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The Clippers

Since the days of Charles II tea had always been imported into Britain from China, carried for 150 years by the lordly East Indiamen. In London a year's supply of tea was always kept in reserve in case the ships were captured even though they travelled in convoy. Thus the tea drunk was about twelve months old. After the Anglo-Chinese war of 1839-42 the restriction of trade by the Chinese to only Canton was lifted and additional ports, Hong Kong, Foochow, Shanghai and Hankow, were opened up for trade. Trade increased, the Honourable East India Company lost its monopoly and smaller ships were, by now, carrying the tea. With additional supply available the tea dealers in London had to find ways of increasing the sales of tea and one way was to advertise and promote its freshness. A newer tea had a better flavour and the demand grew for fresh tea.

The gathered tea was ready for shipment in June and July but this coincided with the south-west monsoon season which saw strong winds blowing up the China Sea. Square-rigged sailing ships cannot sail very close to the wind and have to tack their way to and fro across a head wind. This meant that, before they could enter the Indian Ocean, they had to beat their way through the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra against a head wind which increased the overall passage time. Consequently, by the end of the 1840's several ships of around 400 tons had been designed to overcome this problem; ships that could beat to windward and reduce passage times.

A lithograph of the clipper "Sussex"A lithograph of the clipper "Sussex"
(Hamlyn Group Picture Library)

Up until 1849 Britain had protected its foreign trade through the Navigation Acts. Originally enacted in 1651 in an attempt to oust the Dutch from the carrying trade the Acts required that goods shipped between England and the newly established colonies and vice versa could only be carried in ships owned, commanded and substantially manned by Englishmen. Resentment by the Americans of this limitation of trade was the cause of the American War of Independence.

The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849 which created opportunities for foreign owned ships to bring cargoes to Britain. At the same time gold was discovered in California which led to the Americans building numerous large clippers on the east coast to deliver the gold hungry prospectors to the gold fields. But, once this had been achieved, they could sail to China, pick up a cargo of tea and deliver to England before returning to America for another batch of prospectors. The Americans achieved a reputation which guaranteed them higher freight rates, £6-£7 against the £3-£4 per ton paid to British shipowners. There was obviously a lot of rivalry but it began to cool in 1855 when the gold rush fizzled out and when the American Civil War broke out in 1861 all competition was removed. Competition between the British owners continued for another decade or so.

The American clippers were large compared with the British ships and this, in fact, created problems at the Chinese ports who were only geared to load the smaller vessels. Also, larger clippers were not necessarily faster and not as manoeuverable through the hazards of the China Sea.

The iron barque "Killarney"The iron barque "Killarney", built at Liverpool in 1892
From a painting by John A Speer of Auckland, New Zealand.


In the early 1850's the British shipowners went to the Aberdeen shipyards for their ships and, as a result, the yard of Alexander Hall & Sons built some of the fastest clippers of that decade including Reindeer (1848), Stornoway (1850), Chrysolite (1851), Cairngorm (1853), Vision (1854) and Robin Hood (1856). All these ships full-rigged carrying four or five yards on each mast, deployed studdingsails on each side and had the distinctive Aberdeen clipper bow which were less ornate than the traditional practice. The design of the Cairngorm embodied the builder's ideas of what a clipper should be and was built without a firm order from an owner. A big risk for the shipbuilder but Alexander Hall & Sons were proved right as the Cairngorm was purchased by Jardine, Matheson & Co for the tea trade and she proved to be one of the fastest clippers during the 1850's. She cost £15,434 to build and was registered at 939 tons and was acknowledged as ' Cock of the Walk' as she made many fast passages. In 1858-9 she made her fastest homeward passage from Macau to Deal in 91 days.

Originally, the term 'clipper' was applied to any fast ship but today's researchers have laid down some conditions which must be met before a ship can be classified as a clipper. They must have the lines of a yacht and capable of high speeds at all times; cargo carrying capabilities are not a consideration. The larger American clippers achieved speeds of up to 21 knots but, even so, some smaller British clippers such as Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were capable of achieving 17 knots or 360 miles a day.

Alexander Hall & Sons weren't the only shipyard building clippers. On the Solway Firth Benjamin Nicholson of Annan built the Annandale, the Queensbery and the Shakspere, and further south, at Sunderland, John Pile built the barques Spirit of the Age and Spirit of the North while his brother William built Crest of the Wave, Spray of the Ocean, Kelso and the Lammermuir. Further south on the River Thames Bilbe and Perry of Rotherhithe built the Celestial,the Lauderdale and the Wynaud.

The iron ship "Loch Vennachar"The iron ship "Loch Vennachar", built by J & G Thompson, Glasgow for the Glasgow Shipping Company in 1875. After a mixed career she went missing on a voyage from Glasgow to Australia in 1905.


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