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The Cutty Sark in 2015

Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship maintained in Greenwich in Kent as a museum ship, installed in a dry dock beside the River Thames.

The ship was built on the River Leven in Dumbarton in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line, she was one of the last of the tea clippers to be built and one of the fastest, coming at the end of a long period of design development, which halted as sailing ships gave way to steam propulsion.

The China trade was the purpose for which the Cutty Sark was built, and for some years she plied back and forth between the Far East and Britain, carrying tea.

The opening of the Suez Canal (also in 1869) meant that steamships now enjoyed a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark spent only a few years on the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia: she held the record time from Australia to Britain for ten years.[1]

However improvements in steam technology meant that gradually steamships also came to dominate the longer sailing route to Australia, and the ship was sold to the Portuguese company Ferreira and Co. in 1895 and renamed Ferreira. She continued as a cargo ship until purchased in 1922 by retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman, who used her as a training ship operating from Falmouth, Cornwall.

After Dowman's death, Cutty Sark was transferred to the Thames Nautical Training College, Greenhithe in 1938 where she became an auxiliary cadet training ship alongside HMS Worcester. By 1954, she had ceased to be useful as a cadet ship and was transferred to permanent dry dock at Greenwich, Kent, for public display.

Cutty Sark is listed by National Historic Ships as part of the National Historic Fleet (the nautical equivalent of a Grade I Listed Building). She is one of only three remaining original composite construction (wooden hull on an iron frame) clipper ships from the nineteenth century in part or whole, the others being the City of Adelaide, which arrived in Port Adelaide, South Australia on 3 February 2014 for preservation, and the beached skeleton of Ambassador of 1869 near Punta Arenas, Chile.

The ship has been damaged by fire twice in recent years, first on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation. She was restored and was reopened to the public on 25 April 2012.[2] On 19 October 2014 she was damaged in a smaller fire.[3]


The ship's figurehead

The ship was named after Cutty-sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns's 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter. The ship's figurehead, the original of which has been attributed to carver Fredrick Hellyer of Blackwall, is a stark white carving of a bare-breasted Nannie Dee with long black hair holding a grey horse's tail in her hand. In the poem she wore a linen sark (a short chemise or undergarment), that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty, or in other words far too short. The erotic sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark", which subsequently became a well-known catchphrase. Originally, carvings by Hellyer of the other scantily clad witches followed behind the figurehead along the bow, but these were removed by Willis in deference to 'good taste'. Tam o' Shanter riding Meg was to be seen along the ship's quarter. The motto "Where there's a Willis away" was inscribed along the taffrail.[4] The Tweed, which acted as a model for much of the ship which followed her, had a figurehead depicting Tam o' Shanter.[5]


Name Cutty Sark
class Clipper
Displacement 2,100 tons at 20-foot draught
Length Hull: 212.5 feet
Length overall: 280 feet
Beam 36 feet
Propulsion 32,000 sq ft sail
Sail plan In 1870: Ship rig
1916: barquentine rig
Capacity 921 tons (net)
Complement 28–35
17.5 knots


Cutty Sark with sails set, taken at sea

Cutty Sark was ordered by shipping magnate John Willis, who operated a shipping company founded by his father. The company had a fleet of clippers and regularly took part in the tea trade from China to Britain. Speed was a clear advantage to a merchant ship, but it also created prestige for the owners: the 'tea race' was widely reported in contemporary newspapers and had become something of a national sporting event, with money being gambled against a winning ship. In earlier years, Willis had commanded his father's ships at a time when American designed ships were the fastest in the tea trade, and then had owned British designed ships, which were amongst the best available in the world but had never won the tea race. In 1868 the brand new Aberdeen-built clipper Thermopylae set a record time of 61 days port to port on her maiden voyage from London to Melbourne and it was this design that Willis set out to better.[6][7]

A contract for Cutty Sark's construction was signed on 1 February 1869 with the firm of Scott & Linton, which had only been formed in May 1868. Their shipyard was at Dumbarton on the River Leven on a site previously occupied by shipbuilders William Denny & Brothers. The contract required the ship to be completed within six months at a contracted price of £17 per ton and maximum weight of 950 tons. This was a highly competitive price for such an experimental, state-of-the-art vessel and bankrupted the yard before the ship was complete, so Denny's the contract over and completed the ship. She was finally launched on 22 November 1869, moved to Denny's yard to have her masts fitted, and then on 20 December she was towed downriver to Greenock for her running rigging.[8]

Cutty Sark's length was 212 feet, drawing 21 feet and with a deadweight of 921 tons.[9] Broadly, the parts of the ship visible above the waterline were constructed from East India teak, while American rock elm was used for the ship's bottom. The stem (15" x 15") and sternpost (16½" x 15") were of teak while the rudder was of British oak. The keel was replaced in the 1920s with one constructed from 15-inch pitch pine.[10] The deck was made of 3.5-inch thick teak while the 'tween deck was 3-inch yellow pine. The keel (16½" x 15") had on either side a garboard strake (11" x 12") and then 6" planking decreasing to 4¾" at 1/5 the depth of the hold. Teak planking began at approximately the level of the bilge stringer. The hull was covered by Muntz metal sheeting up to the 18-feet depth mark, and all the external timbers were secured by Muntz metal bolts to the internal iron frame.[10] The wrought-iron[11] frame was an innovation in shipbuilding. It consisted of frames (vertical), beams (horizontal) and cross bracing (diagonal members).[12]

The diagonally-braced iron frame made for a strong, rigid ship, which ensured less working and leaking of the hull and so less crew time spent pumping, allowing more time to be spent on changes of sail. The wrought-iron-framed hull also took up less cargo space than an all-wood hull would have done.[12] The Muntz metal sheeting reduced fouling of Cutty Sark's hull;[11] with a cleaner hull, she could sail faster.


Master's opinion

She was built for me. I superintended the building and fitting of her, and I never sailed a finer ship. At ten or twelve knots she did not disturb the water at all. Although she was a very sharp ship, just like a yacht, her spread of canvas was enormous, ... She was the fastest ship of her day, a grand ship, a ship that will last forever.

—Captain George Moodie[13]
A speck on the horizon

One day we sighted a vessel, a mere speck on the horizon, astern of us, and the way she came into view it was evident she was travelling much faster than ourselves. 'Bringing the wind up with her' was remarked on board, and that seemed the only feasible conclusion to arrive at and account for the manner in which she overhauled us. In a few hours she was alongside us, and proved to be the famous British clipper Cutty Sark, one of the fastest ships afloat. She passed us going two feet to our one, and in a short time was hull down ahead of us.

—Wool clipper crewman, 1879[14]

The maximum logged speed for Cutty Sark was 17½ knots. Her greatest recorded distance in noon to noon sights was 363 nautical miles averaging 15 knots, although she recorded 2,164 nautical miles[15] in six days, which given the weather over the whole period implied she had achieved over 370 nautical miles some days.[16] By comparison, Thermopylae’s best recorded 24-hour distance was 358 nautical miles. On another occasion she recorded 3,457 nautical miles in 11 days. Cutty Sark was considered to have the edge in a heavier wind, and Thermopylae in a lighter wind.[17]


First tea seasons

Cutty Sark was destined for the tea trade, then an intensely competitive race across the globe from China to London. Though the "premium" or bonus paid to the ship that arrived with the first tea of the year was abandoned after the Great Tea Race of 1866, faster ships could usually obtain a higher price for transporting their cargoes than others.[18] Her first round trip voyage under captain George Moodie began 16 February 1870 from London with a cargo of wine, spirits and beer bound for Shanghai. The return journey, carrying 1,305,812 lbs of tea from Shanghai, began 25 June, arriving 13 October in London via the Cape of Good Hope.

Cutty Sark sailed in eight "tea seasons", from London to China and back.[18]

However her launch coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal to shipping: tea clippers could not take the canal as they would require a tug through the canal and the Red Sea is unsuited to their design, so the steam vessels had a journey thousands of miles shorter. The numbers of tea clippers sailing to China each year steadily reduced, with many ships being sold and moving to general cargo work. Costs were kept to a minimum and rigs were often reduced to barque so that a smaller crew was needed.


Cutty Sark’s well known race against Thermopylae took place in 1872, the two ships leaving Shanghai together on 18 June. Both ships were of similar size: length, beam and depths were within a foot of each other. The Thermopylae had a slightly larger capacity: 991 tons compared to 963 tons.[19] Two weeks later Cutty Sark had built up a lead of some 400 nautical miles, but then lost her rudder[20] in a heavy gale after passing through the Sunda Strait. John Willis's brother was on board the ship and ordered Moodie to put into Cape Town for repairs. Moodie refused, and instead the ship's carpenter Henry Henderson constructed a new rudder from spare timbers and iron. This took six days, working in gales and heavy seas which meant the men were tossed about as they worked and the brazier used to heat the metal for working was spilled out, burning the captain's son. The ship finally arrived in London on 18 October a week after Thermopylae, a total passage of 122 days. The captain and crew were commended for their performance and Henderson received a £50 bonus for his work. This was the closest Cutty Sark came to being first ship home but it was Moodie's last trip as her captain before he transferred to steamships. He was replaced by Captain F. W. Moore.

Wool trade

From 1883, Cutty Sark took to shipping wool form Australia. In December of that year she departed Newcastle, New South Wales with 4,289 bales of wool and 12 casks of tallow, arriving in London in just 83 days: 25 days faster than her nearest rival that year.

As Ferreira

The steamships came to dominate the wool trade too. In 1895 Jock Willis sold Cutty Sark to the Portuguese firm Joaquim Antunes Ferreira for £1,250.[21] She was renamed Ferreira after the firm.[21] Her crews referred to her as Pequena Camisola (little shirt, a straight translation of the Scots cutty sark).[22]

As cadet training ship

Wilfred Dowman of Flushing, Cornwall, a retired merchant navy captain bought the ship for £3,750 and she was returned to Falmouth harbour.

The rigging was restored to an approximation of the original arrangement and the ship was used as a cadet training ship. In 1924 she was used as committee boat for the regatta week in Fowey. Dowman died in 1936 and the ship was given by Catharine Dowman, his widow, along with £5,000 for maintenance, to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College, HMS Worcester at Greenhithe.[19] She was towed to Greenhithe by tug.[23] The ship was crewed by cadets, 15-year-old Robert Wyld steering the ship during the voyage.[24]

Museum ship

Ship's stern before renovation in 1994

In 1953 Cutty Sark was given to the Cutty Sark Preservation Society[23] and in 1954 she was moved to a custom-built dry dock at Greenwich.[25] She was stripped of upper masts, yards, deck-houses and ballast to lighten her before being towed from the East India Import Dock to the special dry dock at Greenwich. The skipper on this occasion was 83-year-old Captain C.E. Irving, who had sailed the world three times in her before he was 17. The river pilot was Ernest Coe. Thereafter the entrance tunnel to the dry dock was filled in, the river wall rebuilt and the work of re-rigging began. The foundation stone of the dry dock was laid by The Duke of Edinburgh, patron of the Cutty Sark Preservation Society, in June 1953. The restoration, re-rigging and preparation for public exhibition was estimated to cost £250,000.[26]

Cutty Sark, 8 October 1987
Cutty Sark in Greenwich, October 2003

Cutty Sark was preserved as a museum ship, and has since become a popular tourist attraction, and part of the National Historic Fleet. She is located near the centre of Greenwich, in Kent, close aboard the National Maritime Museum, the former Greenwich Hospital, and Greenwich Park. She is also a prominent landmark on the route of the London Marathon. She usually flies signal flags from her ensign halyard reading "JKWS", which is the code representing Cutty Sark in the International Code of Signals, introduced in 1857.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Cutty Sark)


  1. "1883–95 The Australian Wool Years". 9 October 2015. http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/1883-95-australian-wool-years. 
  2. "Cutty Sark: Queen reopens Greenwich tea clipper". BBC News. 25 April 2012. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17835225. 
  3. "Cutty Sark damaged in fire on deck". BBC News. 19 October 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29680243. Retrieved 26 October 2014. 
  4. Lubbock, pp. 32–34
  5. Lubbock, Basil, Blackwall Frigates, p. 229
  6. Lubbock, pp. 20–21
  7. Dear, I.C.B; Kemp, Peter: Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (Oxford University Press, 2005) 2nd ed. ISBN 978-0-19-860616-1
  8. Mitchell, W H; Sawyer, L A (1995). The Empire Ships. London: Lloyd's of London Press Ltd. p. 49. ISBN 1-85044-275-4. 
  9. "Jock Willis' Specification for the Cutty Sark". http://www.johnsankey.ca/willis.html. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Platt, Alan; Waite, Simon T.; Sexton, Robert T.: 'The Cutty Sark Second Keel and History as the Ferreira ': The Mariner's Mirror Volume 95, issue 1, pages 8–10 (The Society for Nautical Research, February 2009)
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Cutty Sark". Royal Museums Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/sites/default/files/import/20121029_large_print_guide.pdf. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Touch Cutty Sark's copper hull" (in en). 21 September 2015. https://www.rmg.co.uk/cutty-sark/must-see/touch-cutty-sarks-copper-hull. 
  13. Carr 1964, p. 4.
  14. Lubbock, Basil, China Clippers, pp. 295–296, account of a fast wool clipper crewman First published 1903 Charles Protheroe "Life in the Mercantile Marine" page 45.
  15. Frank George Griffith Carr (December 1964), Cutty Sark, last of the clippers, The "Cutty Sark" Society 
  16. Lubbock, Basil, Cutty Sark, p. 9
  17. Lubbock, China Clippers, pp. 155–157
  18. 18.0 18.1 MacGregor, David R. (1983). The Tea Clippers, Their History and Development 1833–1875. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 978-0870218842. 
  19. 19.0 19.1 Carr 1964, p. 5.
  20. "The tea clipper Thermopylae". National Maritime Museum. http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/15131.html. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 Platt, Alan; Waite, Simon T.; Sexton, Robert T. (February 2009). "The Cutty Sark's Second Keel and History as the Ferreira". The Mariner's Mirror (Portsmouth, UK: The Society for Nautical Research) 95 (1): 13. 
  22. "Cutty Sark". 24 January 2005. http://www.bymnews.com/new/content/view/8591/80. Retrieved 21 May 2007. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 Carr 1964, p. 6.
  24. Wyld, Robert (28 May 2007). "Cutty Sark must Sail Again". The Daily Mirror. http://www.hands-on-illustrations.co.uk/big/mn/27/28.pdf. 
  25. BBC Radio 4 News, 6 pm, 22 May 2007.
  26. Male, David. "Greenwich-Day-by-Day-December". http://www.greenwich-guide.org.uk/december.htm. Retrieved 13 December 2011. 

Royal Museums Greenwich, in Kent

The Cutty SarkNational Maritime MuseumQueen's HouseRoyal Observatory, Greenwich