The History of the Cutty Sark

/ The History of the Cutty Sark

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Cutty Sark’s name comes from the famous poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. It is about a farmer called Tam who is chased by a scantily clad witch called Nannie, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’, an old Scottish name for a short nightdress. ‘Cutty’ means short or stumpy, and ‘sark’ means nightdress or shirt.

The Cutty Sark is the world’s only surviving extreme clipper. Most of the hull fabric dates to its original construction in 1869.  

The “clipper” was a type of vessel first built in the United States. Known as Baltimore Clippers they developed in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland on the east coast of the USA and reached their zenith at the beginning of the 19th century. Clipper ships have three characteristics – a long, narrow hull, a sharp bow to cut through the waves rather than riding them – and three raking masts. The oldest surviving clipper, but not an extreme clipper, is the City of Adelaide, launched on Wearside, England in 1864 and currently undergoing major refurbishment in Adelaide, Australia. Both ships enjoyed routine lives when fulfilling the purpose for which they were built and traumatic later experiences that finally led to the survival of each of them. Both Cutty Sark and Adelaide are composite clippers, meaning their hulls were of wood fixed to a wrought iron frame.

crc jock willis
John “White Hat” Willis

The extreme clipper was a clipper designed to sacrifice cargo capacity for speed. They had a bow lengthened above the waterline, a drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, and the greatest breadth further aft. The first extreme clipper was the Rainbow, launched at New York in 1845. It was a revolutionary design embracing these changes by John W. Griffiths (1809 to 1882), an American naval architect.

Cutty Sark was built for John “White Hat” Willis, ship’s master and second-generation shipowner of a clipper company based in London. She was designed by Hercules Linton and built by Scott and Linton at their shipyard at Dumbarton by the mouth of the River Leven (which drains Loch Lomond into the Clyde) in Scotland. Extreme clippers were built primarily for the China trade.

Tea (or cha) was first seen in Britain in the mid seventeenth century: Samuel Pepys, the diarist, mentions “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before” in 1660. By 1750 tea had become the national drink – at about the same time as sugar from the West Indies had become a sought-after commodity thus enabling the admixture of the two in a tasteful and fashionable symbiosis.

That symbiosis, however, had given rise to slavery (to produce sugar) and two so-called Opium Wars with China over Britain’s demands that it should be allowed to enjoy free trade. Tea and other goods from China, including silks and porcelain, were paid for in silver bullion. The British Exchequer became concerned at the draining of reserves from this trade. Britain demanded the right to free trade along the South China coast and this involved importing opium from India to generate the silver bullion to pay for the tea. In Victorian Britain laudanum, an opiate, was freely obtainable as it was used as a medicinal and a recreational stimulant a bit like alcohol. It was consumed by many famous writers and poets of the day including Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who wrote Kubla Khan after an intense dream brought on by laudanum), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who took it for most of her life to defeat pain), Elizabeth Siddal (Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s muse then wife) who died of an overdose and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, himself, was a doctor so whether he ever used it himself is not known but he would certainly have know of its properties.

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Opium was produced in India for the East India Company and chests containing opium balls were consolidated at Calcutta to form the outward cargo for many tea clippers from Europe and the United States en route to China to buy tea. As alarming damage from growing addiction to opiates began to surge – particularly along the China coast – the Qing Emperor tried to prevent access to trade for this purpose which led to the two Opium Wars, the first with Britain in 1839 and the second with Britain and France in 1860.

The tea trade was highly competitive. The first vessels to dock in London each season could set their price. There was therefore a good reason to build ships that were fast to carry on this trade.  By the 1860’s the centre of the tea trade had shifted from Canton in the south to Shanghai (Wusong) at the mouth of the Yangtse River in the East. In 1872 the Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae left Shanghai together in a race to London. Thermopylae arrived a week before Cutty Sark. Unfortunately, Cutty Sark lost her rudder off the South African coast and thanks to the heroic efforts of the ship’s carpenter, Henry Henderson, in heavy seas, a jury rig was constructed that was able to see them home.

The era of steam was still new. In 1819 the paddle steamer, SS Savannah, was the first powered vessel to cross the Atlantic – although mostly under sail (we have her print HERE). The Aaron Manby became the first iron vessel to go to sea sailing from London to Paris in 1821. I.K. Brunel’s SS Great Western (we have her print HERE), became the first transatlantic liner with a scheduled run in 1837. James Watt is credited with applying an early steam engine to a screw propeller beginning the use of a hydrodynamic screw for propulsion. By 1845, Brunel had used this as the propulsion system, via a chain-link, for the SS Great Britain.

Before 1866 no steamship could make the long 15,000 to 16,000-mile journey to the Far East from Europe or the East Coast of America. They could not carry enough fuel. In 1866 the SS Agamemnon, by Alfred Holt of Liverpool (founder of the Blue Star Line), became the first steamship capable of making the journey economically, with a single coaling stop in Mauritius each way. Three years later, and already under threat from steam, it is one of the great ironies of maritime history that the Cutty Sark, one of only two surviving clippers today, was launched 5 days after the official opening of the Suez Canal on 17th November 1869.

Cutty Sark therefore had but a short period in which to ply the trade for which she had been built. It was impractical for sailing vessels to use the Canal. They needed a tug to tow them and the Red Sea was a poor sailing environment anyway. By 1871, 45 steamships had been built on the River Clyde in Scotland alone for the Far East trade. Indeed, on her first journey in 1870 Cutty Sark found several steamships already in Shanghai waiting to collect tea and other trade goods. The Suez Canal reduced the distance for steamships on the China trade by nearly 4,000 miles each way. With the Canal open cargo freight rates on steamships began to fall increasingly below those of sail ships and cargo insurance rates fell with them.

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By 1873 steamships had taken most of the tea and other goods, so Cutty Sark had to search for cargoes. By 1877 she was carrying jute, castor oil and coal around the world and tea to Australia.  In 1880 her yards were shortened and in 1883 she commenced a new stage of her career carrying bales of wool from Australia to London, a trade that continued for 15 years. On this trade she was faster than Thermopylae.

In 1895 Willis sold her to Joaquim Antunes Ferreira, a Portuguese shipowner, for £1,250. Named Ferreira she traded cargoes between Portugal, Brazil, the USA, Mozambique, Angola, and Britain. She was dismasted in 1916 off the Cape of Good Hope and towed to Cape Town. World War I prevented access to materiél to replace the masts, so she was re-rigged to a barquentine.

By 1922 Ferreira was the last clipper operating anywhere in the world when she was caught in a storm in the English Channel and put into Falmouth harbour. She was spotted there by retired merchant navy captain Wilfred Dowman, a brief encounter that was to prove providential. Ferreira returned to Lisbon, where she was again sold and renamed Maria do Amparo.

Captain Dowman had seen Cutty Sark before.  In 1894 he was at sea as an apprentice aboard the SS Hawksdale out of Liverpool. During the voyage he watched Cutty Sark pass “in a manner which could not fail to impress”. It was a sight he never forgot.[1]  Clearly Dowman made a resolution when he saw her again in 1922. He was now running a cadet training vessel in Falmouth for disadvantaged children.  Eventually, Dowman was able to purchase the vessel, thanks in part to his marriage to Catharine Courtauld. The Courtauld family had become wealthy from silk and crepe manufacture and were later to become the largest man-made fibre manufacturers in the world. The ship was returned to Falmouth and the rigging restored. She replaced his old training ship. Dowman died in 1936 and the ship was given by his wife to the Thames Nautical Training College at Greenhithe. By 1950 she had become surplus to requirements.

She took part in the Festival of Britain in 1951 but in 1952 she was involved in a collision with another vessel resulting in serious damage. That year she was presented to the Cutty Sark Preservation Society and in 1954 floated into the special dry dock at Greenwich for which the foundation stone had been laid by The Duke of Edinburgh. She was opened to the public in 1957.

By end of the 20th century there were serious concerns about corrosion, and the hull was becoming distorted as the ship’s weight was carried on the keel instead of through natural buoyancy. An extensive conservation project was planned. This began in 2006 but on the morning of 21 May 2007, Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for the conservation work, caught fire. It burned for several hours and initial reports suggested the damage was extensive. It turned out that more than half the fabric of the ship had been removed. Part of the restoration work involved raising the ship 3 metres (10 ft), to lift the weight off the keel and to allow the construction of a state-of-the-art museum beneath. The ship was reopened by The Queen in May 2012, but on 19 October 2014, another fire broke out and a small part of deck three and the hull timbers were damaged.

The vessel is a key part of the Royal Museums Greenwich in the East of London on the South Bank of the River Thames. The Museums comprise the National Maritime Museum, The Queen’s House, the Greenwich Observatory, and the Cutty Sark.

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[1] From the description attached to a photograph of Dowman to celebrate the reopening of Cutty Sark on 24 May 2012 at