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John Scott Russell and Co

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of Millwall, London, Ship Builders and Engineers

Isambard Kingdom Brunel entered into a partnership with John Scott Russell, an experienced Naval Architect and ship builder, to build the SS Great Eastern. Unknown to Brunel, Russell was in financial difficulties. The two men disagreed on many details.

1852 Russell's shipyard was devastated by fire but was only partially covered by insurance. The yard closed. In the same year David Napier's yard at Millwall closed because of competition from the Clyde yards. Part of the yard was later let to Russell for the building of the SS Great Eastern.

1853 'DESTRUCTION BY FIRE OF RUSSELL’S SHIP BUILDING YARD, MILL-WALL.
'One the most devastating fires that ever came under our notice occurred at the extensive works of Messrs. Scott, Russell, and Co., iron steam-ship builders, at Mill-wall, early Saturday morning, and in a very few hours laid the greater portion of the premises in ruins, involving a loss, it is computed, of between 80,000l. and 100,000l. As, probably, some of our readers may be aware, the factory and shipbuilding yard the firm occupied on the bank of the river, at the angle of the Isle of Dogs, facing her Majesty's Dockyard at Deptford. As many as 1,500 hands were employed on the works. The bulk of them left at the usual hour, six o'clock, on the previous (Friday) evening, but about a hundred were detained at the factory completing some particular work up to the period of the fire bring discovered.

'The fire broke out a few minutes after twelve o'clock. The watchman of the premises, with other parties, seeing a light in that part of the factory known as the furnace or forging department—a building about eighty feet square, two stories in height, standing almost in the centre of the works, and abutting upon two steamers which were in course of building in the yard on the west or London side of the property hastened to suppress it. It appeared so trifling that a bucket of water, it was thought, would put it out. Scarcely, however, was that applied, when the fire shot into the shed above, and almost the next minute the entire range burst into general blaze, creating the greatest dismay and confusion in the establishment. With all expedition the engine, which was kept on the works, was got into operation by the workpeople, but so rapid did the flames progress that all chance was soon given up of preserving any portion of this building. It contained six forges, and a large steam punching and cutting machine. The fire continued to rage with prodigious fury and in an incredibly short space of time extended to the saw-mills, which flanked the building on the north side. It was a brick erection, 100 feet long and 30 broad. This soon fell a prey to the devouring element, which next seized upon an immense stack of planks for ships' decks, amounting in all to upwards of 1,000 tons, which stood along the western wall of the factory. Contiguous was a heap 80 tons of coals, under a kind of shed. This speedily became ignited, and the aspect of the conflagration, with all the large mass of property on fire, may be imagined. It had previously attracted the attention of the authorities at the dockyard opposite, and the captain superintendent at once gave orders for the floating engine, with a party of the Royal Marines, to be taken over. This occupied some time, and there being but little assistance to be obtained land, at that early stage of the fire, the flames extended with fearful impetuosity, brilliantly lighting Greenwich Hospital, the Observatory, the shipping the river, and indeed the metropolis and suburbs for miles round. 'The conflagration, perfectly uncontrolled, for nothing could then done to check its devastating career, travelled inland several buildings, and eventually to the most valuable of the whole works. This was a capacious brick structure, some 160 ft. long, 10 ft. broad, and five stories high, where the whole of the engineering works were carried on. The various floors comprised fitters' and joiners' shops, moulding and pattern lofts, and were filled with most costly machinery for the construction of engines. To prevent its destruction was beyond all human power, the flames progressed from floor to floor, and speedily shot forth from the roof, giving to the scene the most formidable and awful aspect. The factory of Messrs. Napier, which stood on the west side of the boundary wall of Russell's works, then fell sacrifice. The upper part, being weather-boarding, quickly ignited, and having already been exposed to a great heat, the flames soon travelled over it, and reduced the fitters' and other shops to ashes, with their valuable contents. While destruction was going on at this point, the flames were adding to the ruin in the other direction. Having extended throughout these valuable buildings, the erecting shop, 140 feet by 40, which adjoined, was next demolished. This place contained six marine engines, all completed, and of great power; two for her Majesty's Government, and the other four for private service. The fire next communicated with other erections and stores, in which were heavy rolling machines, Nasmyth hammers and other ponderous machinery. All these buildings were in a brief period gutted.

'The fire was observed in London from the bridges within a few minutes after it had been discovered and a general turn-out of the brigade engines took place. An impression prevailed that it was on the Surrey side of the Thames; thither the firemen proceeded. They soon, however, ascertained its exact locality, returned, and made all haste to the spot. Whilst the Waterloo-road Brigade engine was travelling to the Surrey side of the river, an occurrence of a frightful character took place, by which every fireman the engine nearly lost his life. It appears that the ground near Lant street, Borough, had been opened for making some repairs to the gas-pipes in the road, the earth had been removed to the depth of eight feet, and as the horses were galloping at full speed they ran into the excavation, threw the driver and the firemen between the horses, and turned the engine on its side. The whole of the men and the horses were much shaken but fortunately no one was killed. The engine was, however, so much shattered as to be obliged to be taken back to its station.

'Mr. Braidwood, the superintendent, had the engines brought into play on every part which had any command of the conflagration. Instructions had been previously given for bringing down the large steam floating engine from Southwark-bridge. She was taken in tow, and soon reached the new part of the blazing factory. Most judiciously those in charge of the dockyard float brought the hose along the slips, and prevented the flames burning the props and shores which supported the large steam-ships building for the North of Europe Steam packet Company. To these exertions may be attributed the preservation of the vessels, for had their supports been burned away, they must necessarily have sustained great injury. As it is, they have been exposed to much peril, their bows being quite white from the excessive heat.

'Observing that little could done towards preserving any portion of the factory which had ignited, Mr. Braidwood directed the exertions of his men, who were assisted by some hundreds of auxiliaries, to the premises which had escaped the destructive element on the east side of the establishment, although they bore but an insignificant value to those portions consumed. The river and land engines were kept in the most active operation for several hours, throwing an immense quantity of water upon the burning mass, until at length the fury of the flames gave way. Towards daybreak the wall and roof of the main building fell in with a tremendous crash. The brigade-men succeeded in checking the flames before they reached the eastern division of the factory, on which side several other steamers were in course of erection, and escaped the least injury. By five o'clock all danger had been removed, although throughout the entire day the steam floating-engine of the brigade, with numerous land engines, were kept playing upon the great heap of flaming ruins.

'The frightful gap left by the devastating element, as viewed from the river, had a most remarkable appearance, and attracted considerable attention amongst the passengers who crowded the steam-boats witness the ruins. In the early part of the morning a large portion of the walls looking inwards fell on the backs of some houses which faced the road in front of the factory. Many roofs were caved in, and considerable damage done to the contents. The tenants were chiefly workpeople employed at the factory.

'The two iron steam-ships building for the North of Europe Steam Navigation Company were nearly completed. Both were 600 tons burden, and on being examined on Saturday were found to have received serious injury. In the moulding-loft there was a vast quantity of valuable moulds and patterns, which were intended for several new ships which the firm had contracted for. All were destroyed. Amongst them, we understand, were those of the monster steam-ship for the Eastern Steam Navigaton Company, which is to be the largest in the world, and has excited much public interest.

'Every inquiry was instituted on Monday by the firm with a view to eliciting the origin of this truly disastrous fire, but nothing definite or satisfactory could be arrived at. The unfortunate event will occasion much distress amongst a large body of the workpeople, who have not only have lost their employment, but nearly the whole of their tools. As to the precise amount of the total loss some weeks must necessarily elapse before it can be ascertained. It thought, however, by parties capable of forming an opinion, that it will nearly reach 100,000l. The firm are, it appears, insured in several offices, some the policies are as follows ......'[1]


1854 The keel of SS Great Eastern was laid down on May 1.

1855 'FIRE AT MESSRS. SCOTT RUSSELL'S SHIP-YARD, MILLWALL.
On Thursday evening, a fire, involving the destruction of property roughly estimated at upwards 120,000l. in value, broke out in the extensive and well-known shipbuilding yard, situate at Millwall, Poplar, the property of Messrs. John Scott Russell and Co. It was first discovered, about nine o'clock, raging in the newly-built floating battery to have been launched on Saturday, and to be named the Etna. This battery was adjoined on one side by another vessel, to be termed the Wave Queen, intended also to have been launched on Saturday, and the battery was bounded on the other side by a screw collier. The three occupied an immense space of ground in the yard, and as it was apparent that, unless the fire could be quickly subdued, not only would the battery be destroyed, but the ships on either side would be seriously injured, the most strenuous exertions were made to collect the various hands together, but before any one could render the least assistance, the flames rushed between the iron plates the battery, firing every foot of timber from the front to the stern ; and eventuallv the heat became so great that the iron plates, 4 1/2 inches thick, started in many places, when the flames rose upwards of 100 feet high, lighting the whole of the East-end and Surrey side of the water. The floating engine from her Majesty's dockyard was soon in attendance, and was quickly set to work. It was followed by the float from Rotherhithe and steam floating engine from Bridge. Tons upon tons of water were poured into the vessels, yet the conflagration continued its ravages: and about eleven o'clock a frightful scene took place, the ponderous vessel, in a thorough state of ignition, glided off the stocks most majestically into the river, amidst the shrieks of some thousand persons who were in boats at the mouth of the dock. Several persons were so terrified that eight jumped into the water, fearing that the blazing vessel would fall upon them, and crush them to death. Fortunately the whole were rescued by the Thames police and watermen. The battery became a total wreck, and both the other vessels are seriously injured by fire.'[2]

1856 'ANOTHER EXTENSIVE FIRE IN MESSRS. SCOTT RUSSELL'S SHIP-YARD, MILLWALL.
'Yesterday afternoon the inhabitants of Millwall and Blackwall were again thrown into a painful state of excitement, in consequence of another fire having broken out in the extensive and well-known premises belonging to Messrs. Scott Russell. Most of the workmen were summoned together, and they resorted to various expedients in order to prevent the spread of the flames, and in trying to save as much property as possible; but unfortunately the efforts made, owing to the great quantity of property in the place, were crowned with comparatively little success.

'The premises in which the disaster commenced were of considerable extent, and covered a large area of ground. They extended in one direction over 100 feet, and were proportionably deep. The lower floor was fitted up as a steam saw mill, at an expense of several thousand pouuds. The floors over were used as the steam-planing mills and joiners' shops. The former was also fitted up with machinery equally as expensive as the mills.

'The floors at the time of the outbreak contained property valued at some thousand pouuds sterling.

'The fire continued to spread with the greatest impetuosity, seizing upon everything of an inflammable character, until the whole of the workshops connected with the mills, the joiners' and planing houses, as well as the mills, were in flames. Engines having arrived thoy were set. to work, when eventually the fire was entirely extinguished, but not until the mills, the machinery, the joiners' houses, and planing shops were destroyed, and the contents — with the exception of the small portion saved — consumed.

'The loss is necessarily very heavy. The machinery alone will cost some thousand pounds to repair. As to the origin of the fire, nothing positive could be known. The present makes the third extensive fire that has taken place in the yard since 1854. It is but right to state, in order to satisfy the public mind, that the leviathan ship now building in the same yard, owing to the great distance from the scene of the fire, has not received any injury, and the work will not be in the least retarded by the present disastrous event.'[3]

1856 Russell had several fixed-price contracts for warships and these together with another fire, added to his financial problems; his shipyard, like several other Thames builders, failed in February 1856. He remained in charge of building the Great Eastern under a new contract.

1858 The Great Eastern was finally launched, after many technical difficulties on January 31, 1858.

It was Brunel's final great project, and he collapsed from a stroke after being photographed on her deck, and died only ten days later, a mere four days after Great Eastern's first sea trials.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. West Kent Guardian - Saturday 17 September 1853
  2. Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 8 May 1855
  3. London Evening Standard - Thursday 13 March 1856

[[Category: Town - Millwall