Cutty Sark was built in 1869 in Scott & Linton’s shipyard in Dumbarton on the banks of the river Leven, a tributary of the Clyde. On leaving the Clyde after her launch, she went on to journey up rivers across the world throughout her working life, but it was the river Thames that was to play a most significant part in the ship’s story.
From her maiden voyage in 1870 to her final journey under the Red Ensign in 1895, London was the ship’s home port of Registry. Cutty Sark loaded and unloaded her cargoes in London’s Docks, usually East India Docks, just a couple of miles downriver from her current berth in Greenwich. Steam paddle tugs towed and guided ships such as Cutty Sark along the Thames to and from the sea until they could reach open water and a substantial amount of sail could be set.
While in the tea trade, Cutty Sark loaded her cargo in Shanghai, 12 miles up the river Whampoa but on several voyages she also loaded tea in Hankou which required a 586-mile tow up the Yangtze River to reach the major tea centre.
In 1895, the ship was sold to a Portuguese company – Ferreira & Company – and her registered home port changed to Lisbon. She would frequently be seen in the estuary of the river Tagus before loading general cargo in Lisbon destined for the Portuguese colonies of Angola or Mozambique. However, in 1919 and again at the very end of 1921 Ferreira ex Cutty Sark called at London where she was still recognised as the famous fast ship that had made her name with record-breaking passages back from Australia in the 1880s and 1890s. According to Basil Lubbock, in 1919 she “had scarcely made fast in dock before Cutty Sark enthusiasts, newspaper reporters and press photographers began to clamber about her decks.”
In 1922, the ship was brought back to Britain by Captain Dowman and after 16 years in Falmouth Cutty Sark returned to the Thames once more, this time to be used as a training ship alongside HMS Worcester to train cadets from the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College. Eventually, a long-term home for the ship was secured in Greenwich and she arrived at her permanent berth in December 1954.
Cutty Sark has been an established part of the London skyline for 60 years and her position in Greenwich, overlooking the river she served for so many years is a fitting reminder of the capital’s great maritime heritage and of the days when ships like Cutty Sark were a frequent sight on the Thames. During the 2015 Totally Thames festival, come on board and find out more about Cutty Sark and London’s river with a curator’s talk ‘Cutty Sark and the Thames’ every Wednesday in September at 3pm, free with admission.