Site of the launch ways of the SS Great Eastern


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
Land between Burrells Wharf and Bering Square, Tower Hamlets, Greater London


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Land between Burrells Wharf and Bering Square, Tower Hamlets, Greater London
Greater London Authority
Tower Hamlets (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


The site of launch ways, constructed in 1857 for the sideways launch of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's SS Great Eastern, into the River Thames.

All above-ground buildings (including basements) and structures (including Masthouse Terrace Pier), walls, railings, street furniture, retaining infrastructure and paved, tarmacked, or otherwise finished, surfaces, are excluded from the scheduling except where they form part of the launch ways.

Reasons for Designation

The site of the launch ways of the SS Great Eastern, constructed in 1857 for the sideways launch of the ship into the River Thames at Millwall, is scheduled for the following principal reasons: * Historic interest: constructed for the launch of the SS Great Eastern, Brunel's most audacious (and last) ship-building project, the launch ways are a tangible connection to this remarkable undertaking and were a key aspect of the launch, which in itself presented Brunel with a major technical challenge; * Archaeological potential: the likelihood of the launch ways, and fabric associated with their and the ship's construction being preserved as buried remains, is high; * Rarity: representing one of the few remains of the commercial ship-building industry on the Thames, before its terminal decline in the second half of the C19; * Documentation: the size and construction of the launch ways themselves is well documented, and the public spectacle of the ship's construction has resulted in a wealth of written and photographic records, bolstering our understanding of its cultural significance; * Group value: in forming part of an enclave of other designated buildings and structures originally belonging to the Millwall Iron Works; a site central to iron ship-building on the Thames, and synonymous with the names of great mid-C19 iron ship-builders, including John Scott Russell, builder of the SS Great Eastern.


The steam-ship SS Great Eastern, built in 1854-59, was conceived and designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) for the Eastern Steam Navigation Company (ESNC). It was built initially by John Scott Russell, until the project destroyed the working relationship between Scott Russell and Brunel and drove the former to bankruptcy, after which construction came under the direct supervision of Brunel. At 692ft in length, with a beam of 83ft, the ship was six times bigger than any vessel yet built and its construction was a considerable feat of engineering, which was documented in a remarkable series of photographs. Its launch, or attempted launch, was a major public spectacle, recorded extensively in the press and vividly described by Charles Dickens. However, the project was also extremely problematic and ultimately led not only to the bankrupting of Scott Russell in 1855, but brought on Brunel's early death. The ship never made the long sea journeys for which she was designed, although she went on to a successful career as a cable-layer, and was eventually broken up in the early 1890s. Remains of the purpose-built, and heavily engineered, launch ways are believed to survive, largely below-ground, on the northern banks of the Thames.

The SS Great Eastern, at one time to be called Leviathan, and affectionately known by Brunel as the 'Great Babe', was built for the ESNC, to whom Brunel had sold the idea of a ship which could carry enough coal to make the whole voyage to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back, without refuelling. This would give the ESNC a commercial edge over its competitors on this route, and it was also the reason behind the ship's quite extraordinary size. The ship was technically innovative in its double-skinned hull, divided by bulkheads into water-tight compartments. The hull design embodied all of Brunel's previous experience both as a ship builder, and as a builder of bridges, and was described by Sir Westcott Abell (the eminent naval architect and surveyor) as a 'milestone in the progress of building ships of iron and later steel'. Similar to other large steam ships of the time, the Great Eastern was driven by a hybrid mix of old and new technologies. The ship had both paddle-wheels, and a screw propeller, each powered by separate engines, as well as a sail, intended for auxiliary use in an emergency.

The Great Eastern was built in Millwall, which by the mid-C19 was an important centre for iron ship building. The area had been dominated by the neighbouring establishments of the Scottish engineers William Fairbairn and David Napier. William Fairbairn's Millwall Iron Works was laid out in 1836-7. More than 100 ships were built here by Fairbairn, but by 1848 it was occupied by John Scott Russell and his partners Albert and Richard Alexander Robinson (later J Scott Russell & Company). They made various products but the best-known part of their business was ship-building. The Napier Yard operated until about 1852, when the firm relocated to the Clyde, and most of the site was then leased to John Scott Russell as the building site for the Great Eastern. Scott Russell was one of the leading exponents of the emerging science of naval architecture, and his works had a capability for iron fabrication second to none. There was no other place in the world which had the skills and resources necessary to build a vessel of this size. He and Brunel had worked together previously and, at least at the inception of the project, the two men had a high regard for one another.

The width of the Thames at Millwall, coupled with the size of the Great Eastern, meant that a traditional stern-first launch would be impossible; the only alternative was a sideways launch. Before construction could begin, the building site had to be strengthened to bear the weight of the hull and the necessary machinery. The building area was piled with 12 to 15 inch square oak piles, of 20 to 38ft in length, driven into the mud 5 foot apart, and left standing four foot proud; these were topped with a wooden platform. The exact details of how the ship would launch were not finalised until it was nearing completion, and the two launch ways which ran down from the construction platform to the river, were not constructed until 1857.

There was considerable public interest in the ship while she was under construction. The vast hull was visible from a long distance across the flat, marshy, Isle of Dogs, and there was great speculation as to how so large a vessel would be launched. The hull weighed over 12,000 tons, a greater weight than had ever been attempted to be moved, and for Brunel this presented the greatest technical challenge of his career. Two cradles were built to support the ship, each 120ft wide; the bow and stern projected beyond them 180ft and 150ft respectively, and there was a width of 110ft between them. Beneath the cradles, launch ways of the same width, at a gradient of one in twelve, extended 240ft down to the river. The launch ways were built by the railway contractor Thomas Treadwell and comprised a triple lattice of timber baulks upon a piled foundation; around the heads of the piles was a bed of concrete laid 2ft thick. The lowest layer of timbers, which measured 12 inches by 12 inches, was bolted to the piles, whilst the uppermost carried rails upon which the cradles, shod with inch-thick iron bars, would slide. To prevent the ship from sliding too fast a huge checking drum was mounted at the head of each launch way. Each drum was secured to a solid base: 20ft square of 40ft piles driven shoulder to shoulder. To haul the ship if she became stuck on the ways, chains were rigged from the ship around sheaves on barges moored in the river and back to steam winches on the shore, and to give the ship an initial start if necessary, there were hydraulic rams at the bow and stern.

Aware of the immense public interest in the ship, Brunel tried to play down the attempted launch, held on 3 November 1857, and indeed explained to the press that even if it were successful, it would not be so much a launch, rather a lowering of the ship to the end of the launch ways, where she would remain until the high tide lifted her out of her cradles. Brunel's attempts to ensure a quiet shipyard on the day of the attempted launch failed calamitously, to the extent that unbeknownst to him, three thousand tickets had been sold to witness the 'spectacle', and any hope he had of a calm, unpressured environment, was dashed. The day ended with the ship having moved approximately four feet, and the death of one man and the injuring of several others. Between early November 1857 and the end of January 1858, progress on moving the ship down the launch ways was painfully slow, dogged by failing equipment and poor weather. But finally, on 31st January 1858, the ship was floated. It took another two and a half years for the ship to be fitted out and to embark on her maiden voyage. Much of the fitting out was also overseen by Brunel, despite his increasingly fragile health. On 5th September 1859, while he was on board the ship, Brunel suffered a stroke. He survived, bed-ridden and paralysed, for another 10 days, dying on 15th September 1859.

The Great Eastern made a number of crossings to America, but never did the long voyages for which she was intended. By the time she was complete coal had been discovered in Australia, making refuelling easier for returning ships, and the Suez Canal had opened: a route which she was too large to take advantage of. The ship was however both ahead of its time as well as behind it. Her size, manoeuvrability, and double-skinned hull which saved her from sinking when she struck a submerged reef in 1862, was a great engineering achievement, but she suffered from a lack of adequate harbour facilities and being frequently under-manned by crew without experience of handling a ship of her size. For almost ten years, from the mid 1860s, the Great Eastern did go into successful service as a telecommunications cable-layer; a role for which she was uniquely suited because of the size of her hold. She was used to lay the first transatlantic cable linking America with Europe. Going on to lay six more across the Atlantic, and one across the Indian Ocean; this work marked the foundation of modern international telecommunications. She subsequently became an exhibition ship and was eventually sold piecemeal at auction in 1888 for breaking up. She was not equalled in length (and then not in beam) until 1899, when Harland and Wolff launched the Oceanic for the White Star Atlantic service.

CONSERVATION After the construction of the Great Eastern, the site continued in various industrial uses into the late C20. In 1900 part of the building site for the ship, which included the area occupied by the launch ways, was levelled and a river wall built. When the site was cleared in the 1980s remains of part of the southern launch way were uncovered. These timbers underwent a preservative treatment and were left exposed for public display. Beyond the river wall some timbers, and the concrete that surrounds them, are visible for both launch ways when the tide is out. When the area occupied by the northern launch way was developed for housing in the 1990s, pile foundations were used to minimise the damage to underlying archaeology.

INVESTIGATION HISTORY In 1995 the Museum of London carried out an archaeological evaluation and borehole survey at the site then known as Masthouse Terrace, a site which included the location of the Great Eastern launch ways. The work was commissioned and funded by the London Docklands Development Corporation in order to satisfy a planning condition in advance of redevelopment. Several boreholes (approximately TQ3744378478 and TQ3741278477) outside of the area of the launch ways indicated the survival of timbers of very similar character to those which had already been uncovered. It seems likely that what was found in the boreholes related to the building deck of the ship. The extent of this building deck is difficult to establish as so far as is known, its dimensions were not recorded. As well as the deck there were smaller piled platforms which supported the checking drums for the launch. These are recorded as being 20 ft square, but without establishing the extent of the building platform, these cannot be located with certainty either. For this reason, it is only the areas of the two launch ways and the area in between which are presently scheduled.


The scheduled area has been identified as the location of the launch ways of the SS Great Eastern, based on remains of the lower ends of the launch ways visible on the foreshore at low tide, together with exposed timbers of the south launch way - preserved and monumentalised, to the south-east of Napier Avenue - and the known dimensions of the structures. On the foreshore remains of the concrete beds cast around the launch way piles, and some of the pile heads, are evident.

The exposed part of the south launch way comprises an area of approximately 850 square metres, in which there are regular rows of exposed pile heads. Laid across these are horizontal timbers, running parallel to the river; most appear original but some are known to have been replaced. The incline of the launch way can be seen in the height of the piles stepping down towards the river. In one small area all three crossing layers of the horizontal timber lattice work which formed the deck of the launch way can be seen.

The area around this exposed section of launch way has been landscaped to accommodate the lower ground level of the monument, with the highest timbers being approximately 1.2m below the surrounding ground level. The documented dimensions of the launch ways would mean that the southern launch way extended further towards Napier Avenue to the north-west, and beneath Burrells Wharf to the south-east, than is evident in the visible fabric. However, as the land slopes up gently towards the north-west, the lack of visible fabric suggests that not only has the timber lattice work been removed from this part of the launch way, but that the heads of the piles have been cut back. The level of loss across other sections of both launch ways is unknown, but it is expected that, even if reduced in height, the piling will survive extensively beneath ground level. The area between the launch ways is included in the scheduling to allow for a margin of error in the position of the launch ways; because of the archaeological potential of this area in relation to the building of the ship; and to aid in the proper protection of the monument.

EXCLUSIONS All above-ground buildings (including basements) and structures (including Masthouse Terrace Pier), walls, railings, street furniture, retaining infrastructure and paved, tarmacked, or otherwise finished, surfaces, are excluded from the scheduling except where they form part of the launch ways.


Books and journals
Brindle, S, Cruickshank, D, Brunel: The Man Who Built the World, (2005)
Rolt, L T C, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, (1957), 304-386
Hobhouse, H, 'Drunken Dock and the Land of Promise' in Hobhouse, H, The Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (1994), 466-480
Hickman, K, 'Brunel's "Great Eastern" Steamship the Launch Fiasco - An Investigation' in Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal, (2005), 37-43
Masthouse Terrace, Isle of Dogs, An Archaeological and Geoarchaeological Evaluation by the Museum of London Archaeology Service, November 1995


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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