01 September 2012

Cutty Sark: Chinese Tea and Australian Wool

The docks brought growing international trade to and from Britain during the C19th, including near Greenwich. Captain John Wills wanted a sailing ship built in 1868, specifically to win the annual race from Shanghai to London’s East India Docks. The Chinese tea tr­ade was already lucrative, but how much more prestigious if a clip­per could bring the freshest tea back to Britain, in the shortest time.

Prestigious and handsome. The construction of the Cutty Sark went ahead with the best materials and the best designers. Teak panelling filled the officers’ cabins and gold was added onto the carvings to highlight the sculptor’s craft.

Perhaps the tea races were wastefully expensive, but the clippers really WERE the fastest commercial sailing ships ever built. Capt Wills wanted his ship, the Cutty Sark, to be the fastest and most famous of all the clippers.

Cutty Sark in Greenwich today. Photo from the National Maritime Museum. 

Cutty Sark was launched on the Scottish Clyde in Nov 1869! Capt Will’s timing was both perfect and risky. The Suez Canal opened in November 1869, enabling ships to use the Mediterranean Sea and the Canal, instead of the long trip around the Cape of Good Hope. But clippers were designed to make best use of the strong trade winds around the African coast route. They could use the shorter route through the canal and Red Sea, but they lost their great advantage.

In any case, fame comes and fame goes. By the mid 1870s, steamships were replacing the old clippers and the last tea shipment left China in 1877.

In December 1877 the ship sailed from London to Sydney, where she took on coal for Shanghai. However, the ship was unable to find any cargo of tea for a return trip to London; the days of the tea race were over. The ship now had to scramble to take different cargoes around the world.

The Cutty Sark in Twinings Tea advertisement

By the early 1880s, Cutty Sark’s tragedy in the Chinese tea business had turned into a delight for Australian wool traders. Australian wool was the finest in the world, and magnificent wool stores, auction houses and customs offices popped up all over Geelong and other Australian wool sites. The wool needed to arrive in Britain in time to be involved in the annual January-February wool sales. Cutty Sark was the fastest and most dominant ship on the Australian wool trade for ten years; life was good.

History repeated itself when steamships eventually began to dominate the wool trade as well. Cutty Sark ceased to be profitable and in 1895 she was sold to a Portuguese firm. The ship traded various cargoes between Portugal, all its colonies and Britain - at least until World War One.

Cutty Sark loading wool in Sydney Harbour 1880s. Photo: National Maritime Museum. 

She was purchased in 1922 by Captain Wilfred Dowman at Falmouth Harbour after undergoing repairs. On Capt Dowman's death in 1938, his widow made a gift of the clipper to the Thames Nautical Training College. For the half century after 1938, Cutty Sark stood in dry dock in Greenwich where she became a famous London landmark and a precious relic from Britain’s maritime history. In 1951, the Festival of Britain  showed how important it was to save this gracious old lady.

The ship had clearly become rather decayed over the decades and new efforts to preserve the Cutty Sark began in 2004. What a catastrophe it was when the ship was accidentally set on fire in 2007. It probably would have been cheaper to build the boat anew, but since much of the historic timber works had already been removed for conservation work, the Cut­ty Sark was once again restored with most of its original fittings.

Master's quarters, restored

How appropriate that the Queen could re-open the Cutty Sark during her Diamond Jubilee Year. The ship was suspended in a metal apparat­us, 3 metres above the dry dock; this relieves stress on her hull. But it also allows visitors UNDER the 1000 tonne ship, to examine the innovative design that made the Cutty Sark one of the fastest vessels afloat in 1869.


Andrew said...

I had not heard of the restoration, let alone her re-opening, nor she being used in Australia. A very interesting slice of history.

Hels said...


Greenwich is one of my favourite parts of London so I knew the ship and other facilities very well. China and tea were always discussed in detail, but somehow the connection with Australia was never mentioned. Or I forgot.

Parnassus said...

I never knew most of the background history of this iconic ship. I strongly regret that I never saw it when I was in England, which would have been before the fire and recent restoration, which does looks glorious.

The story of the tea clippers strongly reminded me of Mark Twain's autobiographical Life on the Mississippi, in which he describes the riverboats in similar terms--the competition, the races, and the elaborate construction and decoration.
--Road to Parnassus

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
We first had the opportunity to go over the Cutty Sark many, many years ago and so were appalled to learn of the fire which all but destroyed her a few years back. As an important piece of history, particularly relating to the tea trade of the C19, it is very reassuring to know that she has been fully restored and is, once more, open to visitors.

It is, we feel, something of a pity that she is now suspended, but can appreciate the reasons why.

Don001 said...

Three trips to London and i've never seen it.... I hang my head in shame :-(

Deb said...


I had never heard of Captain Richard Woodget in my life. Then this week his name was mentioned on Sydney radio.

Hels said...


*nod* there must have been something very exciting in the late 19th century about seeing ships coming and going, busy ports, cargo in sheds and wharf labourers. Mark Twain could have been describing the Sydney scene of the 1880s, to a T.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I would rather have all my wisdom teeth removed with a nail file.. than stand underneath a suspended ship. And although I think a ship should sit in water, I too understand why it was done that way.

The fire must have been a nightmare.

Hels said...


London has so much to see that you could live there for years and still not cover everything that you are passionate about. However the joy of blogging is that people help you create a list of sites that you might want to visit on the next trip. Or the trip after that.

Hels said...


what a great name: Capt Woodget. He was captain of the Cutty Sark during its very successful career in Australia. Isn't blogging great :)

ChrisJ said...

A beautiful cutter. Didn't she take spirits to China? - of the blended Scotch variety, not the souls of people variety!

My uncle is the retired master of a Coast Guard cutter and admits that one of his secret fantasies was that he was captain of the Cutty Sark.

Hels said...


The Historical Naval Ships Association agrees with you. They say that the last of the extreme clipper ships were indeed built for the tea trade. But the tea was only shipped in one direction: from China to Britain. So in 1870-1878 she completed 8 trips with cargoes of wine, spirit and beer on the outward trip i.e from Britain to China.

I knew about Cutty Sark Whiskey, but I didn't include it in the post, just in case it was a whiskey company merely cashing in on the fame of the Cutty Sark ship. As a whiskey drinker myself, I thank you :)

Anonymous said...

Anyone on the lookout for a good quality model of the Cutty Sark take a look here: http://classicsails.com.au/products/cutty-sark

Hels said...

thank you. The model looks impressive.