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A History of the Cutty Sark


The Cutty Sark is the sole remaining tea clipper, and ‘extreme clipper’ in the world. This, coupled with the aesthetic values of her construction (of which she is also the best example), has helped the ship develop in Britain into a maritime icon as a relic of the age of sail. The majority of her original hull survives, despite a recent fire.

A Tea Clipper

The Cutty Sark is a type of ship known as a tea clipper, and was built for the purpose of bringing tea back from China (as well as taking goods there). It was built in the 1860s for John Willis, who wanted the Cutty Sark to be the fastest ship of her type, capable of bringing each season’s tea back from China first. The demands of building a ship her size helped bring her builders to bankruptcy, but the ship was completed and launched on November 22nd 1869. She was, most probably, named after an image in a Robert Burns poem based on a Scottish legend.

The Cutty Sark carried tea back from China from 1870 to 78, although she never managed to be the first back each season as planned; on the occasion she came closest her rudder broke while she was leading. Unfortunately for the ship, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 introduced steam ships to the tea trade, allowing them to cut through the canal and go quicker, while the sailing ships like the Sark had to follow the winds. By 1878 the Cutty Sark’s crew were unable to find a tea cargo to take with them, and the ship went through a period of taking what cargoes they could find, coupled with a turnover of crew which included a death, an escaped prisoner and a suicide.

Wool, Training and Tourism

In the mid 1880s the Cutty Sark found a new trade: bringing wool from England to Australia. The speed she had been built for, coupled with a daring commander, saw the Cutty Sark establish a reputation as the fastest ship in the wool business. However by the mid 1890s steam ships had entered the wool trade and the Cutty Sark was sold off to Portuguese owners in 1895. For the next few decades she was known as the Ferreira and took cargoes between ports in the Portuguese empire. In 1922 she was sold again and renamed, but later that year a retired British sailor called Wilfred Dowman resolved to buy her, paying more than the going rate.

Again named Cutty Sark, the ship was restored to the condition she’d been in as a tea clipper, and the vessel was opened to the public; it was also used as a training ship. When Dowman died in 1936, costs forced his widow to sell the craft again, whereupon it remained in use as a training vessel. However, by 1951 new training ships had arrived and the question of what to do with the ship was raised. The Cutty Sark Society was formed to preserve the craft for the nation, and in 1954 the ship was moved to a devoted dry dock and carefully restored once more. The vessel has been open to the public since 1957, and has welcomed more than fifteen million visitors.

Repair, Fire and Repair of the Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark was closed to the public in 2006 to allow for portions to be removed and further restoration carried out. This proved fortuitous, for in May 2007 the timber and iron hulled ship suffered a large fire, although later quotes revealed that a wooden roof which had been added to protect craftsmen suffered the bulk of the damage, and around half the ship was offsite for repair. The British Heritage Lottery Fund upped their support of the project to an additional £10 million to aid in the repair, and shipping magnate Sammy Ofer donated £3.3 million to the, now larger, restoration project. Millions more was raised from other sources.
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