Cutty Sark was built for a single purpose – to transport tea from China to London as quickly as possible. She worked in the trade from 1870 to 1877. 

This is how 18-year old Able Seaman William Parker might have remembered her arrival in Shanghai on her maiden voyage in 1870.

William Parker: My name is William Parker and I was eighteen, the youngest of the crew, when I shipped aboard Cutty Sark on her maiden voyage – just eighteen. We left London on the eleventh of February 1870 and reached Shanghai on the last day of May.

We’d brought a general cargo out from London, mostly beer, wine and spirits for the Europeans and Americans living in Shanghai. There was no quayside in any of the Chinese ports and only a couple of tiny piers, so we anchored right there in the Huangpu river. We furled all the sails in a proper harbour stow, squared the yards to a nicety, hauled taut all the ropes, got the accommodation ladder over the side…. and before we knew it there were swarms and swarms of people all over the main deck. It took the local dockers just a day to unload everything from the hold into their small sampans and row the goods to the shore.

But not long after we’d moored,  a few of us were standing by the fo’c’s’le door, smoking our pipes, when one big Chinese man, with a young lady by his side, came up to us. “Every morning” he says “Breakfast time, sampan come alongside. Got eggs, sugar bread, everything got. All number one. Please write name in book.” And he produced a stubby pencil and a very mangy looking memorandum book for us each to open an account with him.

He told us his name was Ah Chang Loon, but this was too difficult for my crew mates to pronounce. He just shrugged his shoulders and said “Maskee, maskee”, which means Who cares? “You can call me what you like”.  So we decided to call him Johnson.

But every morning Johnson’s boat came alongside and we got bread, eggs and fruit. And sometimes a bottle of square o’ – Dutch gin – found its way into the fo’c’s’le. And sometimes there would be oysters at sixpence a hundred. They were small but delicious.

I was head over heels in love with Miss Johnson. She was a jolly girl and she and old Johnson were the crew of the sampan, so I saw her every day. It was rather unfortunate to discover later that she was not his daughter.

Our captain, Captain Moodie, was off every day speaking to the agents about our tea cargo as we all wanted to get loaded and away as fast as we could. But we had to wait, and we spent every day polishing the brass work, honing the deck or touching up the paint on the ship’s sides. We were one of a dozen British clippers in Shanghai that season and every man on them wanted their vessel to look the smartest. And to be the fastest. We were so confident in our brand new ship that we pulled together twenty pounds between us to bet against the crew of the Serica that we’d be back in London before them.

Before you can take a tea cargo on board though, you have to make sure the hold has been well ventilated – tea doesn’t care for moisture. And you have to be careful what you carry with it. There used to be a big trade in rhubarb from China, but as few as twenty chests of it can ruin a whole ship-full of tea. Same with silk – it holds the moisture – so you have to be careful of how you stow it. The weather was good so we could keep all three hatches open. Normally we would have whitewashed the hold too, but this was a new ship that had only taken a clean cargo, so we were spared that.

Because a tea cargo is so light, we needed new ballast to be loaded – clean river stones. You don’t want them to be too porous, again because of the moisture. Granite is the best.  And finally we saw the big sampans come down the river, very low in the water and almost sinking with the weight of tea chests.

There’s no body of men on earth who can fill a hold as full as a team of Chinese dockers. I wouldn’t normally bother to watch cargo being loaded, but this was a sight to behold.  First, they brought in boards to cover the ballast they carefully levelled.  They worked out exactly how many tea chests they could cram in using their measuring rods. Then chests came pouring in, along with sacks of small stones. It looked like chaos, but they were very methodical. First they brought in chests of the cheapest teas and arranged lines of them right down the middle of the ship from bow to stern. Then they used the small stones to fill in the gaps between the chests and the sides of the ship. Huge mallets knocked the chests into place. This was the lowest tier and the dockers then just added more and more tiers of chests. Every couple of tiers they laid more boards to give themselves a level surface and sometimes they would also add a layer of split bamboo matting. On the very uppermost layer, on the ’tween deck, they used canvas as well as a covering. This stopped any leaks from the main deck getting into the cargo. But a drop of water is about all that could have got in: she was packed solid. Of course you don’t want a cargo to move, or it can sink you. In three days the dockers had loaded over ten thousand chests, with another two thousand half chests filling up the smaller spaces.

Three days later we were ready to sail and took our leave of Mr Johnson and the person I now understood to be Mrs Johnson. We were the first ship to get away from Shanghai that year and 110 days later we were unloading the ship in London, in the East India Docks. And we won our bet –the Serica didn’t arrive for another 11 days. It’s sad to recall that, just a couple of years later, she was wrecked in the South China Sea and all hands, except one, were lost.

Announcer: This is just one of the many stories of Cutty Sark that you can explore on the ship. She is now permanently docked in Greenwich, just 20 minutes from the centre of London. Come on board and discover why she is one of the most famous ships in the world.