Home DestinationsEuropeBritain All aboard the Cutty Sark

All aboard the Cutty Sark

by Bernard O'Shea

The Cutty Sark may seem very British atop its perch in London, but as Bernard O’Shea finds out, it’s played a big part in Australian and Portuguese maritime history too.


Greenwich in London is a great place to visit and revisit. A UNESCO World Heritage precinct, it has fabulous parks, the Royal Observatory with the Meridian Line, where you can stand with one foot in the east and one foot in the west, the world’s largest National Maritime Museum, and other attractions grouped under the entity Royal Museums Greenwich. One is the Cutty Sark, the most famous ship of its ilk, the fastest of the “clippers”.

In his final years my father lived close to Greenwich, and whenever I went to the UK to visit him, we would go into Greenwich Park to stretch our legs and – importantly – treat ourselves at the cafe near the observatory. Like many of his generation, he was fond of the Cutty Sark – we had a painting of it on the wall in one of my childhood homes, and he was the one who told me her story.

The obligatory pit stop in Greenwich Park.

The Cutty Sark was built for speed and launched in late 1869, primarily to take part in the booming tea trade between England and China. Nowadays, in the era of the ubiquitous tea bag, the story can sound ridiculous: ships racing each other in an attempt to be the first to bring home tea from China? Really??!! But there were sound reasons for this – in the early 1860s the first load of the new season’s tea arriving in London could fetch the ship’s owner an extra 10 shillings per ton – and the clippers could carry more than 600 tons of the stuff.

The masts tower above you.

The Cutty Sark is long – 64 metres – but not particularly tall, although her masts are most impressive. She is mounted on a half-undergound glasshouse and because of her elevated position, it’s well worth going on board just to stand on deck and take in the expansive views over the River Thames. In summer, you may come across outdoor amusements such as carousels and fun fairs in the open spaces nearby- there is as much here for children to do as for adult history buffs. The domed building in the photo below is the entrance to the 370 metre long Greenwich foot tunnel which opened in 1902 and takes people under the river to the Isle of Dogs on the opposite bank.

The ship’s splendid view of the Thames River.

The tea clippers had to follow the same long, arduous and often unforgiving route as the Portuguese and Dutch did a couple of hundred years earlier in the quest for spices – all the way down to  the bottom of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. However, in the same year she was built, the Suez Canal opened, and within a decade steamships would take over the tea load duties. The history is nicely explained on mock tea crates below deck. Sail boats could not use the Suez Canal because the winds wouldn’t get them there.

For all the tea in China.

Glory from Australia

Contrary to popular belief, the Cutty Sark never set the record for the fastest tea clipper – the only year when she was well ahead in the race, 1872, her rudder broke and she was pipped by her main rival, the Thermopylae. In 1877 she entered a new phase, to lug coal from Sydney, but it was from 1883 onwards, when she got involved in transporting Australian wool, that she really made a name for herself, setting the fastest time of 73 days from Sydney to London (full story here).

Walking the planks below deck.

The Portuguese personae

For a lengthy spell, from 1895 to 1922, the ship was in Portuguese hands, having been bought by a Portuguese shipping company J. Ferreira & Co. Renamed the The Ferreira, she carried cargo from ports such as Lisbon, Porto, and Rio de Janeiro, as well as Portugal’s colonies in Africa, Angola and Mozambique. She then had something of a sex change, having been sold to another Portuguese firm and renamed Maria Do Amparo. But in 1923, after an eager British retired sea captain bought her and took her back to England, the original name was restored.

Funnily enough, her main rival, the Thermopylae, also plied the Australian route and ended up in Portuguese hands, only to suffer an undignified end in 1907 when, barely seaworthy, she was used as target practice by the Portuguese navy and sunk in the Tagus River off Cascais.

The hull viewed from below.

In her last three decades the Cutty Sark served as a naval cadet ship until 1954, when she was put into dry dock at Greenwich. In a way, we are lucky she’s still here – she has suffered damage in two fires in the past decade  – but is now looking spick and span after a lengthy restoration.

It’s not often that you can get to see a ship of her stature in a dry dock, and the ground floor area is just as interesting as the rest. You can admire her hull from the comfort of the cafeteria – another great place for those who like to have their cake and eat it. Indeed, this was where I spent the most time, but it wasn’t solely for the coffee and cake! I was fascinated by the collection of ships’ figureheads gathered around the stairwell at the opposite end to the cafe. Known as the Long John Silver collection, it is the largest array of Merchant Navy figureheads in the world, collected by enthusiast Sydney Cumbers, who lost an eye aged 12 and wore an eye patch as a result, thus earning the nickname Long John Silver.

Figureheads on display.

Cumbers had around 80 figureheads in his collection, but by my count around 65 are on display, and of those only 49 have been identified either as people or by the ship’s name. In the picture above, the lady in red front left is simply known as “Spanish Lady”, the guy on right in the Fez is General Gordon, and the woman in black behind him with the book in her left arm is Elizabeth Fry. The figurehead of king with the blue tunic and red belt is “Ophir”, so probably that was the name of the ship and he is King Solomon. One of the largest is of Native American Indian leader Hiawatha (below right).

One of the biggest figureheads it that of Native American leader Hiawatha (top right).

If only these figureheads could speak, what travel stories they could they tell us. What events have they witnessed, what tempests have they survived, where have they been?

Tea for two.

But back to the tea trade – you can’t leave the Cutty Sark museum without a your own little cargo of tea! TTW

Bernard O’Shea visited England at his own expense. More at Royal Museums Greenwich. Photos © Bernard O’Shea

You may also like

Leave a Comment