History of Cutty Sark

Delve into the fascinating story of Cutty Sark - the record-breaking tea clipper which has travelled the globe and visited every major world port and is now an award-winning visitor attraction in Greenwich. 2019 is the ship's 150th anniversary. 

Beginnings and tea 

Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton in 1869.

Cutty Sark’s first voyage began on 16 February 1870. The ship was bound for Shanghai, with 1,305,812 lbs of tea on board. That’s the equivalent of about 47 double decker buses! After successfully making it to China, the ship’s first voyage ended with a return to London on 13 October 1870.

Cutty Sark completed eight trips to China for tea. It was not during this time however that the ship became the fastest tea clipper.

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Murder and Mutiny

As steam ships came in and the Suez Canal opened, Cutty Sark had to find other goods to transport.

Cutty Sark collected her last Chinese tea cargo in 1877. From this point on, the Cutty Sark crew was thrown into turmoil.

A new captain and a first mate who was a bully led to unhappiness amongst the crew. The ship took different cargoes around the world, from coal to Australian mail.

First mate Sidney Smith killed seaman John Francis. He was confined but the captain helped him escape. The crew went on strike in anger, and a lack of winds found the crew becalmed in the Java Sea for three days.

Before long, Captain Wallace realised his career was finished. He jumped overboard, and his body was lost.

Despite this period of turmoil, it resulted in a new captain and first mate, who would bring the ship into its most successful period of working life.

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Fastest ship and success

As Cutty Sark moved into its teenage years, it was the most successful period as a cargo ship. Transporting wool from Australia saw it sail faster than every ship at the time by 25 days to a month.

In 1885 Captain Woodget became the Master. In order to catch the Roaring Forties trade winds, encountering some of the most violent gales and seas on earth, Woodget would travel further south than any previous commander. Woodget was also a keen photographer and he has left many striking images of the ship passing icebergs as well as shots of her in Sydney harbour. 

In the 1890s Cutty Sark began to make less and less money, as more steam ships moved into the wool trade. Eventually the ship was sold to a Portuguese firm.

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Renamed and returned 

During this period Cutty Sark was renamed Ferreira. She was used as a cargo ship, transporting goods between Portugal and its empire.

When Portugal declared war on Germany, the ship was in constant danger of being sunk. Despite surviving this unscathed, the ship suffered damage during particularly bad weather. As a result it was converted into a sailing ship.

Retired captain William Dowman became determined to buy the ship. He was so determined that he offered a price of £3750 – more than what the ship was worth even in 1895. Her old name was restored in 1923, and she returned to British ownership.

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Up to present 

Dowman restored the ship to her state as a tea and wool clipper, an expensive and impressive feat. The ship was used as a training ship for cadets during these years.

When Dowman died his wife gifted it to the Thames Nautical Training College. Cutty Sark was used as a training ship in Greenhithe until the 1950s. The Cutty Sark Society was formed in order to save the ship, patronised by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh

In 1954 the ship was towed into a Greenwich. Restoration work meant the ship was restored to its former glory. It opened to the public in 1957. In 2007 a fire damaged three of Cutty Sark’s decks. Thanks to an outpouring of public support and the Heritage Lottery Fund, Cutty Sark was restored and reopened in 2012.

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