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The tragic drowning of a mariner from the SS Great Eastern

Black & white photograph, features the 'engineering giant' Isambard Kingdom Brunel *, Henry Wakefield, J. Scott Russell and Lord Derby. Standing by the edge of a wooden pier, directing the launch of SS Great Eastern, 1858. 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel FRS * was an English civil and mechanical engineer, who is considered "one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history,

Source : Media Storehouse.

Located close to the Columbarium in Brockley cemetery lies the much weathered headstone of Charles William Ogden. Indeed his name is only visible to the onlooker when the light is right. But persistent cemetery historians remain unshakeably resolute in looking for a telling story behind (more properly underneath) the headstone! Such was the case with the coxswain of the SS Great Britain Charles William Ogden whose early death aged 24 years in a maritime accident in 1860 informs this post. Charles has to compete for nautical posterity in a part of what was formerly Deptford cemetery, as a number of other famous maritime disasters are remembered from nearby headstones - from the sinking of the SS Princess Alice (1878) to the loss of the RMS Lusitania (1915)

Charles was born in Deptford in 1835, the son of a waterman called George Jubilee Ogden and his wife Susannah. Following an apprenticeship as a waterman, he was employed by the charismatic Captain William Harrison as a coxswain (pilot or navigator) following the construction of the SS Great Eastern at the Millwall Iron works on the Thames. The SS Great Britain was an iron sail-powered, paddle wheel and screw-propelled steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and built by John Scott Russell & Co. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling. Brunel knew her affectionately as the "Great Babe". He died in 1859 shortly after her maiden voyage, during which she was damaged by an explosion.

Charles married Susannah Sarah in 1858 at the High Street Chapel in Deptford, the couple had a son, Charles William George Ogden, who sadly died in the same year as his father. The 'calamitous accident' that resulted in George's death off Southampton Waters is recounted in the Liverpool Daily Post Newspaper ( 1860)


Capt HARRISON, the Purser’s son and Coxswain drowned.

Misfortunes crowd heavily upon the noble but unfortunate GREAT EASTERN. The last, but not least calamity is the death of its able and esteemed commander.  Capt William HARRISON, experienced seaman, able engineer, thorough man of business and honest and independent servant, the originator and designer of the GREAT EASTERN.  The announcement of his death has thrown a gloom over everyone connected with the company in Southampton.

The circumstances in which his death took place are distressing.

Yesterday morning Capt HARRISON had occasion to leave the ship moored in Southampton Waters and to proceed to Southampton on business concerning the GREAT EASTERN. A boat was lowered shortly after breakfast and in the company of Dr WATSON the ship’s surgeon, Capt LEY the purser, his son aged 14yrs and 6 crew, the Captain proceeded to Hythe, where his wife and daughter were residing. After leaving them Capt HARRISON and the other officers of the ship proceeded to Southampton.

The wind which had been blowing fresh increased to a violent gale from the S.E, before the boat reached the dock. As the boat entered and while lowering the sail a heavy gust caught the boat and capsized it. The whole occupants were thrown out, some managed to hold on to the rigging, or boat, Capt HARRISON clung to an oar, by which he was supported for some time.

The INDUS lying in the dock put out two boats and after considerable exertions the men managed to pick up Capt HARRISON, who was then in a state of unconsciousness. Capt LEY was picked up and was bruised about the head and was bleeding. Dr WATSON was rescued in a state of extreme exhaustion, as well as six men who were also in the boat. The son of Capt LEY was not found till some time later, drowned.

The rescued men were attended to with great kindness from the INDUS crew and others connected to the Peninsular and Oriental Company. No fewer than six medical men attended to Capt HARRISON and everything possible was done to restore him to consciousness.

Capt Harrison was interred in St. James cemetery, Liverpool.

The Coxswain died on Saturday night from the affects of the accident.

Charles was interred in Brockley cemetery on Sunday 29 th January 1860. His funeral being witnessed by thousands of anxious spectators , numbers of mourners as almost never seen before in Deptford.

A fuller account of Charles funeral is viewable on the Methodist New Connexion magazine -Volume 63,(1860) where his high minded religious devotion is also celebrated and remembered.

Charles' heroism was fittingly remembered in the Times Newspaper

The SS Great Eastern was conceived as the biggest steamship yet to be built, one that would be capable of carrying 4,000 passengers at a time on a non-stop trip to Australia. The SS Great Eastern proved uneconomic as a passenger ship but had a new lease of life when she was used to lay the first successful trans-Atlantic cable. Source : Brunel 200

Captain Harrison, of the 'Great Eastern' 1859 Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. 

The New York magazine published this illustration in anticipation of the launching of Brunel's steamship the SS Great Eastern the largest such vessel in the world at that time and employed to lay the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable between Great Britain and Newfoundland. Harrison, a veteran of the Cunard Company, helped Brunel superintend the construction of the "Great Ship" (as it was then dubbed) at Deptford on the Thames. Image scan and text by Phillip V.Allingham. Source : The Victorian Web.

On YouTube there is a fuller and lively history of the leviathan known as the SS Great Britain : Too Big To Sail

Photo of Charles William Ogden's headstone in Brockley cemetery -Taken by Foblc member , Phill Barnes -Warden

Also interred here are his widow Susannah Sarah d.1892 Charles William George d.1860 ( their son) and Charles Jubilee Ogden d.1864 ( Charles father)