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Canadian connection to “the largest ship in the world”

December 2020

The name of the Steam Ship (S.S.) Great Eastern may not mean a lot to those with no interest in maritime history, but when it was launched on 31 January 1858, it was the largest ship ever built at the time. It was also the first ship to be powered by both sail and steam.

This British ship had a connection to Ontario, or Upper Canada as it was called at the time. Wood for one of the 120-foot masts came from the large pine trees on the farm of Thomas Webb, located at Lot 23, Concession 12, in Innisfil Township, north of Toronto, Ontario.

Built in Liverpool, England, S.S. Great Eastern was an iron passenger sailing steamship, with a length of 692 feet, a beam of 82 feet, a gross tonnage of 18,915, and four decks in height.

In addition to the sails, the S.S. Great Eastern was powered by four steam engines that ran the paddle wheel, the largest paddle wheel at the time, and an additional engine for the propeller, that generated a total power estimated at 8,000 horsepower. She had the capacity to travel all the way from Great Britain to Australia without refueling.

With a crew of 418 and a capacity of 4,000 passengers, S.S. Great Eastern sailed from its maiden voyage on 30 August 1859, until it was removed from service and broken up in 1889, after a 30-year run, still maintaining her status as the largest ship.

Her size was only surpassed ten years later, when RMS Oceanic, which had a length of 705 feet, was launched on 14 January 1899; her gross tonnage was surpassed when the 701-foot-long RMS Celtic was launched in 1901; her passenger capacity surpassed in 1913 by the 4,935-passenger ship S.S. Imperator.

Over her lifetime, S.S. Great Eastern served as a passenger liner between Great Britain and North America, then a cable-laying ship (she laid the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866), then ending her life as a floating music hall and as a de facto billboard for Liverpool department store Lewis’.

A historical plaque was erected on Big Bay Point Road, west of Side Road 25, beside the former Webb farm, by the Simcoe County Historical Society in the 1970s.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Great_Eastern, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1953/09/19/the-great-iron-ship.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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