can see the original launching slip for the record-breaking ship, the Great Eastern.

Great Eastern launching slip, Isle of Dogs (David Rooney)

Close by is the frontage of its manufacturer, John Scott Russell.

John Scott Russell building, Isle of Dogs (David Rooney)

The Great Eastern was huge. Designed by Brunel and built by Russell, when launched in 1858 she was by far the largest ship ever built. In fact, she was called Leviathan (huge or powerful thing) during construction.

'The Great Eastern on the Stocks', 1850s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Despite several launch attempts, she refused to budge, and had to be pushed into the Thames using hydraulic jacks built by the Tangye company.

Richard Tangye with the 'Great Eastern', Millwall, 1850s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This commission was the making of Tangye, who later advertised, ‘we launched the Great Eastern, the Great Eastern launched us.’ We’ve quite a few Tangye items in our collections – browse here. (PS. Tangye’s great-great-granddaughter, Charlotte, is a friend of mine!)

By this time, satirists were questioning the use of this monster. This cartoon from our archives suggests ‘what to do with her now you’ve got her off’…

'A Suggestion: The Leviathan, what to do with her now you've got her off', 1858 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ship, scrapped in the 1880s, may seem like a distant memory, but it’s surprising what can still be found on the streets, by the river, and tucked away in museums…