Located in dry dock next to Greenwich Pier is the last surviving British tea clipper. This famous ship was built at Dumbarton on the Clyde in 1869 purely for the purpose of importing tea from China, a trade which became extremely lucrative after the British found a taste for it.
Her first voyage started out from London on 15th February 1870 with a cargo of wine, spirits and beer. Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, she arrived at Shanghai on 2nd June, and after loading up with 1,305,812 lbs of tea, she left port on 25th June, arriving back at London on 13th October. As impressive as that may be, I bet the Chinese couldn’t believe their luck when they were able to swap a load of dried leaves for all that booze.
The owner of the ship was a Scotsman called John Willis, and whether he was partial to a wee dram himself I couldn’t say, but what I do know is that he definitely had a liking for his country’s national poet, Rabbie Burns – and no doubt it was the reason he named the ship Cutty Sark.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Tam o’ Shanter, the Bard of Ayrshire’s most famous poem, I think it’s worth recounting here. Published in 1791, it’s a tale about how Tam gets drunk every market day in Ayr.
Each week his faithful horse, Maggie, used to take Tam the few miles back home to Alloway, but one evening Tam noticed lights on in the church. Peering through the church windows he could see that the place was being desecrated by warlocks and witches who were dancing to the tunes of the bagpipes being played by the Devil.
One of these witches, by the name of ’Nannie’, appeared to Tam as a beautiful young girl. He was captivated by her as she cavorted around in a revealing dress called a Cutty sark. When the warlocks and witches noticed him, they gave chase, and so they headed for the Brig o’ Doon, where Tam knew that the witches wouldn’t be able to cross the water. Just as they reached the bridge, Nannie grabs the horse’s tail but is left clutching it in her hand as Tam and Maggie make it over to the other side.
The ship’s figurehead is Nannie dressed in a Cutty sark with her arm outstretched. The original figurehead was damaged at sea but repaired and now stands amongst the Figurehead Collection underneath the ship.
It was the duty of apprentices, when in port, to place some rope in Nannie’s hand to represent Maggie’s tail.
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare
If anybody had looked into their teacups back then they would have seen that the future of the clippers and their tea trade wouldn’t be around for ever: Just 5 days before the ship was launched, the Suez Canal was opened, allowing a much shorter passage for steamships to reach the same destination.
Even so, the Cutty Sark did eight seasons racing the other clippers to see who could get back to London the fastest. Those that got back first could usually command the highest prices – a bit like the Beaujolais Nouveau races I suppose, but contrary to what I used to believe, the Cutty Sark never got back to dear old Blighty the fastest once.
The reason that she didn’t come first was more down to circumstances at the time than anything else, because after she outlived her usefulness as a tea clipper, she was pressed into service to bring wool back to Britain from Australia where she realised her full potential and became the fastest ship afloat – by a long way. With people like Captains Moore and Woodget at the helm she produced record sailing times for another 12 years even though she was no spring chicken when the voyages down to the Antipodes began.
Inevitably, sailing ships were replaced by more advanced steamships and in 1895 the Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese company, renamed Ferreira, and put to good use until she turned up at Falmouth in 1922. During the years she’d been at sea she had lost masts and rudders in storms, collided with other ships, had men washed overboard, and there was at least one killing and one captain committing suicide, but the Cutty Sark’s life wasn’t over yet. Remarkably, a retired sea captain by the name of Wilfred Dowman recognised the ship and moored her up at Flushing until 1938: The ship was then brought to London, where on December 10th 1954 she found a permanent home at Greenwich.
In the Cutty Sark souvenir guide the introduction says that the ship is now safely berthed in Greenwich, but I think they must have forgotten about the fire that almost devastated the attraction on May 27th 2007: Thankfully, she has been restored again so that everyone can still see this incredible historical ship – but what is there to see?
To be honest, you can see most of the ship above the waterline with its miles of rigging without having to pay a penny, but if you do want to help provide the Cutty Sark Trust with their conservation efforts then I would have to say that there’s not as much to see as you might have hoped. Apart from walking around the top deck, you can also walk, or even have a café stop underneath the hull and learn more about the tea trade ’tween deck’, but don’t expect too much if you were hoping to see what life would have been like on board. (at least that’s how it was when I went onboard in 2016).
There was one unexpected highlight (for me at least) and that was the impressive display of ship’s figureheads. Pride of place standing over the others is ‘Nannie’, the restored figurehead of the Cutty Sark, but she’s the only one that didn’t belong to Sydney Cumbers.
Sydney Cumbers wore a distinctive black patch over one eye which he lost in an accident when he was a young boy. This accident prevented ‘Long John Silver’ as he became known, from becoming a merchant seaman, and so to help compensate for his disappointment he started to collect ships memorabilia – and in particular – figureheads.
Sydney Cumbers was in actual fact a successful London businessman with a second home in Gravesend which he called the Look-out, and this was where he kept his collection, apparently in rooms with names like The Bridge, Quarter Deck, and Foc’s’le. In 1953 the lease on the Look-Out expired and he gave his collection of 101 figureheads to the Cutty Sark.
Displayed under the ships bows in the dry dock, this collection is apparently the largest of its kind in the world, and includes many well-known faces such as William Gladstone, Florence Nightingale, and Hiawatha. Sydney Cumbers dedicated his collection to the Little Ships of Dunkirk, but I reckon they’ll always be known as the Long John Silver Collection.
Greenwich is a ‘must see’ destination for visitors to London, and the Cutty Sark is just one of the attractions on offer; and so it boils down to people’s preferences, time available and what you can afford as to whether a visit aboard the Cutty Sark is for you.
From a personal point of view, I like maritime history, and am grateful to those who can find the time, energy and professional expertise to keep iconic ships like this afloat so that future generations can enjoy the maritime equivalent of a Grade I listed building. I also realise of course, that none of this could be possible if it were not for the finance to make it happen, and which is why I was happy to help keep the project going: After all, the Cutty Sark was – and still is – a ship that has helped make the United Kingdom one of the world’s great maritime nations.