I have spent years studying the lives of military men based at the Nothe in Weymouth during the Victorian era and in the course of sifting through old newspapers have uncovered many other fascinating snippets of Weymouth and Portland life that I hadn’t known about.
One advantage to being based high up on the Nothe, resident soldiers and their families had a bird’s eye view as to what was going on all around them.
A perfect vantage point to watch the comings and goings of shipping in the Roads. From numerous naval fleets, big and small that came and went, some by sail, some by steam, merchants ships moored up sheltering from fearsome storms in the channel right down to local fishing and pilot boats ferrying to and fro, plying their trade.
From the opposite side of the plateau they could watch a steady stream of vessels sailing in and out of Weymouth’s bustling harbour, discharging or collecting goods. Trains that slowly clanked and creaked, their metal rails set along the quayside towards its ferry terminal, carrying passengers by the hundreds heading for Channel Island Steamers.
In those long ago heady days of Weymouth and Portland’s maritime history, they were a destination for many a famous vessel.
Such was the case towards the end of May 1870, when a magnificent vessel, the infamous Great Eastern, 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 world famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man with a great technical ability and a highly creative mind, who had already visited Weymouth to oversee construction of Weymouth’s original train station, which was of his design.
Brunel was a man of great vision, with grand dreams of a vessel that was 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 his many doubters declaring 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 monster 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.
However, she had been dogged by problems right from the start and was no stranger to Weymouth.
Eleven years earlier, and her much awaited maiden voyage had become a complete disaster. Leaving her berth at the Isle of Dogs in the Thames on the 7th September 1859, Weymouth and Portland Roads was destined to be her first port of call.
The idea being that this steam ship would be opened to visitors, giving the general public a chance to admire the great vision of this Victorian entrepreneur and those many skilled tradesmen who toiled on her.
Weymouth was the designated boarding port for her maiden voyage and on the 16th she would set off for her trial run .
However, things didn’t go quite to plan, not far into that first but fateful journey en route to Portland Roads, just off the coast of Hastings, a huge explosion completely blew off the forward funnel, totally wrecking the Grand Saloon below.
Luckily none of her passengers were injured, but some of the ships crew hadn’t been quite so lucky. Two died on board soon after the explosion, three more survived until she reached Weymouth. Sadly they died shortly afterwards in a local hospital.
Remains of all five crewmen were buried in Weymouth.
Her designer and creator, 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.
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, bringing people in thousands to tour this news worthy and incapacitated ship while she was undergoing repairs.
Never slow in coming forwards, local hawkers of all manner surrounded the stricken vessel, 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 board her were accused of trying to procure their own illicit souvenirs, 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.
Sadly, things didn’t turn out as envisioned though. The Great Eastern was persistently dogged with numerous problems over the following years, never quite living up to her owners high expectations.
In September 1861 she broke down during a storm, a rather humorous passenger’s eye report of which was published in the Illustrated London News, September 28th 1861.
Consequently she ended up back in Portland, 11 odd years later, fuelling up ready, not to convey excited passengers in majestic style to 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 bore 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.
This grand old vessel ended her working days being broken up as scrap in the late 1890’s, one of her top masts being used as Liverpool football grounds flagpole.