After the success of her Atlantic cable laying venture, a French consortium chartered the Great Eastern for a final attempt at using her as a transatlantic passenger steamer
In March 1867, with a number of successful stage shows and four novels in the “Extraordinary Journeys” series (“Five weeks in a Balloon”, “The Adventures of Captain Hatteras”, “Five Weeks in a Balloon” and “From the Earth to the Moon”) behind him. The 37 year-old Jules Verne arrived at the original Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, about to set off to America, to gather material for future projects. These would include “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1869) where the decor of the main saloon on the “Nautilus” is compared with that of the Adelphi.
Verne checked into the hotel on 18th March (sailing day was advertised as the 20th ) and on the 19th, anxious to see as much of the preparations for departure as possible, sought permission to go on board that day. He was in for a bit of a shock. Too big for any dock, too big to moor at any wharf, the Great Eastern was moored in the middle of the Mersey three miles upstream from Princes Landing Stage, as near as possible to the Vauxhall Foundry of George Forrester & Co., Engineers and Millwrights. Forresters had a contract for £50,000 (about 2.3 million at 2010 prices) to fit new boilers, undertake a thorough refit and install steam powered steering gear. Somewhat daunted by climbing the equivalent of a four story building from the pitching deck of the tender to the foredeck of the Great Eastern, Verne was astonished to find the ship swarming with workmen of every description, machinery parts being loaded down to the paddle engine room, clutter and rubbish everywhere and a thin grey slimy mud coating the decks. Needless to say, she did not sail as advertised.
The Great Eastern’s final westbound Atlantic voyage eventually began on 26th March, with only 126 passengers aboard. Verne gives a day by day account of the voyage describing the behavior of the ship under different weather conditions, daily distance travelled, all enlivened by descriptions of life on board and of his fellow passengers some of whom are distinctly “odd”. The only spoiling factor is the extremely silly “Romance” which runs through the book. One can tell that it is written by a Frenchman, the denoument being a duel with swords on deck in a terrific thunder storm between the hero and the villain. Guess who gets struck by lightning!
I can claim a very slight connection with the Great Eastern, although it may be apocryphal. My grandfather (not the Berengaria rats one, the other) was born during the American Civil War and was a keen swimmer. As an impoverished young man in the 1880s he claimed to have earned money by diving for coins off the deck of the Great Eastern when she was moored in the Mersey as a floating advertisement for Lewis’ Department store
This is an enjoyable book if you ignore the silly plot and probably the nearest it is possible to get now to experiencing what a voyage on theGreat Eastern was like.
PREVIEW BELOW – MAY TAKE A WHILE TO LOAD.