Victorian Weymouth and Portland Roads and the Great Eastern.

I have spent more than a few years studying and researching about the lives of the military men who were based at the Nothe in Weymouth during the Victorian era and onwards, and in the course of my sifting through the old newspapers and articles for news items about them I have uncovered many fascinating snippets of Weymouth and Portland life that I hadn’t known about.


One advantage of being based high up on the Nothe, the resident soldiers and their families had a bird’s eye view as to what was going on all around them.


They had the perfect vantage point to watch the comings and goings of the abundant variety of shipping in the Roads, the numerous naval vessels big and small, that came and went, some by sail, some by steam, fleets of merchants ships that moored up sheltering from fearsome storms in the channel, the  local fishing and pilot boats ferrying to and fro, plying their trade.

Walk to the opposite side of the plateau and they could watch as a steady stream of merchant vessels sailed in and out of the bustling Weymouth harbour, discharging or collecting their goods, the trains that slowly clanked and creaked alongside the metal rails set in the quayside towards the ferry terminal, carrying passengers by the hundreds heading for the Channel Island Steamers.


Their lofty vantage point on the Nothe gave them a grandstand view of Weymouth and Portland’s maritime  life which was hectic and varied.

In those long ago heady days of Weymouth and Portland’s history, they were a destination for many a famous vessel.

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Such was the case towards the end of May 1870, when the magnificent vessel, the infamous Great Eastern had steamed her way into the Portland Roads,  she was coaling up ready for her Atlantic voyage…but all was not what it seemed.

Her imposing start in life, eleven odd years earlier had promised so much for this grand dame of the seas.

She was the ostentatious creation of the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man with a great technical and highly creative mind, and who had already visited Weymouth to oversee the construction of the original Weymouth train station which was of his design.


Brunel was a man of vision, he had envisaged a ship, but not just any old ship, he had the grand dreams of one large enough to carry many thousands of passengers and cargo at a time to such far-flung countries as the Far East and Australia.

Despite the many doubters that a floating and seaworthy vessel of this size could even be constructed, Isambard set to, determined to prove them all wrong.

The Great Eastern was destined to become a steam paddle ship, way ahead of her time.

Built in the mid 1850’s, she was nearly 700 foot long, and weighing 22,500 tons, a gigantean compared to any other ships built during that era.


In fact it would be another 40 odd years before anyone else managed to build something even comparable in size to her.

However, she had been dogged by problems right from the start of her life, and she was no stranger to Weymouth.

Eleven years earlier, and her much awaited maiden voyage had been a complete disaster.

Leaving her berth at the Isle of Dogs in the Thames on the 7th September 1859, she was heading for Weymouth, and Portland Roads, where she was going to moor up.

Here the idea was that the grand lady would be opened to visitors, giving the general public the chance to admire the great visions and arts of the Victorian entrepreneur and many skilled tradesmen who had toiled on her, then she would set off for her maiden voyage to America.

Not far into that first but fateful journey, just off the coast of Hastings, a huge explosion completely blew off the forward funnel, which totally wrecked the Grand Saloon below.

Luckily none of the passengers were injured, but some of the ships crew hadn’t been quite so lucky. Two died on board of their fearful injuries soon after the explosion, but three of the men managed to survive until the ship had reached Weymouth, but sadly they too died shortly afterwards in the local hospital.

The bodies of all five crewmen were buried in Weymouth.

The designer and creator of the unlucky vessel, Isambard Brunel himself passed away not long after his ships first disastrous journey.

The majestic lady’s unfortunate excursion to Weymouth in 1859 did have its advantages though for the town.

Ever up for a spot of recycling, the surviving part of the damaged funnel was used by the Weymouth Water Company who at the time was constructing the new water reservoir at Sutton Poyntz, (the Great Eastern is seen here in an illustration while undergoing the repair work in Portland Roads.).



The recycled funnel stayed in it’s working life at the Waterworks for the next 143 years, until it was removed during major improvements in 2004 and what was left was donated to the Great Britain museum.

The disaster of the Great Eastern also meant she had inadvertently become a much welcome, and frequently visited tourist attraction for the town.

Special train excursions were laid on from all over the country, they were bringing  people in to Weymouth by the thousands to tour the news worthy and incapacitated ship while she was undergoing repairs.

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Never slow in coming forwards, local hawkers of all manner surrounded the stricken ship in their droves in various crafts of all shapes and sizes, pushing their wares on to the ladies and gentlemen as they tried with immense difficulties, to scramble aboard the great lady.

Even those paying customers who managed to get on board the great vessel were accused of trying to procure their own illicit souvenirs from the stricken ship, splinters of wood, broken glass, in fact anything that they could discreetly carry off.

Once repaired she was on her way to America and her new life as a sea going passenger ship, seen here leaving Portland Roads.


Things didn’t quite turn out as her designer and owners had envisioned though. The Great Eastern was persistently dogged with numerous problems over the following years, never living up to her owners high expectations.

Consequently she had ended up back in port here, 11 odd years later, fueling up ready, not to convey excited passengers in majestic style to their new lives far overseas as her creator had dreamed of, but as a plain old workhorse, to lay down cables across the sea bed.

Come 1873, and whilst on another visit to Portland Roads she was witness to a tragedy when a group of young local lads were drowned nearby, they had been on  a day out and trying to visit her.

The Great Eastern ended her working days being broken up as scrap in the late 1890’s, one of her top masts even ended up as Liverpool football grounds flagpole.



Writing a blog, short stories or your own family history, bring them to life with historical graphics.

Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.

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