Find out more about the ship's history and the stories of the people who sailed Cutty Sark into the record books.

In brief: the story of Cutty Sark

Tap the arrows to explore the ship's history, from its early years in the China tea trade to its later life at the heart of Greenwich.

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When was Cutty Sark built? 

Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton in 1869. Cutty Sark’s first voyage departed London on 15 February 1870, bound for Shanghai. On this outward voyage, the ship carried a general cargo, including wine, spirits and beer and manufactured goods. After successfully reaching China on 31 May, the ship was loaded with 1,305,812 lbs of tea. Following only 25 days in port in Shanghai, the ship sped back to London arriving on 13 October the same year.

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Why did Cutty Sark stop trading tea?

With the arrival of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, Cutty Sark had to find other goods to transport. Cutty Sark collected its last Chinese tea cargo in 1877. From this point on, Cutty Sark crew was thrown into turmoil.

A new captain, James Wallace, took over command of the ship. His first mate Sidney Smith was a bully which led to unhappiness amongst the crew. The ship took different cargoes around the world, from coal to Australian mail.

Sidney Smith killed seaman John Francis and 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.

What records did Cutty Sark break?

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 and make the ship travel faster, Woodget travelled further south than any previous commander, tackling the most violent gales and seas on earth. Woodget was also a keen photographer and he has left many striking images of the ship passing icebergs as well as shots of the ship in Sydney harbour. 

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

What happened after Cutty Sark was sold?

During this period Cutty Sark was renamed Ferreira. It 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 Wilfred Dowman became determined to buy the ship.

He was so determined that he offered a price of £3,750 – more than what the ship was worth even in 1895. The old name was restored in 1923, and Cutty Sark returned to British ownership.

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Why has Cutty Sark survived?

Dowman restored the ship to its 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, supported by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.

Cutty Sark at Greenwich

In 1954 the ship was towed into Greenwich. Extensive restoration work followed, and Cutty Sark was finally 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, the ship was restored and reopened in 2012.

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Woodget at ship's wheel

Cutty Sark's captains

The ship had seven captains, all of whom had to pass stringent examinations to become a master-mariner
Cutty Sark facts
  • Cutty Sark cost £16,150 when it was first built
  • The area of all of the sails when out is 32,000 square foot.
  • There are 11 miles of rigging altogether.
  • The main mast is 153 feet high.
  • The hull has a copper and zinc alloy on it. This is to keep things like seaweed, barnacles and molluscs away and unable to burrow into the ship. Copper bleeds into the water, and so this stops these creatures from being able to get a grip.
  • Cutty Sark was opened twice by Queen Elizabeth II. Once in 1957, and again for its reopening in 2012.
  • Cutty Sark held the record for fastest journey from England to Australia for ten years.
  • The ship’s motto was ‘When there’s a Willis away’.

Watch Nannie being restored

The figurehead of 'Nannie' you can see on the ship today is actually a replica, made in 1957.

Now a new figurehead has been commissioned, aiming to reflect the beauty of the original figurehead and celebrate the art of ship's carving.

Find out more

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