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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Great Eastern and Pembroke Dock

When I visited the Milford Haven Port Authority a few weeks ago I was intrigued by the picture of the Great Eastern in the board room. I had not realised that Isambard Brunel's colossal steamship was linked with Pembroke Dock. I also learned how hazardous it was building ships like this. As Wikipedia records:

Construction of such a massive ship involved millions of hand-driven rivets. An estimated 1,000 workers were hired to comprise 200 “rivet gangs” to get the job done. Because someone small had to squeeze inside the narrow space between the double hulls, young “bash boys” were hired to do this work. These boys spent 12-hour days in the confined space between the hulls, the only light furnished by a candle, and enduring the deafening thunder of the riveters’ hammers.

Some of them never came out. Their skeletal remains were found when the ship was dismantled for scrap. Boys fell to their death while working at deadly heights. Other gruesome accidents took the lives of other workers.

Many claim that the story of boys trapped and left between hulls is apocryphal. Between 1875 and 1886 The Great Eastern was a permanent fixture at Milford Docks, remaining there for lengthy repairs. Her arrival into the docks was heralded as an example of the scale of vessel which the town could expect to attract. There is a terrace of houses in Neyland named Great Eastern Terrace.

Nowadays the ships that use the Haven are so big that they would dwarf Brunel's ill-fated vessel. The building techniques used to put them together are far safer as well.
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