Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
NOTE: This week's post is a guest post from the Royal Museums Greenwich in the UK about the Cutty Sark, one of the most famous of the Tea Clippers. To learn more about the Cutty Sark check out the Royal Museums Greenwich website.
Cutty Sark is the sole surviving tea clipper ship in the world. It wasn’t the first or the biggest; it wasn’t the fastest or most successful; it wasn’t even its owner’s favourite. But it is the last one left. And it is because of its survival that it has become one of the most iconic ships in the world: a symbol of the romantic ‘age of sail’; of the peak of clipper ship design; of Britain’s identity as a nation of tea-drinkers; of the exploitation and wealth of the British Empire and vital importance of merchant shipping to Britain, both then and now.
Cutty Sark was launched in 1869, in Dumbarton, Scotland. It was built exclusively for the China tea trade, in which a fashion had developed for consuming the first of the season’s fresh tea. Thus it paid to be fast and as one of the last tea clippers to be built, Cutty Sark had some claims to be the pinnacle of a design, already at its apex. It is an ‘extreme clipper’, having all the design characteristics of clipper ships but with extra abundance. Clippers, typically, have three main design traits: a long, narrow hull; a sharp bow at the front of the ship for cutting through the waves rather than riding atop and a huge sail area. By the 1860s, composite construction, combining wood and iron to make a ship strong but lighter and with greater cargo space, was the favoured method of construction. Cutty Sark was one of these composite ships.
Clipper ships were pioneered by the Americans in the early nineteenth century. These small, fast and agile ships, able to zip along ‘at a clip’, put an emphasis upon speed rather than cargo space. The gold rushes in California and then Australia in the middle of nineteenth century meant that orders for vessels flooded the American market. Spurred by the need to obtain even a slight advantage in speed, American designers were bold and inventive, developing clippers which seemed to turn ship design on its head. Across the Atlantic, British shipping was at risk of stagnation. A series of reforms, including the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade in the east prepared the scene. The first British clipper ship, Stornaway, was built in Aberdeen in 1850.
Tea first came to Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century. Initially hailed for its medicinal qualities, it was mainly enjoyed by the wealthy. But thanks, in part, to an extensive smuggling network, tea soon became a popular beverage for all. Little more than one hundred years after its introduction, tea was embedded in the very fabric of British life. As a tea clipper, Cutty Sark played its role in converting tea from exotic leaf to national staple. It would deliver over 4.5 million kgs of tea to Britain in just eight years.
Yet it never lived up to its promise. In a somewhat poetic twist of fate, the Suez Canal was opened just five days before Cutty Sark was launched. These two feats of engineering, one which would seal the fate of the other were inextricably linked, providing a marker in time, almost a ‘before and after’ in the world of shipping. The canal provided a ‘short-cut’ out to China and back. Rather than having to sail all the way around the continent of Africa, ships could now cut through the Mediterranean and Red Sea reducing the voyage by over 3,000 miles. But the challenging navigation of the Mediterranean and relative windless conditions and expensive tolls on the canal itself meant that it was only viable for steam ships. Ships like Cutty Sark would have to stick to the long route. In 1870, the year of Cutty Sark’s maiden voyage, there were over fifty other sailing ships heading out to China and back. By 1878, there were just nine. Unable to compete, Cutty Sark was forced from the trade for which it had been built after just eight voyages, a tea clipper without any tea.
After leaving the tea trade, Cutty Sark spent the next few years tramping: taking whatever cargo it could from port to port. It is not without irony that in this period the ship regularly transported coal for steamships’ coal stations. In fact, in total it transported more coal than tea in its career. While the network of coal and water stations required for the efficient passage of steamers developed around the world, the quickest and most reliable method of getting their fuel to them was by sail.
When John ‘White Hat’ Willis, the ship’s owner, elected to place Cutty Sark in the Australian wool trade, it was as if Cutty Sark had found its calling. The trade, at the time, too far away for steamers to contend in, suited Cutty Sark. The route home took the ship around Cape Horn and the ‘roaring forties’, the fastest trade winds in the world, allowing the ship to make full use of its impressive spread of canvas to surge home. Under the confident leadership of Captain Richard Woodget, the ship’s longest serving and most successful master, Cutty Sark consistently broke records. Its best passage was just 73 days back to London, racking up speeds of up to 17.5 knots an hour and enjoying a new reputation as one of the fastest ships afloat.
In 1895 an aging Willis, with no heirs to pass his fleet onto, sold Cutty Sark to a Portuguese firm. Renamed Ferreira, the ship became a general cargo carrier – carrying anything from coal to whale bone and fish guano - traversing the Atlantic between Portugal, the West Coast of Africa and the continent of America. In 1922, after departing London, Ferreira was damaged in a storm, had to call in at Falmouth for repairs and experienced astonishing good luck. There was probably not much more working life left in the ship, so when the local retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman, spotted Ferreira, the ship’s fortune was changed forever. In 1895, Dowman had been a 16 year old apprentice, who watched as Cutty Sark surged past his ship, leaving a lasting impression on the young man. Twenty-seven years later, Ferreira was a shadow of its former self yet Dowman’s memory had not dimmed. He knew it was a special vessel. Together with his wife, Catharine, the pair were committed philanthropists who paid well over the odds to bring the ship back to Britain, restore it and rename it Cutty Sark once more. Two years later, it reopened as a cadet training ship and visitor attraction.
Following Dowman’s premature death, the ship was given to the Incorporated Thames Nautical College to serve alongside HMS Worcester as a cadet training ship in Greenhithe on the Thames.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the cadets were evacuated and Cutty Sark suffered from a terrible lack of maintenance. By the end of the war, sail-training was no longer deemed necessary and Cutty Sark’s future looked bleak. But befitting of the ship’s story, it was thanks to a passionate individual and a stroke of good luck that it is here today. HMS Implacable had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 but by the late 1940s, like Cutty Sark, it was in very poor condition. Recognising the ship’s significance, a place in Greenwich was offered to it but its restoration costs were soon deemed to be too expensive in an age of austerity. Instead the ship was scuttled. Understandably, this caused an outcry which Frank Carr, then director of the National Maritime Museum, was able to utilise to save Cutty Sark. He persuaded the London County Council to give the Greenwich site to Cutty Sark; he engaged the support of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and together they formed a society which raised public funds to restore the ship and create a new dry dock for it. They were also keen that Cutty Sark adopt yet another identity: that of memorial to the Merchant Navy, the days of sail and the 44,000 from the merchant service lost in both world wars. In 1954 the ship was floated into its new dock and final resting place. Three years later, after an extensive restoration, the ship was opened to the public by HM The Queen.
In total, more than 650 men from 30 different nations served on Cutty Sark during its years as a British ship. Most would do so only once. On average, just 28 men would serve per voyage but it could be as few as 19. The oldest to serve was 54 and the youngest 14. These men had eleven miles of rigging and 32,000 square metres of sail to contend with in some of the most challenging conditions imaginable. The ship has visited nearly every major port in the world and transported millions of kgs of goods around the globe. Built to last just 30 years, it now sits in Maritime Greenwich, more than 150 years old and an inspiration to a new generation of sailing cargo ships.
To find out more, please visit: Cutty Sark
Louise Macfarlane is the Cutty Sark Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, UK.
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