Cutty Sark - 149 years of history

Read about the eventful history of the world's only surviving tea clipper as it approaches 150 years old.

22 November 1869: the launch of Cutty Sark

1869 was an eventful year for Cutty Sark. Cutty Sark began 1869 as words on a page, an agreement between John Willis, the owner, and Scott & Linton, the builders, and by 22nd November, was launched at Dumbarton in Scotland.

Serving the tea trade

Cutty Sark was initially built to join the already highly competitive tea trade, between Britain and China, one of many merchant vessels carrying more than 100 million pounds of tea to feed the British market.

 Cutty Sark in a Chinese Harbour by G. Geidel © Cutty Sark
Cutty Sark in a Chinese Harbour by G. Geidel © Cutty Sark

Going at a clip

The design of ‘clipper’ ships, like Cutty Sark, with long, narrow hulls often made of a light-yet-sturdy composite of wood and iron, sharp bows and a large sail area, were beneficial in this fast-paced trade, as they could ‘go at a clip’, or move quickly through the water, without sacrificing too much space for their valuable cargo.

The decline of the tea clipper

However, Cutty Sark’s launch in November 1869 had also coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal. Greatly reducing the voyage time between Britain and China, the canal was only open to steamships, which soon became the favoured transport for time-sensitive and valuable commodities like tea.

Bringing Australian wool to Britain

Having seen the availability of tea to sailing vessels dry up, Cutty Sark spent some time ‘tramping’, travelling between ports across the world, from China to India, Australia to the USA, carrying a variety of different cargoes they found in each port, before eventually settling in the wool trade, bringing Australia’s main export back to Britain, fuelling the Yorkshire mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Circular Quay, Sydney, with the 'Cutty Sark' loading wool
Circular Quay, Sydney, with the 'Cutty Sark' loading wool

Speeding ahead

It was also during this time that Cutty Sark achieved its fastest voyages. The fastest was the passage between Sydney and London in just 73 days, and was able, under a skilled captain and crew, to reach a best-recorded speed of 17.5 knots, establishing its reputation as one of the quickest ships in the trade.

A new life

In 1895, Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese company and renamed Ferreira then later Maria do Amparo, completing a wide variety of voyages from Portugal to USA, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil and Barbados, amongst many others, until 1922, even surviving the loss of most of its crew to conscription in the First World War.

Portuguese on board 'Ferreira' (previously known as 'Cutty Sark') 1921
Portuguese on board 'Ferreira' (previously known as 'Cutty Sark') 1921

Saved for the nation

Having been damaged on the way from London to Lisbon, Cutty Sark called in at Falmouth for repairs, where it was seen by Captain Wilfred Dowman, who recognised the ship from his time as an apprentice and believed it should be saved for the nation. Paying well over the odds at £3750, Captain Dowman, jointly with his wife Catharine (nee Courtauld), bought and restored the ship. Renamed Cutty Sark, to widespread press coverage, the ship became a training ship for cadets in the merchant service, and a local visitor attraction.

Following Dowman’s death, Catharine Dowman ‘sold’ the ship to the Thames Nautical Training College in Greenhithe, Kent, for 10 shillings and donated £5000 for upkeep. Moored alongside HMS Worcester, Cutty Sark continued to provide accommodation and training opportunities for merchant and Royal Naval cadets throughout World War Two.

Image of Cutty Sark at Falmouth, 1924 - 1938
Cutty Sark at Falmouth, 1924 - 1938

Preserving Cutty Sark

As the college could no longer make use of the ship, 1951 saw Cutty Sark moored at Deptford as part of the Festival of Britain. Frank Carr, the then Director of the National Maritime Museum, with the patronage of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, established the Cutty Sark Preservation Society in 1953, to install the ship permanently in Greenwich as a memorial to the Merchant Navy and as an icon of Britain’s mercantile sailing past. Following major restorative work, Cutty Sark opened to visitors in 1957.

Cutty Sark today

Despite a fire in 2007, the vast majority of Cutty Sark’s original structure has endured, aided by the intensive conservation project from 2006-2012, which has ensured the ship’s ongoing survival for generations to come.

As we near Cutty Sark’s 150th anniversary in 2019, we look forward to celebrating and exploring this ship’s long and fascinating history, with a whole range of exciting events and activities throughout the coming year.  

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