Cutty Sark is the last surviving example of a Clipper. The ships got their name from the American expression ‘to go at a clip’ meaning to go fast. It became a term applied to any boat with a long narrow hull, a yacht like appearance and a large sail area. They were built for speed.
In the 1860s the big profitable cargo was tea from China. There was a large premium to be made for the first consignments back in London. From 1860-1870 there were about 280 British ships involved in the tea trade. The fastest passage from Shanghai to London was made by the Harlaw in 1869 at 89 days.
Cutty sark was launched in November 1869 and first set sail to Shanghai in March 1870. She was one of 9 ships owned by John ‘White hat’ Willis a Scottish businessman, who got his nickname because he always sported a white top-hat. She was designed for the tea trade with maximum capacity in the ideal shape for speed. She was made of iron frames. wooden planks and brass sheathing which was believed to be the ideal construction for speed and transporting tea.
In fact Cutty Sark made only 8 trips to China and her fastest time from Shanghai to London was 109 days. She would carry general cargo’s out to China and then on the return leg could carry around 600,000 kg of tea on each journey.
The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 was to mark the end for sailing ships in the tea race. They were unable to navigate it and so they were at a great disadvantage to steam ships which could now do the journey in around 60 days.
Cutty Sark was switched to transporting Wool from Australia and for many years she was the fastest ship in the wool trade. On every trip she could carry 5,000 bales of wool, each bale containing the wool from 60 sheep.
In 1895 she was sold to Ferriera and Co of Lisbon, who renamed her ‘Ferriera’. She carried general cargo to South America, Africa, the USA and Britain. In 1922 she sailed into Falmouth harbour in the south west of the UK. She was recognised by a retired Captain, William Dowman who set about raising the funds to buy the ship. She was moored in Falmouth and restoration began, She was used as a sail training ship and as a visitor attraction. In 1938 she was moved to Greenhithe on the River Thames where she became part of the Thames Nautical Training College. Eventually in 1954 she went on permanent display at Greenwich. In 2007 during renovations she was damaged by a fire. Thankfully all the artifacts and fittings had already been removed and the only thing that was seriously damaged was the decks (which were mostly 20th century anyway) although some buckling of her metal framework can be seen today. The ship re-opened to the public in April 2012.