The iconic clipper ship Cutty Sark has come back to life in her new Greenwich dry dock on the eastern edge of London, not far from where tea clippers once brought endless cargos of tea into the warehouses of the East India Company.
Her journey here was not without incident, and we are fortunate to have an opportunity to once again walk the decks of this proud ship.
I spent a day exploring this great maritime treasure chest on assignment for TeaTime magazine.Britain’s most famous and only surviving tea clipper was built in Scotland in 1869 and set sail on her first commercial voyage to China in 1870, loaded with wines, spirits, and beer. Once those had been unloaded in Shanghai, the hold was filled with over a million pounds of tea packed in 10,335 chests, 1790 half chests, 621 boxes, and 2,256 packages, which was landed in London later that year.
Cutty Sark made eight tea voyages from Shanghai or Hankou. Her fastest journey to China was to Shanghai in 89 days, and her quickest journey home was 109 days from Hankou. The round trip adventure was often 10 months or more.
Tea clippers were designed to hold as many chests of Chinese tea as possible. Every inch of space was filled tightly with 300-pound wooden chests bearing historic Chinese tea names such as gunpowder, hyson, congou, singlo, and souchong.
A ship could be loaded with more than 10,000 tea chests in two to three days. The skilled Chinese stevedores were responsible for tightly packing the chests. Bamboo matting covered with canvas made sure that the tea was kept dry if water seeped through the main deck. Better teas were packed at the top and inferior teas were stowed at the lowest level, often covering a layer of heavy porcelain, which helped serve as ballast.
The Cutty Sark’s curious name derives from the Robert Burns poem, “Tam O’ Shanter,” in which a farmer named Tam is chased by an evil witch dressed in a “cutty sark,” an ancient Scottish term for a short nightgown. The ship’s famous figurehead (below) is, in fact, the witch, Nannie Dee, and her outstretched left-hand holds tightly to the tail of Tam’s horse, which she managed to snatch off as Tam escaped. Her own long hair streams behind her in the ocean’s relentless salty winds.
The famous masthead inspired by a Robert Burns poem.
Her owner had dreamed she would become the fastest clipper on the tea route, but she never got the chance to really show her strength. Once the Suez Canal had opened to steamships in 1869, the Clippers had a diminishing role to play in the speedy transportation of tea from China’s east coast to the London docks. The great Cutty Sark ended her days carrying wool, coal, castor oil, jute, and mail.
In 1954, she found herself in dry dock at Greenwich – a tourist attraction and a reminder of Britain’s dependence on China tea from the mid-seventeenth century through to the 1860s. But by 1998, it had become clear that exposure to the elements for so long was taking its toll on the fabric of the clipper, and £25 million was allocated for repair and refurbishment work to be carried out.
The permanent dry dock exhibit allows visitors to gaze up at the brilliant copper-clad hull.
In 2006, The Cutty Sark Conservation Project began to treat and protect the ironwork, remove and consolidate the wooden hull planks, strengthen the hull’s support, replace the keel and main deck, and restore the rigging.
But then, on May 21, 2007, a major fire broke out. Fortunately, rapid response from firefighters and the fact that much of the body of the ship had been removed during the restoration program meant that the ship was saved.
Mastheads on display at the museum.
Extra repairs added 14 months and another £10 million to the project, which was eventually completed in 2012. On April 25 that year, the Queen officially opened the ship to thousands of eager tourists who make their way through the decks and holds of the fascinating historic exhibition each day.
Now permanently dry-docked, the Cutty Sark, with its brilliant copper-clad hull, has become the sparkling jewel in the crown of British maritime history.
Learn how you can explore the Cutty Sark, rain or shine, the next time you visit London. The museum is located in Greenwich, just 8 minutes from central London by rail.
Read more about the history of tea clipper ships, including the Cutty Sark, in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.