Fascinating Facts About The Cutty Sark

The Last of the Fast Tea Clippers

01 of 02

Little Known Facts About The Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark in drydock
© Ferne Arfin

When the Cutty Sark, the world's last surviving tea clipper and a highlight of the Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site, reopened in 2012, not everyone was pleased. But visitors have voted with their feet and they love it.

After a devastating fire in 2007, London's most famous historic ship underwent £50 million of Heritage Lottery funded restoration and conservation. When it reopened in 2012, it's hull lifted and encased in glass - to both protect it and (for the first time) to make it visible to the public - the pundits were quick to pounce.

Andrew Gilligan, London editor of the Sunday Telegraph, said, "One of Britain's most precious maritime treasures now looks like it has run aground in a giant greenhouse." The Victorian Society declared that the restorers had "damaged" the historic ship. And an online building design website gave it their "Carbuncle Award" for the "Ugliest Building in the UK."

The Rest of Us Love It

The controversy arose because the ship had been lifted in her drydock by three meters (almost 10 feet) and supported by a metal frame to take all weight off her hull. From the outside, as pictured here, the Cutty Sark seems to float on a sea of glass. The move allowed visitors, for the first time, to see yellow metal (Munz metal) clad hull and to explore fascinating museum before actually boarding the ship. 

Despite all the criticism, the Cutty Sark has remained popular with visitors who make their way to her drydock in Greenwich. In 2015, TripAdvisor visitors voted her a Certificate of Excellence.

A Phoenix of a Ship

  • Built and launched in Scotland in 1869, she carried tea from China to London between 1870 and 1877. By the 1880s, she was carrying wool from Australia. That's when her reputation for speed was achieved. Taking advantage of the high speed winds along the route from Australia that sailors call the "roaring trades", she set a record of 73 days on the Sydney to London Route.
  • Sold to a Portuguese company and renamed the Ferreira, she transported cargoes around Europe, Africa and the Americas from 1895 to 1922.
  • In 1916, during WWI, she lost her masts in a storm and limped into port in South Africa where, because of a shortage of masts and sail, she was re-rigged as a smaller-masted, slower barquentine.
  • In 1922, the Ferreira was damaged once again in a Channel gale and called into Falmouth for repairs. While she was there, a retired Windjammer captain, Wilfred Dowman, who had trained on the Cutty Sark, recognized her and set out to buy her. He had to chase her back to Portugal because she had been sold again and renamed the Maria do Amparo. But in 1922, he brought her back to Falmouth and restored her.
  • She served as a training ship there and in Kent before sailing up the Thames to her present drydock in 1952. The voyage from Falmouth to Greenhithe in Kent, in 1938, was the last time she went to sea.
02 of 02

Who or What Was Cutty Sark?

The Cutty Sark Under Glass
Ferne Arfin

So why is the newly restored Cutty Sark called that? And what does Cutty Sark mean anyway?

A cutty-sark is a lowland Scots word for a woman's short shift — an item of Victorian underwear, actually. In Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter, the witch Nannie, who steals the tail of Tam's horse Maggie, wears a cutty-sark. One theory is that John "Jock" Willis, the original owner of the Cutty Sark was making a reference to the way Nannie flies before the wind, her cutty-sark waving behind her - he wanted the Cutty Sark to be the fastest ship on the seas and win the annual race to bring the new tea from China. But the truth is, no one really knows what he had in mind when he chose the name or made Nannie in her nightie the ship's figurehead.

About That Whisky

Around about 1923, one of the principals of the famous London wine merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd, was meeting with some Scots merchants to talk about whisky for the American market. They were sure Prohibition would end soon and wanted to create a blended whisky specifically for the American taste, to be ready for the demand. At the time, the almost miraculous return of the Cutty Sark to Britain was in all the newspapers. It was famous; it was talked about, and soon it was also a whisky.

The End of the Tea Clippers

Most people think that the coming of steam ships in the 19th century marked the end of the great clipper ships because they were faster. In fact the story is a bit more complicated than that. For many years, the clippers were faster than the early steamships — they were called clippers because they could fly across the seas at such a great "clip."

It was the opening of the Suez canal that brought about the end of the tea trade for the great clipper ships. The Mediterranean was never really suitable for the large sailing vessels. And they simply could not cope with the canal nor find enough wind in the Red Sea. To reach China, they had to take the long route around the Horn of Africa and, for that, steamships, which could keep to a schedule through the canal, were quicker. But interestingly, most of the speed records set by the greatest clippers were achieved in the wool trade between Australia and Liverpool. For that, they were still much faster than steamships for many years. Donald McKay's clipper, Lightening, made it from Melbourne to Liverpool in 67 days.

To plan a visit to the Cutty Sark, check its website.

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