Thursday, 31 January 2013

Launching the "Great Babe" - Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Leviathan

"This steam-ship is indeed a masterpiece of naval construction; more than a vessel, it is a floating city, part of the country, detached from English soil, which after having crossed the sea, unites itself to the American Continent. I pictured to myself this enormous bulk borne on the waves, her defiant struggle with the wind, her boldness before the powerless sea, her indifference to the billows, her stability in the midst of that element which tosses "Warriors" and "Solferinos" like ship's boats." (Jules Vernes, "A Floating City").

The "Great Eastern" as titanic billboard at North Wall, Dublin, in 1887

12.000 workers (many children among them) working for more than three years, at least three dead, a ship-builder's bankruptcy, 120.000 pounds sterling (roughly 100 Mio £ in today's buying power) wasted in a first attempt to spout her off, but today, 155 years ago on 31 January 1858, it was finally done, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last project, his "Great Babe", the "Leviathan" was finally launched in London.

Rechristened to "Great Eastern" shortly thereafter, because the name of a biblical monster was found being a bit too much of bad cess on top of it, the ship was six times bigger than anything build before her... and proved to be a huge commercial failure. With a capacity for 4.000 passengers, she was booked for her first transatlantic crossing by 40 and accidents went on and on. Her reputation of being an "unlucky ship" seemed confirmed. Probably the biggest ship of the Victorian era with her length of almost 700 feet and a tonnage of 19.000 gross-tons was too much for the technical facilities as well as the common imagination of her day.

"Great Eastern" was converted into a cable ship seven years after her launch, laying submarine telegraph cables on her old transatlantic route and finally from Aden to Bombay until she was superseded in that role by purpose-built craft. She ended her days as a titanic floating billboard in the harbours of Liverpool and Dublin - as seen below, laying at North Wall docklands, Dublin, with an advertisement for Lewis's department stores around 1886).

The old Leviathan that was the "Great Eastern" was finally laid up and scrapped in 1889, still the biggest ship of her time until RMS "Oceanic" surpassed her ten years later.

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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

"For myth changes while custom remains constant;" - the posthumous hanging of Oliver Cromwell et al.

“Jan. 30th was kept as a very solemn day of fasting and prayer. This morning the carcases of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw (which the day before had been brought from the Red Lion Inn, Holborn), were drawn upon a sledge to Tyburn, and then taken out of their coffins, and in their shrouds hanged by the neck, until the going down of the sun. They were then cut down, their heads taken off, and their bodies buried in a grave made under the gallows. The coffin in which was the body of Cromwell was a very rich thing, very full of gilded hinges and nails.” (Thomas Rugg(e), "Diurnal")

30 January 1661, 352 years ago and 8 months after the return of Charles II, the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed and ritually hanged on the anniversary of King Charles I's execution.

Cromwell's taken-off head, together with those of Bradshaw and Ireton, were spit on 20 foot stakes and placed above Westminster Hall until a storm brought it down in 1685. After that, the history of the head becomes somewhat confused - if it wasn't messed up in 1661 already, Samuel Pepys hands down a rumour that Cromwell's disinterred body actually belonged to one of the English monarchs - and several of them cropped up during the next centuries. One of them, supposed to be the original, was put to rest as late as 1960.

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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

While her natural father Horatio raised his admiral's pennant on HMS St George at Torbay, ready to sail for the Baltic, Horatia was born

"Victory, October 19th, 1805. My dearest Angel, I was made happy by the pleasure of receiving your letter of September 19th, and I rejoice to hear that you are so very good a girl, and love my dear Lady Hamilton, who most dearly loves you. Give her a kiss for me. The Combined Fleets of the Enemy are now reported to be coming out of Cadiz; and therefore I answer your letter, my dearest Horatia, to mark to you that you are ever uppermost in my thoughts. I shall be sure of your prayers for my safety, conquest, and speedy return to dear Merton, and our dearest good Lady Hamilton. Be a good girl, mind what Miss Connor says to you. Receive, my dearest Horatia, the affectionate parental blessing of your Father, NELSON AND BRONTE."

And no, it's not Old Nel dressing up, but his natural daughter Horatia (from a portrait painted in 1822)

29 January 1801, while her natural father Horatio raised his admiral's pennant on HMS St George at Torbay, ready to sail for the Baltic, Horatia was born in the Piccadilly residence of her mother Emma's husband Sir William Hamilton.

Even though Sir William at least tolerated the liaison between his wife and the celebrated naval hero, it became much easier for the couple to life openely as a family in Merton Place in Surrey, especially after Hamilton's death in 1803, when Nelson was on shore during the Peace of Amiens.

Nelson obviously doted on his family and ensured that Horatia could take his name after his death at Trafalgar in October 1805.

Horatia Nelson was described as a bright and talented child and grew up to live a long, rich life. She died at the age of 80 and was mother of 10 children.

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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Capten, art tha sleepin' there below? - the Death of Sir Francis Drake in 1596

"Drake he's in his hammock till the great Armadas come, (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?), Slung atween the round shot, listenin' for the drum, An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe. Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound, Call him when ye sail to meet the foe; Where the old trade's plyin' an' the old flag flyin', They shall find him, ware an' wakin', as they found him long ago." (Henry Newbolt, "Drake's Drum")

27 January 1596, Sir Francis Drake succumbed to dysentery during his final expedition against the Spanish possessions in Middle America. Off Portobello (present-day Panama) Drake was clad in full armour, placed in a lead coffin and buried at sea, as befitting for the man who is the iconic figure that marks the beginning of the era when Britannia was ruling the waves.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s (1561 – 1636) portrait of Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey, Devon, around 1590

A team from St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum in Florida reported they were close to find Drake's remains in November 2011, kicking off a discussion whether they are protected by the British Military Remains Act from 1986. Both issues remain unresolved to this day.

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