FURTHER to our recent piece on the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an English mechanical and civil engineer, reader Bill Macey has offered some insight into the explosion on Brunel's ship, The Great Eastern, in 1859.

The destination for this ship's voyage was none other than Weymouth, after which a trial trip into the Atlantic would be made. On September 10, 1859, crowds flocked to the seafront in preparation to see what was, at the time, the largest ship ever built. Yet their cheers and waves were not reciprocated by those on board, and soon enough onlookers noticed the ship was missing a funnel, sporting just four of what should have been five.

A huge explosion had occurred on The Great Eastern shortly after it had passed Hastings, blowing apart the front deck with enough force to launch the eight-tonne funnel into the air. Six men were killed in the blast: John Boyd, Michael Mahone, Michael McIlroy, Robert Edwards, Robert Adams, and an unknown individual thought to be a fireman.

Five bodies were brought to shore at Weymouth and placed in a store at Helen Lane, in preparation for the coroner, before being buried at Melcombe Regis cemetery. The body of the unknown victim was never recovered.

The funnel was salvaged and subsequently purchased by the water company supplying Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, to be used as a filtering device.

An inquest took place at Weymouth Guildhall two days after the incident. A jury took a little over two hours to reach the following conclusions: "We find that these men came to their deaths from injuries received from steam, hot air and water, in consequence of the bursting of the jacket attached to the foremost funnel of the Great Eastern steamer.

The bursting was caused by the closing of the tap connected with the syphon attached to the jacket, in conjunction with the shutting off of the feed from the water casing to the boiler, but there is no evidence before us to show by what person or persons the tap was shut off.

We record a verdict of accidental death."

Brunel himself was initially aboard The Great Eastern, but after suffering a stroke shortly after the ship's departure, he was left paralysed and taken to his home in Duke's Street. He died just five days after the explosion took place, leaving speculation that learning of the tragedy was too much for his weakened body to bear.

The Great Eastern's first Atlantic voyage was eventually made in June 1960, with the journey from Southampton to America taking eleven days. Thanks to Bill for this extra insight.