Shipkeepers in Action: The Star of India

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Every month, Documentations Officer Claire Denham takes us behind the scenes at Cutty Sark, to give us an insight into the important daily research, documentation and maintenance work that keeps Cutty Sark preserved for many future generations to come.

The Star of India is the gilded centre piece emblazed on the stern of the ship, but what is it and how did it get there?

The origins of the Star of India begin in 1861. It was decided by the British Crown to create a new Order of knighthood to honour Princes, Chiefs, British officers and administrators who served in India. The need to cement good relations between Britain and India was paramount after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and subsequent direct rule from Westminster the following year.

The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India was founded by Queen Victoria on 25th June 1861. The Order was the most senior Order of chivalry associated with the Indian Empire, having three classes. It has been dormant since 1948.

Star of India being gilded

The association with the Cutty Sark and the Star of India begins with the naval frigate Punjaub.  Built in 1854 by Cursetjee Rustomjee and designed by Oliver Lang at the Bombay Dockyard for the Indian Marine of The East India Company. The Star of India was apparently mounted on her stern sometime between 1861-1862, perhaps to honour the newly commissioned Order. Punjaub set sail for London in February 1862, being put out of commission on her arrival. The Punjaub was purchased that year by John Willis & Sons and re-named The Tweed.

The story goes that Willis was so impressed with his new ship; The Tweed, that he wanted Cutty Sark  (built 7 years later) to have the same emblem of the Star of India on her stern. We can only surmise that the star was copied or taken from Willis’s favourite ship ‘The Tweed ‘. The Order had no known affiliation with Willis, but its motto could not be more fitting for a ship navigating by the sun and stars: ‘Heaven’s light our guide’.    

From photographic archives we can clearly see the Star of India on the stern of the ship during her days under the British Ensign. From 1895-1957 the star is missing from the ship due to new ownership. It was absent until 1957, when new documents and a replica star were uncovered, from this a new star was carved during the 1950’s restoration.

During conservation work this year, it was discovered that the star was badly rotted internally, unfortunately beyond repair. This was a disappointment, but gave us the unique opportunity to carve a new one. Subsequent research uncovered that the current design of the star had no real historic connection with the ship.

The Star on Cutty Sark's stern
The Star on Cutty Sark's stern

A new design was found in a grainy image from 1872, outlining the stern of the ship, there in the middle was the Star of India. This is the design which was decided upon; being the first time since the 1890’s that an accurate depiction of the star has been on Cutty Sark.

The star is currently being fitted to the stern of the ship, by our team of ship keepers, so come down and see for the first time in 130 years a true portrayal of the star that John Willis loved so much.