The great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel died just months before completing his ultimate dream – to design and launch the world’s largest ship. It fell to his chief assistant and later Wimbledon resident William Jacomb (1832-1887), to complete the job.
Exactly 152 years ago this week on 17 June 1860, the SS Great Eastern set off on her true maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, designed by Brunel but finished under Jacomb’s supervision at Milwall on the Thames. Brunel himself – creator of the Great Western Railway and Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge as well as other steamships - had died suddenly aged 53, worn out by years of financial as well as technical difficulties with the ship. Earlier attempts to launch it had been disastrous. It had actually sailed for the first time the previous September but an onboard explosion off Dungeness had killed five men and Brunel himself had expired six days later.
Jacomb had been entrusted with supervising the entire construction of the ship when in his mid twenties. Born in Marylebone, he was articled to Brunel as a pupil aged just 19 after completing his university education and engineering training. He was only 28 when the SS Great Eastern finally sailed for New York but three years later he settled with his wife Eliza Marion and their baby son, William at 10 Ridgway Place, Wimbledon (later renumbered 57). Their daughter Mabel was born another three years on. In 1974 the family moved to Bardon Lodge on Westside Common, neighbouring Cannizaro House, and there Jacomb spent the rest of his life.
Brunel had dreamed of building a ship capable of carrying 4,000 passengers. The SS Great Eastern, equipped with side paddle wheels, screw propellers, five funnels, and six masts, was by far the largest ship afloat in 1860. At 688 feet long, she had a 12,000-tonne hull, top speed of 15 knots and an innovative steering engine. Although there were only 43 passengers and 418 crew on that first successful voyage, she went on to operate on both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, laying and repairing telegraph cables for 14 years. But her fate might have broken Brunel’s heart had he lived to see it. In 1874 she was mothballed, superseded by newer ship designs. It was not until 1886 that she was used briefly as a floating fair and later broken up in 1889.
Jacomb too died before that endgame. He had set up his own business in Westminster after Brunel’s death. During the 1860s he helped to construct the Metropolitan Railway and made his lasting contribution to the Wimbledon area by designing the Tooting, Merton and Wimbledon Railway. In 1870 he became Chief Resident Engineer of the London and South Western Railway, designing and building Putney Railway Bridge among other projects. He was in that post when he died suddenly from apoplexy on 26 May 1887 at his office in Waterloo Station.
His death at 55 shocked his colleagues as well as his family. His obituary read: “Mr Jacomb's intimate acquaintance with professional details, his organizing power, his ability in combining constructive perfection with true economy, and his rigid integrity and determination to protect the interests of his employers, secured a standing in the profession which few men have attained in so short a time. His early and sudden death - literally in harness - was a severe blow to the directors and officers of the company, by whom he was valued, not only as a capable adviser and coadjutor in all departments of railway administration, but as a personal friend who could ill be spared and with difficulty replaced.”
It continued: “His genial and engaging manners made him a universal favourite with all whom he met, either in business or in society, and materially aided in smoothing away difficulties which invariably arise in dealing officially with public bodies and private interests on behalf of a large and powerful corporation.”
A huge cortege attended his funeral at Gap Road Cemetery with crowds lining the streets.