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London’s Tea Clipper – Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark Tea Clipper
Cutty Sark Tea Clipper

The iconic clipper ship Cutty Sark has come back to life in her new all-weather Greenwich dry dock on the eastern edge of London, not far from where tea clippers once brought 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 several hours exploring this great maritime treasure chest a few months ago.

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 repacked with 1450 tons of tea, which was landed in London later that year.

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 or souchong. These same teas were being drunk in Boston in the colonial era, a century before the Cutty Sark was launched.

Tea chests fill the hold.
Tea chests fill the hold.

The ship’s 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, and the Cutty Sark ended her days carrying wool, coal, caster oil, jute and mail.

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 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.

Masthead Exhibition
Masthead Exhibition

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.

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, a 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.

cutty sark copper
Copper clad hull as seen from the enclosed dry dock.

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. Though 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.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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