Ship Keepers in Action: The Ship’s Wheel & Steering Gear Housing

The ship's wheel is one of the most recognisable parts of Cutty Sark, it is also one of the most photographed items on-board. But its popularity can also be its downfall. 

By Claire Denham, Documentation Officer

Millions of pairs of hands have touched the wheel since her time in Greenwich and it is now in need of some much needed TLC. The housing for the steering gear, name board and stand are also in need of attention; all these elements will be removed and refurbished during the course of the year.

The wheel, steering gear housing and stand we see today are not the originals. The original wheel was on the ship we believe from her launch till her time in Greenhithe/Greenwich, around 80 years or so. Whilst the steering gear housing was replaced in the 1920s, the name boards were also introduced at this time, with the ornate stand that the housing sits on, replaced during her time in Greenhithe (in the 1940s) to a rather less decorative design.

One of the earliest images we have is during her time in Australia in 1885. Two ladies visited the ship a Mrs Holborrow and Mrs Lipman, probably one of the first tourist snaps on the Cutty Sark!

Image of Holborrow and Lipman on Cutty Sark, 1885
The first tourist snap aboard Cutty Sark? Mrs Holborrow and Mrs Lipman in 1885

When the ship came to Falmouth the original wheel, housing and stand were still there. Captain Woodget visited the ship in 1924 taking his position at a weather beaten wheel. The housing had been painted white during her Ferreira days, hiding the once highly maintained teak finish. Within a few years, this was replaced by a new design, which can be seen on the ship today.

When she came to Greenhithe, it was observed by HMS Worcester cadet Jim Crawshaw in 1951, ‘I went aboard Cutty Sark a few times and I still have a bit of the wheel which lay in a heap under the skeleton poop,’ indicating the wheel had probably seen better days by that point.

In the 1950s restoration, apprentice John Dodge who worked for R.H. Green & Siley Weir assisted in making a new wheel out of teak. It is a copy of the original wheel which unfortunately disappeared at this time. The replica, which is now 62 years old, can be seen on the poop deck of the ship.

The lids of the steering gear housing are currently being refurbished in our workshop, with other elements of the wheel soon to follow, so keep an eye out for our newly refurbished deck furniture!   

Image of Captain Woodget at the ship's wheel, Cutty Sark
Captain Woodget at ship's wheel, Falmouth c.1924