Cutty Sark; survivor, once more

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Cutty Sark’s working life was rarely without incident. Carrying cargoes – from tea to toys – all over the world, she often enjoyed newspaper reports, noting her successes. But ten years ago, she hit the headlines once more for a far more devastating reason. 

In the early hours of 21st May 2007, a fire broke out. Flames spread through all three decks and reached temperatures of about 1000°C. The heat began to distort the ship’s iron frame and destroyed the protective canopy that had been recently installed. The prompt action of the London Fire Brigade brought the blaze under control and the fire was out by 9.00am. Distressing images and troubling headlines appeared in the world’s media: ‘The blackened Pearl’; ‘Shipwreck’; ‘Police suspect arsonist destroyed Cutty Sark’.

Plague on board Cutty Sark

But - and it’s a but that, for the staff of Cutty Sark, must be regularly emphasised – all was not lost. A survey completed in the 1990s had revealed that Cutty Sark’s hull was in a perilous state. Forty years resting in a dry dock and over fifteen million visitors had taken its toll on her frame. The decision was taken to close the ship and begin an extensive conservation project with an emphasis on preserving the ship’s original fabric. The project began in 2006 and by the time of the fire the vast majority of original material had already been stripped for conservation treatment elsewhere. We believe that less than five per cent of original fabric was lost in the fire. The blaze could have marked the end for the world’s sole surviving clipper. Thankfully it did not.

The damage, however, was extensive. A number of the hull planks, dating from 1869, were badly scorched; some of the original iron framework had buckled; all three decks were destroyed and the site was now hazardous and a crime scene. The decks had been installed in the 1930s and 1950s and so while undoubtedly a significant loss, did not mark a loss of historical integrity. The planks were treated and the iron framework straightened. The fire had released lead into the atmosphere and many, at the time, suspected an arson attack. An eighteen month police investigation was inconclusive but the probable cause was identified as a dust-extractor which had been left on and had over-heated. It took the support of countless donations and the Heritage Lottery Fund to complete the project. The ship, with the vast majority of her original fabric intact, reopened in April 2012. 

Cutty Sark after reopening in 2012

Since then, the fire has become part of Cutty Sark’s story. The ship that survived storms, mutiny, murder and two World Wars had also survived a great fire. Some of the buckled iron framework has been retained on the Lower Hold to demonstrate the temperatures endured. And a plaque marks the point at which the fire started and the ship entered another new chapter in her story.