17 SEPTEMBER 1859, Page 4


The Great Eastern has made her way to Portland and now lies snugly behind the breakwater. She did not reach that harbour without an accident. Her course down Channel was all that could be wished until she came abreast of Hastings. The weather was rough, the wind high and dead a-head, but she did not pitch in any perceptible degree. On Friday afternoon she was off Hastings. The guests had just dined in the saloon. Contrary to custom they quitted the cabin one by one to stroll on the deck and look at Hastings from the sea. One or two ladies lingered below playing the piano. The gentlemen on deck were dilating

on the splendid success of the trip. A few gathered on the bridge around Mr. Campbell were congratulating him ; Captain Harrison was aft; in a cabin below a number of reporters were complimenting Mr. Herbert Ingram, one of the directors. Confidence and exhilaration reigned everywhere.

Suddenly, ere the boasts were over, the forward part of the ship sprung up and a funnel leaped into the air.

" There was a confused heavy roar," says the Times reporter, " amid which came the awful crash of timber and iron mingled together with

frightful uproar, and then all was hidden in a rush of steam. Blinded and almost stunned by the overwhelming concussion, those on the bridge stood motionless in the white vapour till they were reminded of the necessity of seeking shelter by the shower of wreck—glass, gilt work, saloon ornaments, and pieces of wood, which began to fall like rain in all directions. The prolonged clatter of these as they fell prevented any one aft the bridge from moving, and though all knew that a fearful accident bad occurred, none were aware of its extent or what was likely next to happen. After a short interval, during which the white steam still obscured all aft the funnel, Captain Comstock, who was on the bridge, tried to see what had occurred, but he could only ascertain by peering over the edge of the paddle-box that the vessel's sides were uninjured, and the engines still going. Gradually then, as the steam cleared off, the foremost funnel could be seen lying like a log across the deck, which was covered with bits of glass, gilding, frag- ments of curtains and silk hangings, window frames, scraps of wood blown into splinters, and a mass of fragment; which had evidently come from the cabin fittings of the lower deck, beneath the grand saloon. In the middle was a great heap of rubbish where the funnel had just stood, from which the condensed steam was rushing up in a white, and therefore not hot vapour, but enough to hide completely all that had happened below. In another minute all the passengers came rushing towards the spot. . . . Captain Harrison, who was aft at the moment, rushed forward, and seizing a rope, lowered himself down through the steam into the wreck of the grand saloon, and calling to six men to follow him, began a search among the ruins for those who might have been below. The only one in the apartment was his own little daughter, who had just arrived at the after part at the moment of the explosion, and who, completely sheltered by the wrought-iron bulkhead, had escaped, by a miracle, totally unhurt. Captain Harrison merely gave the order to pass her up through the skylights, and continued his search. This was no easy matter. The wreck and rubbish piled in all directions in the ladies' small saloon, forward of the funnel, made it difficult to move about. The steam hid almost every object ; the place was broken, the floor in parts upheaved and riven, so as to show a still more frightful smash in the saloons and cabins below. Through these apertures the bright glare beneath the lower deck of all showed that the furnace doors had either been blown open or blown away, and the funnel being gone, the draught was down the re- mains of the chimney, forcing out the flames and ashes in a fierce and dan- gerous stream. This, as the embers touched water, sent up a close suffo- cating air,—half steam, half gas,—in which it was difficult to see and almost impossible to breathe." It would be miraculous if at such:a moment there had been no confusion. But it was slight, and order was speedily re- stored. There was another funnel similarly constructed to that which had blown up. "Mr. Scott Russell, followed by one or two engineers, at once went below to the furnaces of these boilers, and ordered the steam to be blown off, the speed of the engines to be reduced, and every precaution taken to guard against mishap. Mr. Campbell remained calm and collected on deck, getting the crew forward and preventing any unnecessary alarm. Some of the men instantly went below to search for those employed in the stoke-holes, whom it was now evident must be fearfully injured, if indeed alive." It proved that twelve were hurt. "Two or three of these poor fellows walked up to the deck almost, if not quite, unassisted, and this may have led to the belief that their injuries were slight. Their aspect, how- ever, told its own tale, and none who had ever seen blown-up men before could fail to know at a glance that some had only two or three hours to live. A man blown up by gunpowder is a mere figure of raw flesh, which seldom moves after the explosion. Not so with men blown up by steam, who for a few minutes are able to walk about, apparently almost dihurt, though in fact mortally injured beyond all hope of recovery. This was so with one or two, who, as they emerged from below, walked aft with that indescribable expression in their faces only resembling intense astonishment, and a certain faltering of the gait and movements like one that walks in his sleep. Where not grimed by the smoke or ashes, the peculiar bright, soft whiteness of the face, hands, or breast, told at once that the skin, though unbroken, bad in fact been boiled by the steam. One man walked along with the movement and look I have en- deavoured to describe, and seemed quite unconscious that the flesh of his thighs (most probably by the ashes from the furnace) was burnt in deep holes. To some one who came to his assistance, he said quietly, I am all right. There are others worse than me. Go and look after them.' This poor man was the first to die. Another stoker was brought up with the scalp hanging in raw strips from his head. One of the crew went to assist another fireman, and caught him by the arm, and beneath the grasp of those who thus aided him the skin peeled off the poor fellow's hand and arm like an old glove, and this, too, without the sufferer apparently feeling or knowing it." They were carried to cots and tended by Dr. Slater, Dr. Watson, and Dr. Markham. "The first process," says an eye-witness, writing to the Daily News," was to cut off the few remains of clothing that had not been yet burnt off from their living frames, and when that was ac- complished it required a lion's heart to fulfil the rest. Blistered, bleeding, and skinless, were these poor firemen and stokers, and yet patient beyond the credibility of man. The whole frame presented one black aspect which in shape and size was only the resemblance to humanity. Quarts of oil were poured upon their naked bodies, which were then carefully covered with a thick coat of wadding, and that was the only remedy that could be instantly applied. This seemed to give the poor fellows relict, but the burning heat of the frame licked up the oil as quick as it was applied, and revealed the fearful fever that raged within. We have heard much of our military hos- pitals in the time of war, but no hearsay evidence of the burning thirst which afflicts the wounded soldier, can be exceeded by that of these poor sufferers. Water they drank with an avidity which it seemed impossible to appease. Their thirst could not be quenched, and as their blistered lips greedily griped the cup of cold water, they were as thankful as in the time of health they would have been for the greatest boon to be bestowed. Side by side they lay, till death ever and anon took one, and eased him of his pain for ever. One stoker escaping from the fire, got outside the ship, and fell into the water." The ship's officers behaved admirably. The correspondent of the Daily News has described two:— "Mr. Atkinson, the pilot, a little unpretending man, stood at his post on the bridge, and, undismayed by the loud explosion, the descending frag- ment; the suffocating chasm, or the yawning gulf immediately beneath him' and in the firm conviction that all the boilers would go in succession, continued to direct the movements of the ship as calmly as if he were only tuning her into a harbour. Some frightened fool shouted, ' Atkinson, come down and save yourself ! ' but the gallant veteran replied, with grave nonchalance, I'm no engineer, I'm a pilot, I've charge of the ship, and rll stick to her.' The officer, Mr. Sewell, who held the wheel under Mr. Atkinson's directions, was equally self-possessed. I saw his tall figure through the smoke working and turning the wheel with the regularity of clockwork, and I thought of the Roman sentinel whose skeleton was found upright at his post in the excavations at Pompeii."

There was some danger of the ship taking fire, as the flames rushed fiercely from the furnace doors ; but the deck-hose was turned on, and in a few minutes all danger from this source was at an end. The engines and boilers were next inspected and their safety ascertained. For a moment, during the height of the confusion, the head of the ship was turned towards the land. A great ship bore down upon the Great Eastern, and she had to put her helm hard a port to avoid crushing the inquisitive stranger. Next the tiller ropes broke, but chains were rove into the helm, and the steering was resumed. When the nature of the accident and amount of damage was ascertained, it was determined to hold on for the original destination.

The damage was entirely confined to the compartment in which it oc- curred. Again we quote the Times. "The litter on the deck showed that in the compartment in which it had taken place, and where it was confined by the wrought-iron bulkheads, it had been wide and general. The fore part of Mr. Crace's beautiful saloon was a pile of glittering rubbish, a mere confused mass of boards, carpet shreds, hangings, mirrors, gilt frames, and splinters of ornaments ; the nch gilt castings were broken and thrown down, the brass work ripped, the handsome cast-iron columns round the funnel overturned and strewed about. In the more forward part, a State sitting-room for ladies, every single thing was destroyed, and the wooden flooring broken and wrenched up. As one gazed on the evidences of the appalling force of the explosion it was re- collected with profound gratitude to Providence that the accident occurred at the only single moment when the grand saloon was empty, and the berths on each side were unoccupied. What the consequences would have been if it had taken place an hour later, when the visitors would be sitting in the saloon, is almost fearful to think upon. But the damage in this part seemed a mere bagatelle when compared with the ravages among the lower deck cabins beneath. It was difficult to go down there, for the whole place was filled with fragments of boards, chairs, beds, cabin fittings, broken steam- pipes and syphon tubes, torn-out rivets, and masses of the inner and outer funnels rent to pieces like calico, and lying about like heaps of crumpled card-board. Everything was in literal fragments. The course of the explosion could then be seen at once. The water, or rather steam, in the casing had crushed in the inner casing, blowing up the funnel above deck, while both funnels below it were torn to pieces and hurled about, sometimes in single rivets or scraps no longer than one's hand, sometimes in crumpled up lumps weighing several hundredweight. Beneath this deck, towards the stokehole, where the remnants of the funnel left a yawning hole like an ex- tinct volcano, the force of the explosion was still more manifest. Not only was the iron compartment nearest to the boiler partly rent and pushed back, but one of the main deck beams, an enormously massive wrought-iron girder about two feet deep, and strengthened with angle irons, was wrenched back and nearly bent in halves. . . . In some parts the explosion seems to have acted with the capricious violence of lightning. Thus, in the grand saloon the two largest mirrors on each side of it, running fore and aft, were quite unbroken, though the silvering was boiled off the backs of both by the heat of the steam. By the side of these glasses east-iron columns were bent and broken, and mirrors at four times the distance from the seat of the disaster were almost pulverized, and their framings even destroyed. The beautiful oak staircases descending to the saloons were blown up like cardwork, yet not a book on the library shelves close to the funnel was stirred. . . Every engineer on board knows that no wooden vessel that ever swam could have resisted the tremendous violence of the explosion for a second. Whether it had happened to the Royal Albert or the General Admiral, the result would have been in each case the same ; they would have gone down, perhaps without even time enough to lower a boat. The Britannia Ilridge is a structure of almost unknown strength ; engineers calcu- late that the Great Eastern is ten times as strong. Yet even the ablest engineers on board were astounded at the slight effect produced when the tremendous nature of the explosion was considered. Again, the vessel never once stopped either screw or paddle engines, though of course after this most unfortunate mishap the forward pair of boilers were instantly put out, while the after pair to the second funnel were worked slowly and easily. The only difference this made was that the screw engines were required to go faster, and faster accordingly they went, and did all that was wanted to send the huge ship through the water at the rate of knots,' as sailors say. Any ordinary vessel, even those nominally built of iron, which only mean an outer metal casing with all the rest wood, must have been burnt by the explosion. Yet it is not too much to say that all on board almost smiled at the idea of fire in a vessel subdivided in every direction into a series of iron cells. Had fire been possible, the mass of water that was instantly at hand from large hose connected with the donkey engines would have sufficed to put out a small volcano."

The cause of the accident was the adoption of an arrangement proved to be bad.

"In the first plans for the vessel it was determined, in order to economize the heat given off by the funnels, and to keep the saloons through which they passed cool, to fit them all with what is termed, a feed-pipe casing,' rising from the boilers to about eight feet above the upper deck. This feed- pipe casing is simply a double or outer funnel for the length we have stated, the inner one, as usual, carrying off the smoke and flame, and the space be- tween it and the outer casing being filled with water. The water is pumped i in at the top of the casing while cold, and gradually passing down into the space round the furnaces, becomes greatly heated, when it is discharged into the boilers by i means of an ordinary stop-cock. . . . . This was the ap- paratus which n order to economize heat and cool the saloons, it was pro- posed to introduce on board the Great Eastern in the three funnels to the screw engine, and the two forward funnels for the paddles. Messrs. Bolton and Watt were intrusted with the construction of the screw engines and boilers, and they at once firmly refused to have any such casing round their funnels, or attached to their engines in any way whatever." The correspondent of the Daily .Netrs says—" Mr. Russell states positively, and I am bound to give him the benefit of his statements, that this arrangement was forced upon him by Mr. Brunel; that he protested against it, and that it was only in obedience to the stringent conditions of his contract that he adopted it." The plan, we are told, has been tried over and over again, and always failed, with more or less of inconvenience or disaster. The plan, how- ever, was adopted for the two paddle funnels, though at about that time, the Collins line of steamers, which had tried the plan for nearly three years, discarded it as often dangerous, and always worthless.

An inquest has been held on the bodies of the dead, and it is to be continued today; but it has, as yet, elicited nothing beyond the startling fact that the stop-cock, placed upon the "casing" to test its strength by hydranlical pressure, was never removed. This alone accounts for the deplorable accident. It shows that the party on board the great ship were every hour sitting around a boiler which might have exploded at any moment.