Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!

Article written for Local Reach November 2020

Caerphilly cheese – made in Somerset and sold in Caerphilly!
According to newspaper reports farmhouse cheese had been made in Caerphilly since the 16th century.  This was made by traditional methods and eaten by the family and farm hands with any surplus being sold at market.  At some stage this production seems to have largely died out possibly because, with industrialisation, and particularly the development of the coal mines, many people left the land.   It is certainly true that by the late 19th century, a considerable amount of Caerphilly cheese was being produced in Somerset, Gloucester and even Glamorgan, much to the annoyance of Caerphilly residents.  It was quick to mature and was, therefore, a good cheese for people to make in their villages and it was clearly in great demand and therefore fetched a good price in south Wales.  It is said that it became a staple food for miners who used to take it down the mines wrapped in a cabbage leaf, and it was thought that it was a good source, not only of protein, but also helped to replace the salt and other minerals that they lost during their times underground.

Shepton Mallet Journal 1913
Highbridge cheese market 1930’s

Despite the concern about Caerphilly cheese being produced outside of the town, it was certainly still being produced until the second world war in various Somerset villages such as Allerton, Wedmore, Mark and Cheddar, sold at Highbridge market and then taken to be sold in South Wales. Recalling her life in Chapel Allerton, the late Mrs Sully said that “in summer cheese and butter were made every day up to the end of September. If we made Caerphilly it would go to Highbridge market.  In 1928, 9p per pound was a good price for the cheese.”

When the Milk Marketing Board was set up in 1933 much of this local cheese production stopped and in 1941 when cheese rationing was introduced, Caerphilly was one of the cheeses that were no longer made, apparently, causing outrage amongst the Welsh miners who were clearly a discerning lot.  In 1949 it was said that “there is a consistent demand for Caerphilly cheese.  The Welsh miner was not that disposed to processed cheese in his sandwiches.” (Western Daily Mail 30 Sept. 1949)





Brean Down Project

Article written for Local Reach

Seemed like a good idea at the time!
In last month’s edition I mentioned day trips to local places including Brean Down.  I wonder what that would be like now if this rather ambitions plan had been carried out.

In the middle of the 19th century discussions took place to build a harbour at Brean and in 1861 the Brean Down Harbour Company was set up with the backing of several eminent men and with substantial capital of £360,000.

It was thought that the port would be a valuable asset:  it could, for example, import coal from South Wales, a trade which had greatly increased with industrialisation and, more surprisingly, was the suggestion that the port could be used as a transatlantic route since it was nearer to New York than Liverpool!

The plan also included a link to the main railway line and an agreement was entered into with the Bristol and Exeter railway.  The foundation stone was laid in 1864 with many speeches, champagne and general excitement. Unfortunately, the ston
e was washed away that same night and seemed to foretell what was to come.  Although work was started, constant heavy storms continually destroyed much of the construction work.

Another attempt to revive the scheme was made in 1887 and the “New York Press” carried a long article about it entitled ‘Five Days to Sail to England’ and in 1889 there was a crowded meeting at Weston Assembly Rooms to consider further proposals fo
r the port.  One suggestion was to lay down a separate railway from the Down right into Weston Station and this was supported by the Great Western Railway. It was also thought that it would be a perfectly simple matter to construct a bridge over the River Axe and perhaps, one day, to have a tramway-line running right through from the harbour to Weston.

It was not to be. The capital proved hard to raise, and one by one the chief supporters of the scheme either withdrew or died. The extravagant dreams and ideas for the great Brean Down harbour scheme were lost for ever.

Brean Down did, however, feature later in history:  In 1897, following wireless transmissions from Lavernock Point in Wales and Flat Holm,  Guglielmo Marconi moved his equipment to Brean Down and set a new distance record of 14 kilometres (8.7 mi) for wireless transmission over open sea.  Success at last for Brean Down.

Elizabeth Friend Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society.




From Rags to Riches: Axbridge Workhouse.

From Rags to Riches:  Axbridge Workhouse.
Article written for Catch This magazine

Looking at St John’s Court today it’s hard to believe that the building was once home to the poor and destitute of the parish.  Relief for the poor was
provided by their own parish until the 1834 Poor Law amendment Act set up a new system of Unions. Somerset was divided into 17 Unions of which Axbridge was one of the largest covering an area from Yatton down to Highbridge.  Axbridge itself was the centre of the Axbridge Union and the workhouse was built in 1836 using stone from the quarries at Shipham.  At that time the site was actually in the parish of Compton Bishop and was perhaps chosen so that it was out of sight of the Axbridge inhabitants whose town leaders Hannah More described as “a hard-hearted corporation given to fine clothes and luxury”.  That said, the person most responsible for setting up the workhouse was Richard Trew, the Mayor of Axbridge, who became the first Clerk to the Board of Guardians from 1836 until 1867.
For many people in the 19th century the living was precarious.  A bad harvest such as that in 1851 rendered many people destitute and their stay in the workhouse could be relatively short, lasting until the economy recovered.  It was also a temporary place for mothers expecting an illegitimate child but there were also long-stay residents with what we would now call mental health problems, as well as the blind and those with physical disabilities.  People undergoing family history research are often distressed to find that their relative died in the workhouse, but this could be misleading.  There were medical facilities at the workhouse and some people went there because they were seriously ill and, inevitably, some died.  They were not all poor and destitute.

Inmates were clothed and fed and were expected to work hard.  Men, for example, were engaged in stone cracking or oakum pulling and women were required to do laundry work.

The museum at the King John’s Hunting Lodge has an excellent display on the subject which is well worth a visit when it is open.

Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society



Day Trips to the Beach

Day Trips to the beach.    Article written for Local Reach

With the easing of lockdown many of you will no doubt have been going to our local beaches.

Weston circa 1910

In the early part of the 20th century these were also destinations favoured by day trippers and although welcomed by the people offering refreshments, donkey rides etc.  they were not always popular with the residents according to Charles Harper (The Somerset Coast 1909).

He writes “ The definition of a tripper, in these parts, is a person who comes across the Bristol Channel from Barry, Cardiff, Swansea, or any other of the South Wales ports, for half a day, and “brings his nosebag with him”; or, if it be a family party of trippers, a family handbag with provisions; including a bottle of beer for mother and father, and milk for the children. Thousands of these family parties came over by cheap steamboat excursions on most fine days in summer, and may be observed on the sea-front at Weston and other resorts, where they are apt to leave an offensive residuum
of their feasts behind them, in the shape of greasy paper and pieces of fat, as often as not upon the public seats.

The unfortunate person who, clad perhaps in a light summer suit, has unwittingly sat upon a piece of ham-fat left behind by one of these gay irrespon
sibles, hates the tripper thereafter with a baleful intensity. But this is only one of that half-day excursionist’s deadly sins, of which the fact that he brings merely his presence and his nosebag—and little money—into the places he favours is one of the deadliest. Another is the circumstance that he is a Welshman. The Somerset folk do not like the Welsh, who are alien from them in every possible way, and it is quite certain that the South Wales colliers and dockers are not a favourable or pleasing type. Thus triply—financially, racially and socially—the trippers from across the Severn Sea are not a success.”

Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society


Warning: Men should avoid eating fried potatoes

Warning:  Men should avoid eating fried potatoes.
First published in Local Reach August 2020
In 1836 in Compton Bishop, one Elizabeth Dunn was concerned about her elderly neighbour, John Edney who was extremely unwell, supposedly suffering from an old stomach complaint.  Elizabeth and John’s wife, Sophia, gave him orange juice, milk and mutton broth but he just brought everything up. He told Mrs Dunn that the gruel and ginger Sophia made for him burned his mouth and that he had a raging thirst. None of the powders or mixtures Edward Wade, the local doctor, prescribed seemed to improve matters either. In fact, they made things worse.

John complained to another neighbour, Elizabeth Collins, that the doctor’s medicine had ‘burnt his inside out’ and that his throat felt raw and ‘on fire’.  According to Mrs Collins he was “in dreadful agonies, twisting and turning himself about, and his features very much discoloured’.  John died a few hours later. Edward Wade was suspicious and despite Sophia’s objections, ordered an autopsy.  John had told the doctor that he had a burning sensation in his stomach after eating fried potatoes.  Wade, suspecting that John may been poisoned with arsenic, took the contents of John’s stomach to Professor William Herapath, the Professor of Chemistry at Bristol Medical School.  Wade also collected scrapings from the skillet in which the potatoes had been fried.

The Edneys were clearly an ill-matched couple. Sophia Vane was 16 and in domestic service in Bath when she had met John Edney six years previously; John, a 61-year-old widower, delivered eggs, butter and poultry to the household. Later, the couple settled in the village of Compton Bishop, where John continued with his eggs and butter business and also gathered watercress. They had three children but there were rumours that Sophia had wanted to be rid of her elderly spouse in order to marry a younger man.1

On 12 April 1836, a month after John’s death, Sophia stood trial at Taunton Assizes in front of judge Joseph Littledale. A druggist from Axbridge said that he had sold Sophia arsenic for killing rats. Mr Wade outlined his suspicions at the time of John’s illness and death and Professor Herapath described his tests on the contents of John’s duodenum, which confirmed the presence of arsenic.  He also stated that he had found a small amount of arsenic in the scrapings from the skillet.

Sophia was found guilty and sentenced her to death. In prison she was said to have conducted herself ‘with great propriety’ and to have confessed to the crime.She was the last woman to be executed in England before Victoria ascended the throne.

Elizabeth Friend, Axbridge Archaeological and Local History Society

Shipham and Rowberrow

Article written for Local Reach July 2020

Shipham and Rowberrow
Two of the most wretched and depraved villages in the region.

This was the sort of description commonly used at the end of the 18th century.  In 1790 Hannah and Martha Moore visited Shipham and were horrified by what they saw:  half-naked children, wild men, and coarse foul-mouthed women whose homes were evil smelling hovels.  Martha wrote that “the people [were]savage and depraved almost beyond Cheddar, brutal in their natures, and ferocious in their manners.  ……. No constable would venture to arrest a Shipham man lest he should be concealed in one of their pits, and never heard of.”

In the 18th century the villages were, almost exclusively, involved with the mining of calamine, a zine ore that was used to convert copper into brass and during the 18th century it became the most important industry on Mendip.  In 1791 Collinson wrote in his History of Somerset that there were over 100 mines in Shipham, many of which were “in the street, in the yards, and some in the very homes”.  The latter is explained by the fact that calamine was found near the surface and some miners simply hollowed out the earth inside their houses.  It was a relatively well paid occupation and Collinson estimated that “a miner with a proper assiduity may earn a guinea a day.”  This is equivalent today to about £80 and in 1790 was equal to a weeks wages for a skilled tradesman.  However the work was hard and the living conditions of the villagers were very poor.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that the miners were notorious for their rough manners and lawless behaviour.  Writing in 1915 Frances Knight says that it is not long ago “that there were villagers who, stripped to the waist, fought pitched battles with hostile villagers in the streets of Banwell.”

By the start of the nineteenth century, however, the industry was in decline.  New methods of producing brass and cheap imports from overseas meant that the calamine -brass industry was no longer economically viable.  In 1839, it was reported that only one or two mines were working and that, by 1853, all operations had ceased. Many of the miners left the area and In the 1860s and 1870s some of the Shipham miners were employed in the leadworks at Charterhouse.

As to the people themselves, I’m pleased to say that by 1915, with a much reduced population, Knight was able to write that “Shipham folk are as honest and kindly a race as one would find in any secluded west country hamlet.”



Cheddar 1833

 This article by Paddy Thompson was first published in Retrospect no.426 February 2020 and was reprinted in Local Reach June 2020

The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 11 July 1833
To the Editor

Sir – A short time since, being in the neighbourhood of Cheddar with some of my family, I availed myself of the opportunity of visiting the village, for the purpose of viewing the majestic and stupendous cliffs of which I had heard so much. On leaving the inn for this purpose, I had no sooner approached the object of my curiosity than I was surrounded by a tribe of vagrants, consisting of children and women, both young and old, each endeavouring by vociferation, not the most pleasing to the ear, to speak louder than her companions, and to give us a description of the rocks, calling them in a breath by a hundred different names, and each offering for sale specimens of ore and petrification, not one of which claimed a home at Cheddar. The garrulity of these importunate and wretched mendicants marred all our pleasure, and we turned back again to the inn, not a little rejoiced at being relieved from the incessant clamour of this motley group. In two of the caves in these rocks live two wretched old women. They are damp, miserable, hollow recesses, not fit for human habitations, and indeed it would be cruel to confine pigs therein. I hope for the credit of the village of Cheddar that these nuisances will be speedily abated, and that the admirers of Nature’s grand works may be suffered to indulge in their researches without being annoyed by scenes and conduct such as before described.

I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,

Wells, July 9 1834

PS.  By the way, it will not be ill-timed to remind the Waywarden of Cheddar how desirable to travellers a few fingerposts would be in and about the roads leading from the Cliffs, and diverging from the main road.

* The discrepancy of year dates is in the original.

Lady Day Fair

Articles written for “Catch This” June 2020

Axbridge Lady Day Fair

Lady Day (25th March) was widely observed in England and, until 1752, when the government adopted the Gregorian calendar it was also New Year’s Day and marked the beginning of the agricultural year. Agricultural tenancies were normally for one year running from Lady Day and the Fair was also a hiring fair for agricultural labourers and domestic workers.

Painting of Lady Day Fair before c.1731 now in the Axbridge Town True collection

The Fair would have been one of the highlights of the year for many people and one can imagine that they were lively affairs.   In 1805 an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 75 issue 1) states that the Axbridge fair was “attended by an immense concourse of servants of both sexes. The fair usually continues for 2 or 3 days; and many of the fair fille-de-chambres, dairy maids, and even fat cooks and greasy scullion wenches are so civilly greeted by their amorous swains, that this fair is much business for the county justices and their clerks, parish officers and midwives.”Lady Day                          

 In 1839 the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (03.04.1839)  reported that “The pleasure fair was plentifully supplied with the happy countenances of the county folk, looking and harkening in to the various stories told by the persons who begin with ‘walk up ladies and gentlemen, and see the most wonderful of all wonders etc.’ and supplying themselves with new shoes and their sweethearts with ribbons and other finery.”

Of course then, as now, such events also attracted crime and by the mid 19th century concern was being expressed in the newspapers.  This report (Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 03.04.1850) concludes that “for the size of the town, there is no other place in the kingdom so much infested by pickpockets and gamblers of the lowest description as this during the fair” and the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (01.04.1852) said that “the fair has long been notorious for the gross licence which reigns among the lower classes who collect on these occasions.” 

In the same year the Wells Journal (16 October 1852) reports that, “the pleasure part of the Axbridge Lady Day Fair has degenerated into a positive nuisance, of which the respectable neighbours have loudly and unanimously complained.  In consequence a movement, of which the initiative was taken by our esteemed and influential townsmen Peter Fry and Henry Symonds Esq, has been made to abolish it.”

Clearly this failed and the Fair continued, albeit in a different form.  I’m sure many readers will have good memories of attending some of them.  Hopefully not causing a nuisance!!

Elizabeth Friend

In writing an article about the Axbridge Lady Day Fair I found the following connection to Billy Butlin (1899-1980):  Apparently his parents met at a travelling fair in Gloucester.  After some years and after her failed marriage his mother travelled around summer fairs in her caravan running a gingerbread stall for her brother Marshall Hill.  In 1921 Billy joined his uncles in Bristol and, with their assistance, set up a small hoopla stall at a cost of 30 shillings.  His first fair was in Axbridge and apparently business was good and he made £10 clear profit on the day.  He went on to run stalls at fairs for several years before starting the holiday camps.    You can read the rest of his story on

In 1949 according to an item in the Well Journal (2 September 1949) he donated £25 towards the purchase of a playing field in Axbridge.

A Tale of Peas, Beans and other assorted crops

Did you know that Axbridge was once famous for growing early peas?  In 1805 an article said the following:

“The warm situation of [Axbridge] renders it peculiarly adapted for the cultivation of early vegetables; the town and parish being situate, as it were, in a dwell, which forms a kind of amphitheatre ….. Green peas in particular are here to be had as early in the season of any place in the Kingdom; and they are frequently sent to Bristol, Bath and sold at 16s* and 18s per peck*; and the premium given by the Corporation of Bristol for the most early peas brought to market is generally carried by the Axbridge gardeners.

The walks near the town in the Spring season are rendered very pleasant, from the variety of the crops which are raised in the fields adjoining by the gardeners (or, as they are here called, cropers); where may be seen at one view a great variety of culinary plants, proper for the kitchen garden, disposed in large beds and ridges, interspersed with ridges of wheat, barley, beans, peas, oats etc.

*Note:  a peck was approx. 12lbs and in 1805, 16 shillings was worth approx. £37 today and was the equivalent of 5 days wages for a skilled tradesman




Reconstructions at Avalon Marshes Centre

Richard Brunning gave an excellent and well-illustrated talk about the reconstructions both past and ongoing which his team have been doing at the Avalon Marshes Centre as part of a wider project, the Avalon Marshes Partnership, funded by the Lottery.

One of the first projects was to reconstruct wooden trackways at Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve.  The Sweet Trackhas been replicated on virtually the same line as it was originally was in about 3806BC and which probably lasted for about 9 years

What was interesting was that the first trackway that they made rotted fairly quickly and lasted for only about 3 years.  They also found that the path could very quickly become engulfed by the undergrowth and when they left an experimental version untouched for 6 months it had virtually disappeared. Richard thought that this was, perhaps, why they were never used for very long.  The last version (left) which still stands has now been in place for about two and a half years.  Although looking very much like the original would have been, health and safety demands necessitated certain changes to its construction to make is safe, so the planks are kept secure with cross stakes.

The second reconstruction was of the Bronze Age Meare Heath Track, a two-plank walkway that was originally built across a wet bog but is now reconstructed in wet woodland on the nature reserve.
Large oak planks were laid on top of dumps of brushwood with transverse planks that operated like railway sleepers.As Richard pointed out, the trackways were only ever used for foot traffic, not vehicles.



Richard went on to talk about dugout canoes one of which was found under the foundations of the Glastonbury Lake Villagein 1911.  The replica was made of beech and was fitted with a separate transom board at its wider end, like many prehistoric canoes.

The second one they made was an oak example similar to the Shapwick canoe now on display at the Museum of Somerset.  As an experiment it was fitted with an outrigger, which gave it much greater stability. The attachment was made using treenails at the ends, a feature found on the original.   They clearly had fun making these and trying them out but sadly the public can’t use them!

Round Houses.
They have built three replica round houses, but the original one is no longer there.

Interestingly they found that they had originally got the design wrong, as they later found that the original builders had used very thin wall posts which were sunk only a short distance into the ground and that there was no dramatic edge between roof and wall.   They are now building a more accurate version using coppiced hazel which is wound around the posts rather like the construction of a basket. They hope to finish this in the next month or so.  They are also making various pieces of furniture and bits and pieces such as bowls and also a ladder
based on archaeological evidence from the only original ladder that has been found in the UK.  Apparently  there are only 3 known examples in Europe simply because ladders don’t normally survive.  Richard assured us it works very well.  They are also making a bed for the inside of the house and since there is no evidence for Iron Age beds they have used their imagination and made up their own design complete with some typical carvings on the side.

Another reconstruction being done is of a dining room of a Roman Villa complete with hypocaust underfloor heating.  Terracotta tile pillars support the stone floor and hot air is fed from an external furnace and goes up through tubulae built into the walls andout through the roof which is covered with replica Roman roof tiles. The heating has been tested and apparently works well.

On top of the floor screed they have built cob walls which have been rendered on the outside and they have employed typical Roman fakery to make the building look posher that it is.  Inside the walls are plastered and are being painted in colours and styles known from the Roman period.  A typical Roman mosaic floor is also being laid.They have included many carvings and figurative images of deities such as Flora goddess of Spring (not margarine) and Bacchus god of wine and feasting, both based on early images from Italy, while Diana, goddess of the hunt, is based on a 4th century image from Rome. The overall result is incredibly colourful as you can see (above).

Anglo-Saxon Long Hall:   The design was based on Philip Roth’s notes on the excavations of the Anglo Saxon Long Hall at the Kings of Wessex Academy. The work is now nearing completion. The timber frame building is made of green oak. There are wattle and daub infill walls and split oak roof shingles. It stands over 5m in height with a smoke hood. Apparently, there is no archaeological evidence for this so it’s their own invention. There are carved barge boards and although it was not typical of the period they have put windows in the glass and have included some stained glass made by a volunteer.   The wattle and daub walls are lime washed and at one end they have made some plasterwork panels for wall paintings.  There is a raised dais at one end and they will probably make part of the building into a bedroom.  They are currently working on various pieces of furniture including some Viking inspired beds.

And finally, Richard spoke about The Walrus, a full-size replica of a Viking trading ship from Denmark. It now stands beside the Saxon Long Hall.  When erected themast will be about the same height as the Long Hall.

A fascinating talk and a wonderful insight into how to use archaeological evidence and ancient techniques.

The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern
We had an excellent talk by Philip Unwin, a volunteer with the SS Great Britain Trust, on The Great Eastern, Brunel’s 3rd and last ship.  As Philip explained, she was huge being twice the length, width and draught of the SS Great Britain.  Her size, however, caused several problems wherever she went and that together with various financial problems and a degree of bad luck led many to think she was jinxed.
She was designed by Brunel to take 4000 passengers to the Far East without refuelling and for this reason had both propellers and paddles as many of the places it was intended to go to had shallow waters.  5 engines were required to provide enough power to drive the ship.

Brunel discussed his design with John Scott Russell, an excellent engineer and shipyard owner in Millwall, who he had met at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and found that Russell had had a similar idea.  He approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company who agreed to fund the project.  Brunel estimated that the cost of building the ship would £500K but Russell put in a much lower bid which Brunel accepted and, in 1854, they began building the ship on a timber grid, the remains of which can still be seen.  Philip showed us several plans of the design of the ship.

Brunel was, apparently, a difficult man to work with and insisted that he had to authorise every change needed to be made during the ship’s construction but of course this was impossible as he had a lot of other projects to supervise. This was to prove significant.

The ship had a double iron hull which required 3 million rivets that had to be driven by hand, enormous 50ft paddles, and a cast iron screw propeller which was 24 ft in diameter.   When complete in 1854 it was said to be the largest man-made moveable object.

The cost of constructing the ship was enormous and this, together with the amount of time it took meant that the ship had 2 different owners all of whom had lost money before the launch.

Launch Day was set for 3 November 1857.  Because of its size it had been designed to be launched sideways using hydraulic rams.  The first ones they used were inadequate for the job and Richard Tangye from Birmingham was asked to provide stronger ones.  This he did bringing them down from Birmingham – an enormous task in itself but it was very good publicity for him.

Brunel had hoped to launch the ship with a minimum amount of publicity but, as Philip explained many people had been watching the building of the ship and it had been a real tourist attraction.  Even Queen Victoria apparently made a visit although she was most displeased at the stench coming from the Thames.  The directors, who were in need of any money they could get, decided to capitalise on the publicity and sold 3,000 tickets for the event at 5 shillings each.  Brunel was not pleased.

The ship was launched by attaching chains from the ship to two barges which were securely moored so that when the rams pushed the ship down the slip the barges would hold it, but on the first occasion the anchors of the barge dragged and the ship only moved 6 feet.  The next time it was tried there was no movement at all as the chains broke and various people were hurt. In the end it took 3 months before she was floated out and moored. The time taken and the ship’s sheer size led to a lot of mockery and there was a Punch cartoon showing Brunel on board with a hot air balloon, a cattle show and other things which ridiculed the whole process. Ironically this presaged how she would end up.

Brunel himself was annoyed that the launch had not been done the way he had planned and had been humiliated by the launch. He died 10 days later, in 1858, following a stroke.  Although it was said that the ship had killed him he had, in fact, been quite ill for some time and suffered from Bright’s disease and by the time the ship was built he was also exhausted.  The 48 cigars a day he apparently smoked probably didn’t help either.

The total cost of the launch was £170K.  The ship with an estimate of £500K to build had eventually cost £730K and still needed to be fitted out.  Her owner, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company was now in severe financial difficult and a new company, the Great Ship Company, was set up which bought out the original shareholders.  They bought the Great Eastern for £160,000 and had enough capital to pay for the fitting out. Philip said this was a bargain since there was at least that value of iron there although there was less than Scott Russell said he had provided!

 Philip showed pictures of the inside of the ship which was extremely luxuriously fitted out.

It was a very grand ship and was completed in 1859.   Despite the fact that Brunel had intended that the ship sail to the Far East and advised that it should never cross the Atlantic, the first voyage in 1860 was to America with 400 passengers only 35 of whom were paying and so there was no profit. She sailed with a new captain as the original one had drowned in an accident in Southampton.

This was, according to Philip, the first intimation that the ship was jinxed.

In 1861 it made its second trip across the Atlantic, having been chartered to carry 2400 troops to reinforce the British garrison in Quebec in response to American threats to move into Canada. Although this trip did make a profit it also turned into a PR disaster.  The civil war was going on in America and not many people were interested in the ship.  In order to promote it, therefore, the Captain decided to offer paying passengers a cruise.  1500 people signed up, far more than they had crew for and so they hired local labour. The cruise proved to be a total disaster; the local crew members were often drunk and rude to the passengers, there was not enough food and fresh water and there were a lot of complaints.  Fed up with the state of affairs, Philip explained that many people grabbed bottles of booze and got drunk, going onto the upper deck to sleep.  Unfortunately for them there were 5 funnels all belching out black smoke and when they awoke in the morning they were black.  With not enough fresh water to wash themselves, this added to the complaints.  When they got back to New York the ship owners were used by the local press for gross inefficiency and misleading advertising.

The Grand Saloon during storm Sept 1861. Based on a sketch by a passenger, C. F. Hayward

The third voyage also had problems.  During a very bad storm the rudder broke although it was 24 hours before the passengers realised what had happened. The problem was that when the rudder flapped about it damaged one of the paddles necessitating the other paddle to be stopped plus the engines.  Philip read an extract from an account written by one of the passengers in which he described how nothing was chained down, tables and chairs tumbled, mirrors were smashed and broken, the grand piano broke away and in the dining room and galley there was flying crockery, food and cutlery.  It was mayhem and must have been terrifying for the passengers and crew.

One of the passengers, who was an engineer, had a plan to resolve the issue but the Captain refused to listen to him.  The passengers took matters into their own hands and the passenger committee demanded that the Captain try out the plan.  This involved putting chains around the rudder head to control it.  In order to do this it was necessary for someone to go over the side to secure a chain to the rudder.  One brave sailor volunteered and managed to do it.  Once they got underway again, the passengers had a whip round and were able to give him £100.  A sizeable amount in those days.  By the time the ship was repaired, however, the ship was off course.  A small coaster from America came alongside and offered to accompany the ship overnight.  Although this must have been a reassurance to the passengers in reality, as Philip explained, they couldn’t really have done very much.  What they did do, however, was to charge the ship owners demurrage because of the delay they incurred getting to port.  It was yet more expense for the owners.

After the necessary repairs the ship made 3 more voyages but on the last to New York she got a gash in the hull.  This became known as the Great Eastern Rock incident. Although they arrived safely in New York the ship was listing badly and when they examined the ship they found that a section between the hulls was full of water.  Although the gash was very large and bigger than the one that sunk the Titanic, the ship had survived because of the double skin.  Due to her size it was impossible to repair her in a dry dock and so a cofferdam was built to effect the repairs.

There were three more voyages but the company was running out of money and in January 1864 the ship was put up for sale and was bought by a new company, The Greater Eastern Steamship Company with the purpose of laying a transatlantic cable.

In April 1864 the ship was chartered to the Telegraph Construction Company.  The Great Eastern was the only ship big enough to take the length of cable required for this huge operation, and it took five months just to load it.The cable was 2000 miles long and 1 inch in diameter. All this had to be accommodated in the hold and paid out gradually to a depth of about 2 miles. The first attempt took place on 14 July 1865 andthe cable broke 5 times.  Each time the cable had to be brought back into the ship to be repaired.  They had to find cable, then draw it up and as it had to be brought in over the bow they had to turn the ship round each time.  It was very tedious and each time took 12 – 17 hours.  As Philip said, it must have been a soul destroying job.

The second attempt using a lighter and stronger cable was successful and the transatlantic cable linking Ireland to Newfoundland was completed on 1 September 1866.Messages were being sent back all the time reporting their progress and there was much excitement.

It was then chartered to a French company who laid a cable from Brest to New York and also one from Aden to Bombay.  It was then chartered to a French company who wanted to use her as a cruise liner and they put back all the furnishings.  This was never very successful and she was eventually laid up in Milford Haven.

At the end of her life the ship became much like the one lampooned in Punch.  She was, amongst other things, used as a fairground and went up and down the Mersey advertising Lewis’s Department Store. In 1888

she was sold for scrap and was broken up on the banks of the Mersey.  She was so strong that it took 2 years to break her up.

A sad end.