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The untold story of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich London

untold story of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich
untold story of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich

150 Year Aniversary - 1869-2019
Contract signed to build the Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark, the worlds most famous last remaining Clipper Ship, dry dock, Greenwich London

Greenwich not only a tourist magnet for its meridian line and observatory but it also marks a line in time for maritime history. Home of the National Maritime Museum. Old Royal Naval College 1773–1998  can be viewed from the water’s edge or from high up on Greenwich park hill by the Observatory.   As ships pass and visitors arrive an antique looking  Ship,  provides a well-known vista,  paying its respects to a bygone era of sailing ships. Cutty Sark became a national Icon and International landmark.

It’s open for visitors it survived two main world wars and fire. Resilient, it has stood the test of time. Sculptured floating in mid-air so that you can actually walk under her, which has touched base with many seas during epic voyages. A string of captains and challenges, murder, bullying drunken behaviour. In the sunlight on the top deck is where the sun even in winter will dazzle the senses of the complexity of the sails, rope work and rigging. The stunning craftsmanship outstanding, the story of why it was a racing ship, its second lease of life and its victorious return to the Uk. Its saviours came in the form of a Captain and his Wealthy wife and support and interest of Royalty.

£50 million pound Renovation

Cutty Sark Conservation

Cutty-sark - wheel house
Cutty-sark - rigging

The project to renovate the Cutty Sark lasted 5 years and was the first complete overhaul and renovation of the ship since the ship was dry docked in Greenwich in 1954

Cutty Sark life Bouy

What is the Cutty Sark?

The Cutty Sark is the last surving Tea clipper sailing ship One of the last sailing ships known as Tea Clippers to be built and one of the fastest.

What does the Ships name mean and whats it got to do with the Figurine?

The Word Cutty in Scottish / Northern Irish means “Short”

A Sark is an item of clothing Chemise underwear.

“Short Undergarment”

Robert Burns 1791 Poem “Tam o’Shanter” contained a witch by the name of Nannie Dee. The original Ships figurehead of a female form is that of the white nude breasted Nannie Dee with flowing hair.

Tam in the poem was so taken with her short underwear that he shouted out “weel done, Cutty Sark” it became a known phrase


Who owned the Cutty Sark?

John Willis

Owner Captain John Willis was an experienced sailor and treated ships very well. He owned other Clipper ships, the Tweed and the Lammermuir amongst others. He was raised working the tea trade which had existed for years. Products from the east and far away were becoming high in demand, but it was sailing ships that created the possibility of people being able to experience these products.

Where was the Cutty Sark built?

Dunbarton 1869 by Scott & Linton Built on the Leven and River Clyde Jock Willis Shipping Line. John Willis hired Hercules Linton to build the ship and believed one of his other ships the tweed had a design structure that gave it its speed. Oliver Lang had designed that ship called Punjab and was a frigate ship. He had other clipper ships built with Iron based on designs of the Halloween and Blackadder. That he also had an interest in because of their performance. Both Willis and Linton realised that the shape of the hull was the secret to speed and they compromised in what they thought would work. They streamlined it, broader stern gave it better buoyancy. It had a squarer stern and was less fat and barrel shape.

The contract said it was to be built in 6 months there were fines if this was late £5 per day. The builders would get their money in stages. Captain George Moodie supervised the construction for Willis. He would be the Captain of the Cutty Sark on completion. Delays it needed strengthening. Scott and Linton went bankrupt building the ship.

on the deck of the last surviving tea clipper, the cutty sark

Denny took over and completed 22 Nov 1869.

They based Cutty Sark on the Tweed which originally was a paddle steamer. lengthened, removal of the engines, therefore turning into a sailing ship, called, Punjaub. The West India company had built it. It had made record trips and paid off. Willis suggested Hercules Linton look at the Tweed ship, before designing  Cutty Sark. It’s shape unlike any other. Sailing ships that built for speed had to make sure the rough seas would not literally wash over the top and take with it the helmsmen or watch officers wheel and compass.

Scots craftsmen
Hercules was part of Scott and Linton shipbuilding company.

They would be paid  £17- £21 a ton to build Cutty Sark max weight of 950 Tons. The contract meant it had to be built in 6 months there were fines if this was late £5 per day. The builders would get their money in stages. Captain George Moodie supervised the construction for Willis. He was going to eventually be the Captain of the Cutty Sark on completion. Delays it needed strengthening. Scott and Linton went bankrupt building the ship. Only the finest materials including Teak Deck were being used but these were not cheap. But the Hull had been accomplished.

Design features construction materials

American Rock Elm, Iron. The Rudder was English Oak. The 1920s the keep was replaced by pitch pine. Deck was thick teak. Tween deck of yellow pine. Ropes by Gourock Ropeworks. They built streamlined narrow shaped Hull with a copper lining 60% copper 40 5 Zinc Iron, so that sea barnacles couldn’t stick to it which would drag it down and would slow its speed.

Frederick Hellyer of Backwall the Carver of the figurehead

 was commissioned by Willis to carve other figurehead females on either side of the Bow. It was expensive; it was beautiful with outstretched arms.  It’s not clear why this theme or name was chosen. Head and arm were damaged and replaced but never like the original carver.

Painted black the ship stood out, sheer gold leaf lines. The name was also in the Gold leaf and its registration port LONDON. Later years they placed a nightshirt cut out of shiny metal on its high mast, we will explain the significance of this object in how the Cutty Sark got its name.

What were Clipper ships

The Word to “Clip” comes from the meaning to run or swiftly fly. 17th Century English poet Dryden used the word to describe how fast the flight of a Falcon was. It was a term that also described fast horses and sailing ships. The Americans seem to be the first to have used the term for their sailing ships in the late 18th C. Clip over the waves rather than plough through them.

They carried light high-priced items like opium, tea, spices.

British Oxford dictionary references this term being used by the 1830s.

Alan Villiers who wrote about ships defines clippers

Built for speed, must use sail day and night. Good during the fair and foul weather. It must be sharp-lined and tall with a large spread of sail.

Quick sailing ships developed further from schooner shape ships. They had 3 masts and a square rig. Narrow for their length, carry limited cargo. built in the UK and USA although other countries started production too. They sailed to British colonies all over the world. The boom years for the clipper ships doing the tea trade was from 1843 until around 1869 when the Suez Canal Opened.

China Tea Trade of the 1870s demanded a lot from a ship. Cutty Sark fitted this purpose to a T. 100 Million pounds of tea during the start of this era was being imported. A premium bonus was being paid for those able to deliver the first seasons batch to London.

What do the Roman Numerals mean on the front Bow of the ship?

These are draft marks, they appear on either side of the Bow, and Stern (back) of the Ship. The marks show the distance from the bottom of the ship (keel) to the level of the waterline.  This shows how submerged into the water the ship is. The numbers are a set size and distance from each other so that a measurement can be taken.

There are 6 inches to one FOOT in imperial measures. The numbers or Numerals are 6 inches in height and exactly 6 inches apart. Enabling the Feet and inches to be determined.

So the bottom of the number is how many Feet the water line is from the bottom of the ship.

If the water line runs through half the number half of 6inches is 3 so it will be however many feet and 3 inches.

when the waterline meets the top of the number its however many feet and 6 inches

midway through the top of the number and the base of the next number above is another 3 inches since they are 6 inches apart making that now however many feet and 9 inches

cutty sark top deck wood grain
cutty sarks famous rudder with roman numerals

Port and Starboard

Following the direction of travel, if you stand to face the direction the ship is sailing in, your left hand is port side and your right hand is the Starboard side. Steering was from the right side and ships were moored at the port on the left-hand side, hence Port.

The Crew Size of the Cutty Sark

Clippers had a crew of around 28 men. Jock Willis had to reduce the number when the odds were not paying off. This then dropped to 19-24 men.

Where did it sail from and too

Voyages to the China sea.

Shanghai. It also went to Australia Sydney, Japan, Manila, New York, Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Anjer, Tasmania,  cape horn, Manila, The Lizard, Bristol Channelpenarth, Atlantic Ocean, The Roaring Forties, Madras, Coconada, Bimlipatan, Philipines, Penarth Wales, Nagasaki, Singapore, Madras, Kakinada,


How long did these journeys take

Speed stats

17.5 knots best speed could travel 300 miles in a day

Sydney to London 73 days a record of making some 67,69 and 70 days to Sydney or Newcastle.

24 hrs 363 nautical miles (418 miles 672 km) average 15 knots 17 mph or 28km/ hr

Edge in heavier wind

Comparisons of voyage times

Cutty Sark London – Shanghai 104 Days.

The first voyage took 110 days.

Thermopylae took 105 days from Foochow.

Steamers could do this in 60 Days by  1870 Diomed and Agamemnon  Erl King via Suez

Cutty Sark copper hull
cutty sark bow in the depths of the cutty sark museum greenwich
Cutty Sark Tea Box

What cargo did it carry

Tea, Wool. Later 1878 Tramping years Coal, jute, castor oil, paraffin,

how heavy 5,000 tons.

Tea Cargo

Victorians escalated the tea craze.

The Cutty Sark carried £18 million pounds of Tea Cargo in today’s term, the value of Tea cargo for the Cutty Sark

1 shipment  £270,000 Chinese Tea which in today’s money is around £18 Million.  Ships competed to be the first back to England with the new Seasons import of tea. Thousands of pounds would be at stake depending on who bought the first batch in.

The Tea race advertised in papers and regarded as a sporting event. The Tea Races had lots of public interest speculation as to who would be the first back, the ships having a well-known status about them.

In the first few years, 5.5 thousand tons of tea was delivered some 144 million pounds in today’s money.

The Time of year changed the price too. For example, Villiers in his book mentions,  Lloyds the underwriters charged more when the ships had sailed through a trickier season i.e monsoon weather than if they had gone out during plain sailing type weather. The Cutty Sark could fetch £4 per 50 cubic feet compared to £2.10 at another time for another ship.

when was the Last Tea Cargo trip of the Cutty Sark

  • 1877

When did it first sail?

1869 22nd November. The ship was towed to Greenock on the Clyde Scotland towards the last week of  Dec 1869 to have its rigging installed. It was moored at the Robert Steele shipyard near there at Cartsdyke before sailing to London.

1st Voyage 16th Feb 1870

From London to Shanghai China.

2nd Voyage 1871

South China Sea Bangkok rice that was delivered to Hong Kong. Before fetching Tea.

£3 per 50 Cubic Feet of Tea

Cutty-sark - wheel house

Captains of the Cutty Sark

1870 Captain Moodie

Since Willis had selected Moodie to supervise the construction, it was logic for him to Captain the first voyage. He already had sailed the Tweed, and other clippers Lauderdale and Laurel.  Being skilled at the complex art of rigging was his forte, alongside being able to command men and business awareness.

In A. Villiers book on the Cutty Sark, he mentioned that it took Moodie the whole journey from London to Shanghai to get the rigging right on the Cutty Sark.

Captain Moodie’s Wife launched the ship.

C1872 Captain F. W Moore

Being Previously used as Willis’s Marine Superintendent. F. W Moore took over from Captain Moodie.  The downside was that he was too conservative about driving the ship hard because of wanting to spare potential damage. The ship was born to race cut water designed for speed so, with that in mind, it was not being used to the optimum. He made one trip to China.

1873 Captain Tiptaft till he died 1878

Collecting Tea At Hankow and back to the UK. Cargo was some £4.5s and beat the Thermopylae by a week on the return journey home.

Cutty Sark ended the Tea Trade 1878 due to steamships taking this over

Dec 1877 It sailed to Australia for a coal cargo but after arriving in China as before in the spring of the following year no Tea consignment could be obtained. prices given for tea dropped to as low as 25-30 shillings and not a full ship. The Steamers had taken most of the supply and even the Rival Thermopylae was only being offered 35 shillings. It was the end of the Tea Era.

1878 Captain James Wallace appointed Captain

He had been the first mate and was promoted. He only had 2 years experience, good sailor skills, but lacked leadership and too easy going.

During those times Sailors were superstitious and did not sail on a Friday. Wallace had no regard for this so commanded the men to sail on a Friday. The Crew were not harmonious. One Character called Vanderdecken was a winger and mentally challenged, he would pace the ship at night keeping people awake. He would repeatedly go on about mishaps, accidents bad luck drama that he predicted would happen. He was totally against them sailing on Fridays. Much of what he predicted turned into reality.

the rig of the Cutty Sark


When a ship has no dedicated cargo, resulting in it sailing from port to port looking for cargo, this is what is known as Tramping. Cutty Sark was tramping for around 5 years. During this time Willis the owner decided to economise started to make cuts literally, starting with the pasts/sails. The Skysail on the Mainmast was taken away, the stunsails were removed, just under 3 meters were cut from lower masts and just over 2 m from the lower yards. Less manpower was then required so 4 sailors were now out of a job.

Murder on board

The First mate to Captain Wallace, was not liked by the crew as he was a bully his name, Sidney Smith. 13/5/1880 set sail for Penarth Wales, a hand full of crew deserted the ship when it arrived, because of the tyrant behaviour of the first mate.

During a voyage on what later became known as the Hell ship voyage on 10/8/ 1880, a fight broke out on board where Smith killed a crew member John Francis.  John Francis was an American and speculated by a crew member to have no seamanship skills what so ever because he was actually a cook. Smith had hit Francis before. There had been a terrible storm in Japan, a drained Francis had let go of one of the sails, but it is speculated he was just an untrained Crew.

The brief story of murder on the Cutty Sark Clipper

Villiers mentions how the instruction from the Bully Mate was to “Slack away the Tack”, to whoever was on that position of watchman there. When no response happened in a critical situation the First Mate reiterated his instruction to yet again no response. Yet another source Kently, states the whole crew reiterated the instruction. Then Francis followed through but let go so much that the sail flew overboard. This enraged and compelled the Mate to believe it was done out of spite. He then shouted that he would put Francis overboard, and charged in the direction of Francis. Francis in Kently’s account was heard to give a warning that he was armed with a Capstan bar.  Smith picked up a broken Capstan bar and swung a fatal blow to Francis. He died the following day.

Bully Mate was now a murderer

With this in mind, he was causing friction, the crew were already unhappy about this person and situation. The Captain had tried to force some of the men to sign a statement that Smith had acted in self-defence, but no weapon had been found by Francis only the broken one Smith had used. By the time they approached Anjer, the captain had somehow accidentally on purpose dropped the evidence of the broken Capstan bar overboard. On  17/8/1880 the ship anchored at Anjer

Bully Mate was now an escapee

Smith had let it out the bag to crew member Somers that he would be leaving later on that evening and that there was no use telling the Captain because he had arranged it. An American ship Colorado was only too happy to take on the Bully Mate and he escaped changing his name to John Anderson.  His up and commence happened two years later when a Cutty Sark carpenter spotted Smith at the West India Docks London on a ship Mary Anne Nottebohm. In 1882 he was tried for murder and charged with manslaughter 7 years service, but Kently denotes this man had killed before and new the limits of the punishments.

When the Captain of the Cutty Sark went Overboard

Wallace the Captain in effect, helped Murderer Bully Mate to escape when they reached Indonesia, port Anjer.  Wallace paid a price for this as he himself was not to last long. The crew refused to work,  leaving only apprentices and a few men to run the ship. Things came to a head the tides were too calm, the heat, no winds, seemed a stalemate position. Wallace had the realisation his career would be over, resulting in a social disgrace, that they would find out he helped a murder escape, destroyed evidence and how the crew would grass up about the forced statements. His fate would end once they arrived at the next port, so he thought to abort early.

9/9/1880 Wallace  Jumped overboard, but only sharks were seen in the area he was thought to jump to and was never seen again.

cutty sark distinctive rigging

Back to Anjer to telegram the boss

Willis instructed the crew to sail to Singapore, an enquiry was held over the incident and cargo they were mean to delivery to Japan of Coal never reached these shores. It was emptied in Singapore whilst they awaited a new Captain. Another mistake in the journey of captains.

 1880 Captain William Bruce

Bruce was transferred from the ship the Hallowe’en and made Captain. He was an Alcoholic and incompetent, he forgot to get food supplies for crew lead to near starvation. He also schemed to get rid of the pricy Australian Crew but pocketed the money. In New York, 1882 an enquiry lead to him and his first mate being dismissed.

1882 Captain  Moore

Transferred from the Blackadder ship, with its crew, as it happened to be in New York at the same time. Good Captain credentials, but the ship was in a neglected state, requiring a lot of money to restore it. Since Cargo was limited and not paying so well, this was not an option to fix it up.

Cargo now smelt unlike the fragrance of Tea

The New Freight being cases of Kerosene oil,  also known as Case Oil. Ships were meant to be ventilated and adapted to transport this type of cargo, but the Cutty Sark had not been designed for this and expenses were being kept low. The destination Samarang. Onto Madras with less stinking cargo Myro-bolanes, jaggery. In 1882 the ship made one of the best record trips and Wool passages. Cutty Sark was showing unrealised promise as a Wool racer and suited the nuances of this trade. The timing for its auction and cut-price sale season demanded an adaptable racing craft team that could meet these deadlines. For the first two Wool Runs Moore managed splendidly and set destiny as the next captain made ten more Wool passages.

cutty sark sails

1883- 1895 Australian Wool Years

July 1883 departure Gravesend  UK to Arrive Newcastle New South Wales Australia Oct 1883

Departure Australia Dec 1883 – Arrival London Uk March 1884 – return record of 83 days.

1885 Captain Richard Woodget

This Captain commanded the happiest successful times the ship had seen. 10-11 years as a successful wool Clipper.

Qualities of a Fine Sailing Ships Captain

Fearless navigator and good with men, he earned their respect; he had energy and discipline. Master at rigging, sails and navigation. He had a good record of turning another failing sailing ship of Willis’s, the “Coldstream” around too.

Woodget was a photographer and documented journeys. He had a fondness for Dogs he took them on board. He pushed boundaries and took the ship towards icebergs, around the Cape Horn and further than other commanders had gone. There was a  young crew under his command some as young as 12-13. Woodget trained them up made fine sailors/ men out of them and many worked in good positions for the P&O line but never left Woodget till that period for the Cutty Sark was over. The reputation of the Cutty Sark and Woodget enabled one of the younger crew in later life to be selected by P&O for just this reason, the experience was worth investing in. Captain C.E Irving had served as a teenager under Woodget, he went on to navigate well with P& O and served on the Maloja in WW1 and even was doing some sailing in old age for WW2!

Revival its second win Wool Cargo

just over around 4000 bales at a time Merino wool. Worth some £12 million by today’s values.

1st Voyage 1885 London to Sydney in 77 days and its return journey in just 73 days. 300 miles a day

1886 The last tea run

The good record of swift passages Woodget had earned, was enticing Willis to think about taking one last shot at the China Tea Race again.  They think it is during this Voyage that Willis gave the ship its “short shirt” mascot metal emblem to fly on its high mast. Going out with Scrap Iron cargo earned it some money. It could secure no Tea. It sailed onto other commissions and in some ways outdid the Thermopylae on some occasions.

1893 logbook TV documentary

iceberg 1000 feet high. Captain Woodget also wrote how the icebergs would make sounds like the crack of a rifle or cannons as they moved. 28/6/1891 log said, “immense sea dropped on board smashing the doors and poop, water up to waist height.” In 31 years of sailing, the captain had seen “nothing the same size or steepness.”

1889 25th  July  Cutty Sark overhauled and passed steamer ship Britania

cutty sark on the deck
Cutty Sark copper hull keel

1895 Age of Sail ending.

What happened to it

1895 sold to a Portuguese company and renamed “Ferreira”, a cargo ship til 1922.

1895-1922 Portuguese era

July 1895, ” Cutty Sark ” was sold for the sum of £2100 to Ferreira and Co, of Lisbon, who renamed her ” Ferreira.” Back to Tramping cargo. Ports such as Rio, Mozambique, New Orleans, UK, Angola. Even though the ship had survived WW1 and the fact Portugal was at War with Germany 1915 onwards, bad weather destroyed main sections of masts in 1916. South Africa was where it was taken to for repairs at Table Bay. There were low reserves of cash available after wars, sailing rigs and masts were costly. The Ship’s silhouette dramatically changed as it was converted into a Barquentine. So what is a Barquentine? Only the foremast of a ship in this format has a square-rigged set of sails on it.  “Barca”, in Latin, Spanish and Italian incidentally to “small boat”. “Brigantine”,  2 masted square rig ship, enabled “Barque” as some kind of ship less sail distinguished from others and less crew.

The Roaring 20s returns Cutty Sark to its original name and  home shores


During 1922 another storm leads to more damages, so the ship was in repairs at Falmouth. Captain Wilfred Dowman spotted the Cutty Sark and set about to purchase her. It took Dowman and his wife a while to raised funds by selling things from their estate. Meanwhile, the ship returned to Spain and renamed  Maria do Amparo. 

Enter the Courtaulds and a Suffragette

The wealthy Courtauld Family have a connection in the Salvation of the ship since Bowman’s wife Catherine was a Courtauld.  Catherine had been part of the Suffragette movement and her financial assets had enabled the couple to set about buying the Cutty Sark. They sold off a training ship “Lady Avenal”, in the hope that Cutty Sark could be used for the same purposes as a training ship for cadets entering the Merchant Navy.  The Dowman’s paid more than it was worth approx £3750 and it was bought back home to the Uk.  By 1923 it was officially renamed her original title Cutty Sark. The restoration was completed it was moored and used in Falmouth by 1924 again due to the efforts and finance that the Dowman’s had put into this cause.

The 1930s

Why was it returned to Greenwich

When Wilfred Dowman died in 1936, Mrs Dowman practically gave the ship away fro 10 shillings, to the Thames Nautical Training College in 1938. Training ship Greenhithe Kent. The Thames Nautical Training College then passed the ship onto the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. It was moved to Greenhithe and moored alongside training resource HMS Worcester. During WW2 some nautical lectures were run on the Cutty Sark. Widow Dowman gave a grant of five thousand pounds at the time when she handed over the ship for its restoration and upkeep, she kept an interest in its welfare for the rest of her life. Coincidentally, one of the major forces behind promoting business ventures, expanding trade and industry in England at the time was Gladstone. Gladstone was MP for Greenwich prior to in years in office from 1868-1894.

rear of the cutty sark clipper
cutty sark flags

Who got involved in the restoration

Original Crew members: Captain C E Irving (apprentice 1885-1888) and Captain Richard J Woodget (apprentice1888-1892, Second Mate 1892-1893 and First Mate 1894-5) Plus a Carpenter of the ship.

They completed 2006-2012 Major restoration works.

What connection does it have to HRH  the Duke of Edinburgh?

1954 HRH Duke of Edinburgh laid the foundation stone at Greenwich. He was the patron of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society that established in 1953. Its aim was to bring the sailing ship to Greenwich as an attraction to visitors, a memorial to the merchant navy and sailing ship era.  Cutty Sark Made its last journey from East India Dock where it was being restored to Greenwich its resting place on 10 Dec 1954. The Duke became Baron of Greenwich and his previous career in the Navy always led him to a connection with ships.

When did it open to the public

25th June 1957 The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh opened the Ship to the Public.

Threats to the Cutty Sarks business model, the beginning of the end

The Suez Canal opened in 1869

1869 Cutty Sark was completed as was the Suez Canal. A Sailing ship could not use the Suez canal as there was no wind and it was narrow and so would need towing which would cost too much money. The Canal shortened the sailing time to China it was a shortcut. Sailing ships previously had to go all the way around Africa to get to China.

The Short cut enabled a direct route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Some may have thought what’s the point. People did not give up with sailing ships just because of the arrival of the Suez canal. It was uncertain when that would be taken over, and or if it would suffer a natural disaster. The other expectation is that the owners would bar certain people from using it or charge too much.

However, other Clippers were released at this time too. Duke of Abercorn, Blackadder, Caliph, Norman Court, Ambassador, Oberon, Doune Castle City of Hankow Glory of the Seas and Great Admiral.

The Sailing ship Thermopylae was about a year older, known for its marvel voyage of just taking 60 days to get to  Melbourne Australia.

White Star Lines –Aberdeen were just starting their first iron clipper ship. The Loch Line was building ships too. The Australian emigration demanded ships as did transatlantic passenger trips.

Documentary Dr  Helen Doe Maritime Historian, stated that 3000, 300 miles could be shaved off the Shanghai to London trip. It took 12 days extra to go around as Sailing ships had had to do before the shortcut of the Suez Canal.

Steam paddle ships

Replaced sailing ships slowly but there were pluses and minuses to using costly bulky coal which was its fuel. At the time  A steamship was not able to outdo the record journey that the Thermopylae set to Melbourne. Steamships were noisy and needed a certain amount of crew to tend to its engines and issues. Rumours had started that delicate cargo like tea would be affected by the fumes and inferior. Despite not much evidence to support this, as people continued to drink the deliveries from steamships. The other risk was that crew who worked by the coal fire engines would perish in hot climates like the Red Sea. The Firemen as they were called, with the most stamina were Liverpool Irishmen.

Steamers could make two trips a year and we’re starting to do more. Sailing ships did one.

Ships of Steam were also challenged in some areas, like the trip to Austalia and if they went too far they would need more coal than the ship could carry without it compromising space which is needed for cargo. Some weather conditions like monsoons would delay sailing ships, that did not affect the steamers.

Documentary mentioned that in 1870  Cutty Sark was one of about 50 Clipper sailing ships. Some 7 years later about 9 left.

They were doing Tea Hauls in 6 weeks.

Cutty Sark deck cargo door
cutty sark museum through the glass sea

Other Faster Clipper ships

Other downfalls of sailing ships

They had to earn more from cargo delivery than what its running costs to sail her.

Small uncomfortable bunks, that required men to curl up on one’s side and narrow so that they would not then fall out. The Watchers system where men would be on watch 4hrs then rests for 4 Hrs. many were tired and drowsy but there were punishments for those falling asleep on the job. “Riding the high mare”, being sent upon the highest rigging mast and dealing with the seas/weather. Or having unpleasant items dropped on them.

Problems the Gold Rush fever hard to get crew as soon as they ported men would dissert in search of gold and not return as crew.

The China Sea was not that well chartered, reefs, currents winds, seasons shallows all varied and were challenging. During storms bad weather when ships had to be moored or hang around for long periods of time waiting for cargo or the weather to change, ships could crash into each other and cause damage

Capacity, Cutty Sark being able to carry 1,200 tons of coal but ships carrying more than double this was, in the end, having problems in this paying off.

having to wait about in port for months for cargo to be ready, idle time wasting and costing money.

Standing in port empty for a fine sailing ship built for streamline speed meant it needed stability to stand strong, so Ballast ( material put on ships to provide stability) needed to be bought and then discarded.

Who were the rivals?

Thermopylae Ship owned by Walter Hood of the White Star Line. Launched in 1868. It sailed to Melbourne Australia in just 60 days. Captain Kemball

It had the edge in lighter wind

24 hrs distance 358 nautical miles 412 miles 663km.

This Captain had experience of the waterways and conditions and knew how to utilise these to his advantage. Especially of the South China Sea. He was noted as being fearless and had a crew who were in it to win it and knew their ship well. He was a master of Clippers so had a lot of experience. Kemball and his wife were not as popular as the Captain and his wife of the Cutty Sark.

Thermopylae kept going to Australia 1872 the voyage to Melbourne in 67 days as those seas winds were predictable and on the side of sailing ships. ( check data here 60-67)

Great Race between Cutty Sark and Thermopylae 1872 26th June from Shanghai China to London.

16th Aug 7 weeks into the race the Cutty Sark lost its Rudder of the coast of South Africa. On board, they did repairs. It arrived back in the UK 19th October 9 days after Thermopylae. They admired the crew of the Cutty Sark for the seamanship and ingenuity to repair whilst on onboard. John Willis gave the carpenter Henderson £50 for saving the sip.

Both ships were held in the fog for the first 3 days of the race

The ships were necked and neck.

At one point the Cutty Sark was in a 400 mile lead of the Thermopylae  before disaster struck

Once CuttySark got to the Indian Ocean this is where the Rudder broke due to a Gale which had ruined sails, which Thermopylae did not encounter. The makeshift rudder broke, they repaired it. Admired by many for the team effort and courage and skill to complete a repair job normally done in a dry dock and whilst they kept on sailing. Without the rudder, in those conditions, the ship was trying to roll under. They did not have wood large enough to make a new rudder on board either. Spare spars are what all ships carried so they had to use those.

Stowaways save the day

The Iron pintles broke off so they needed a new one of these too. The Main Carpenter of the Ship was a man named Henry Henderson. This job was ironwork, they needed a Blacksmith. By Chance, two stowaways were on board, one a young blacksmith, and the other a shipwright. According to the documentary on TV recently the Blacksmith was able to help the crew create an onboard Forge ( blacksmith workstation ) but because the workshop which you can still visit today was so small, they had to do much of this work on the outer deck, exposed to the elements. When water broke overboard they were suffering injury and toil. The Main Carpenter of the Ship was a man named Henry Henderson. CHECK WHO GOT THE REWARD  The reward was £50 in today’s money 5.5 grand.

The race was lost, Cutty Sark sailed in 7 days after Thermopylae had landed, but the public and all those in the shipping world admired the crew for their ability to do onboard repairs and keep sailing in treacherous conditions heroic.

Cutty-sark - rigging
cutty sark wooden deck
Cutty Sark life Bouy
cutty sark mascot


Didn’t it catch fire in Greenwich?

Yes, in 2007 but much of the original structure survived. Also, smaller fire in Oct of 2014.

What can I see on the Museum ship

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