Cutty Sark

Louise Macfarlane is curator of Cutty Sark and she took some time to tell us a little about the long and fascinating history of the world famous clipper ship.

“In many ways,” she said, ”the story of Cutty Sark is one of luck and survival. She has lived many lives in her 147 years, been witness to a murder, a suicide, two World Wars and a great fire. And yet, here she is – the very last surviving extreme clipper in the world.

Cutty Sark: Nannie with rigging

She was built in 1869 for the great China tea races of the day. Premiums were awarded to the first ships back from China and by the 1870s, over 30,000 tons of tea was imported to Britain every year.

Cutty Sark is made of a wrought iron frame onto which teak wooden hull planks are fixed. This made her perfect for carrying tea.

Deck view of the 'Cutty Sark'

But it was hard graft. She typically had a crew of 28 but sometimes it was as few as 19. The crew worked, slept and ate on the Main Deck, also known as the Weather Deck which gives a clue as to the conditions on board.

A cargo of tea was worth a massive £18.5 million in today’s money or the equivalent of 200 million cups of tea, so it was big business, yet Cutty Sark spent only seven years in the Chinese tea trade, making just eight journeys.

'Cutty Sark' (1869) depth markings

Because just five days before her launch, the Suez Canal was opened. Steam ships – which had been around for nearly 40 years – had improved a great deal and could now take advantage of the canal to shorten journeys by 3,000 miles. For sailing ships like Cutty Sark the expensive tolling fees and windless conditions of the canal meant that, gradually, the tea trade was lost to the steamers.”

'Cutty Sark' (1869) stern decorations

Cutty Sark spent the next 80 years or so in a variety of roles including bringing wool from Australia, transporting coal during the First World War and as a training ship. She came to Greenwich in 1954 and became one of London’s favourite places to visit.

In 2006 she began a period of restoration during which a fire broke out on deck. Fortunately all the masts, rigging and deck furniture had already been taken away for improvements and the damage was not as bad as originally thought. She was re-opened by The Queen in 2012 and is now open to the public again. Go and see her soon!

Many thanks to Louise Macfarlane, Curator, Cutty Sark
Images © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London