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.
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 Originally enacted in 1651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The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849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.
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
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