Catharine Dowman and the preservation of Cutty Sark

There are few influential female figures in Cutty Sark’s story but one notable character is Catharine Dowman, née Courtauld.

Who was Catharine Dowman?

Catharine was born in 1878, the fourth child of Sydney Courtauld, a crepe and silk manufacturer and part of the well-known Courtauld family who established one of the leading textile companies in Great Britain.

Catharine and her sister Sydney Renée sailed on the Port Jackson in 1912, two of the three passengers on the cadet training ship where they met Wilfred Dowman who was Mate on the voyage.  Catharine and Wilfred fell in love, despite the fact that Wilfred was already married. In 1918, Catharine changed her surname to Dowman by deed poll; later that year his wife Nellie initiated divorce proceedings and Catharine and Wilfred were finally married in 1920.

Wilfred Dowman

Catharine the suffragist

Catharine and her sister were actively involved in the suffragist movement in the early years of the 20th century. Indeed, Catharine put her artistic talents towards supporting the propaganda war, examples of which can be seen in the Museum of London collection.

Saving Cutty Sark

Catharine and her family utilised their wealth for many philanthropic activities and when Wilfred Dowman spotted Ferreira off the coast of Falmouth in 1922 and recognised the vessel as the old clipper ship Cutty Sark, it was undoubtedly Catharine’s financial position which enabled the couple to purchase the ship.  They sold off a considerable proportion of their estate, including a brigantine, the Lady of Avenal which they used for training young cadets wishing to pursue a career in the Merchant Navy. Their vision for Cutty Sark was that she similarly should be put to use as a cadet training vessel.

Image of Cutty Sark at Falmouth, 1924 - 1938
Cutty Sark at Falmouth, 1924 - 1938
Wilfred and Catharine paid over the odds to buy Cutty Sark from her Portuguese owners– they paid £3,750 for the vessel, much more than the commercial value of the ship – but in so doing saved Cutty Sark from obscurity and ensured her continued survival beyond the life of a cargo carrying vessel. Over the next two years, the Dowmans funded the restoration of the ship and by 1924 Cutty Sark was proudly displayed as the flagship at the Fowey Regatta on completion of the restoration work.

For 16 years, Cutty Sark was moored in Falmouth and was not only used to train cadets but was also the first historic ship to be open to visitors since Francis Drake’s Golden Hind was exhibited off Deptford in 1580. On Wilfred Dowman’s death in 1936, Catharine was keen for the ship to continue to be used for sail training purposes and in 1938 ‘sold’ Cutty Sark (for a nominal ten shillings) to the Thames Nautical Training College. The vessel was to be moored alongside HMS Worcester in Greenhithe and Mrs Dowman presented £5,000 to the College towards the vessel’s upkeep.

Catharine continued to follow Cutty Sark’s story with interest, last visiting the ship in 1968 having just celebrated her 90th birthday.