First launched on the 22th November 1869, the Cutty Sark is the world’s last surviving tea clipper. It’s kind of a big deal. (In England anyway…)
With its home in the Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cutty Sark has been through some rough times. After getting some money from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2006, things took a terrible turn when in 2007 a fire devasted the historic ship. Many thought that salvage was impossible. But good fortune prevailed and the ship was reopened to the public on April 25th 2012. Hurrah!
With over 143 years of life behind her, there’s probably no end to the stories that surround the Cutty Sark. So we thought we’d list the top seven facts about this amazing ship.
1. The Cutty Sark is probably most well known for transporting tea from China to London in the 1800s. But that’s not all she carried. In the 1880s, the Cutty Sark transported wool from Australia on a regular basis. And she quickly became known around the world for being rather speedy. Using high wind speeds along the route from Australia (called the roaring trades by sailors) the Cutty Sark set a record time of 73 days making the journey from Sydney to London.
2. In 1916, during the First World War, the Cutty Sark (which was actually renamed the Ferreira after being sold to a Portuguese company in 1895) was caught in a terrible storm and lost her masts. She managed to find her way to a port in South Africa for repairs, but unfortunately there was a shortage of masts and sails. So at this point they had to make do with what they had. The ship was then re-rigged as a smaller-masted, slower barquentine.
3. In 1922 the Cutty Sark suffered even more damage when she got caught in a Channel Gale and damaged once again. This time the ship called at Falmouth for repairs. Whilst waiting for the work to be completed wily Windjammer captain named Captain Wildred Dowman spotted the ship and recognized it as one he had trained on many years before. Upon seeing the Cutty Sark, Dowman decided he had to buy her back from the Portuguese (by this time the Cutty Sark had been sold again, and was now named the Maria do Amparo). He followed the ship back to Portugal, found the owner and negotiated a good deal. The Cutty Sark then made it’s way back to Falmouth.
4. 1938 was the last year that the Cutty Sark went to sea. Moving from Falmouth to Greenhithe, Kent, the ship was used as a training vessel for officers in the Royal and Merchant Navies. Many say that the ship was a vital part of the officers’ training in the run up to the Second World War.
5. What does Cutty Sark even mean? Well a cutty-sark is actually apparently a lowland Scots term for a short shrift, which was a piece of Victorian underwear called a short shrift. Nobody really knows why the Cutty Sark is called by that name. But one theory is that the original owner of the vessel, John “Jock” Willis named her after a poem by Robert Burns called Tam O’Shanter. In the poem a witch called Nannie wears a cutty-sark while stealing the tail of a horse. It is thought that Willis may have been thinking of the way the poem describes Nannie, who flies through the air with her cutty sark billowing behind her when he named the ship becase he wanted it to be known as the fastest ship on the seas. It’s only a theory. But it’s a really good one.
6. Cutty Sark is also the name of a whiskey. In 1923 a couple of famous London wine merchants, the Berry Brothers & Rudd were having a meeting to talk about the US whiskey market. Despite it still being Prohibition era, the merchants were sure that alcohol would soon be flowing freely and so they decided to make a whiskey that would suit American taste buds. At the time, the biggest story in the news was about the miraculous return of the Cutty Sark to Britain. So what better name for the merchants to call their brand new whiskey?
7. It is widely believed that steamships brought the tea clipper era to an end. But actually that’s not technically true. It wasn’t steam ships that destroyed the tea clipper business, but the Suez Canal. The Mediterranean was not really suitable for large sailing vessels, and they just couldn’t cope with the canal or find enough wind in the Red Sea. So to reach China, Clippers would have to go around the Horn of Africa, whereas steamships could take the much quicker Suez Canal route. And so the great clippers were put to rest. But, what a journey.
Find out more about the great tea clipper, Cutty Sark by visiting the Royal Museums Greenwich