With steamers taking over the tea trade, Cutty Sark's owners had to find a new future for the ship - but it was far from plain sailing.
Cutty Sark successfully collected her last Chinese tea cargo in 1877. In December of that year, the ship departed London bound for Sydney for a coal cargo, and then went onto Shanghai. Arriving at China in April 1878, the ship’s master, Captain Tiptaft, could not consign a tea cargo.
By this time, the Suez Canal had opened and steam ships had arrived on the market. The Canal gave steam ships a quick, direct route from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea, while the sailing ships were unable to access the Canal because of their reliance on the trade winds that gusted around the coast of Africa.
Unable to find a tea cargo, Captain Tiptaft died at Shanghai in October 1878. His First Mate, James Wallace, was promoted to the command of Cutty Sark.
With tea no longer available, the ship started to take different cargoes around the world. For example, she took coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881.
In 1880, the ship’s First Mate, Sidney Smith, by all accounts a bully and disliked by the crew, killed (with considerable provocation) seaman John Francis. Smith was confined to quarters, but at Anjer in Indonesia, Captain Wallace helped Smith escape. The crew, incensed, downed tools and refused to work leaving just six apprentices and four tradesmen to sail the ship. On 5 September the ship was becalmed in the Java Sea for three days. With the guilt, lack of winds, steaming heat and the realisation that his career was finished, Wallace jumped overboard. A rescue attempt was mounted, but there was no sign of Wallace – only sharks circling where he had last been spotted.
To make matters worse, on arrival at Anjer, William Bruce was transferred from the Hallowe’en and appointed Master of Cutty Sark. By all accounts, Bruce was an incompetent, drunken master who connived with the Mate to remove the expensive Australian crew members, pocketing their wages. He was also negligent, failing to pick up enough provisions, resulting in the crew becoming half starved. On arrival at New York in April 1882, it appears that an inquiry was held into the conduct of the Master and the First Mate, resulting in them being suspended from service, and the crew were given a discharge.
As a result, Captain F. Moore and his Mate were transferred from the Blackadder to Cutty Sark and it was under his command that the ship embarked upon her most successful period of working life.