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The Clippers (continued)

When gold was discovered in Australia in 1851 a number extremely sharp clippers were constructed entirely in iron. Although some were used in the tea trade they were viewed with suspicion as it was suspected that lack of ventilation in the hold damaged the quality of the tea. Two of the ships built in 1853, on the River Clyde, were the Gauntlet and the Lord of the Isles considered to be 'the most perfect clipper ship ever launched on the Clyde, and she appears more like a yacht of large tonnage than a private merchant ship'. (London Illustrated News) The LIN's accolade applied to the Gauntlet but it equally applied to the Lord of the Isles whose fastest passage from China to London was 90 days (87 to the Lizard) achieved in 1858-59. In those days the measurement of a passage time was inconsistent. It could mean either the time elapsed between losing sight of land and seeing it again on arrival or the time between dropping the harbour pilot on departure and picking one up on arrival.

In the 1860's the shipbuilder Robert Steele & Sons of Greenock were to assert themselves as the builders of more stylised clippers. Although long established, having already built the Kate Carnie and Ellen Rodger, it was more likely the building of the Falcon launched in 1859 which brought the company to prominence as builders of tea clippers.

In 1860 the Fiery Cross, designed by renowned naval architect William Rennie, had been built by Chaloner of Liverpool and was fast and successful. 185 feet long, maximum breadth 31.7 feet with a hold depth of 19.2 feet she was registered at 695 tons and first ship home to claim the £1 per ton, first to dock in London, premium in 1861, 1862, 1893 and 1864, due in a lot of respects to the sailing skills of her first two captains, John Dallas and Richard Robinson.

The success of the Fiery Cross inspired other shipbuilders including Robert Steele & Sons who went on to build the Taeping (1863), the Ariel (1865), the Sir Lancelot (1865), the Titania (1866), the Lahloo (1867 and the Kaisow (1868). These ships were fast and in 1866-67 the Ariel took only 80 days from dropping the pilot in London to picking up the pilot in Hong Kong; in 1869 Sir Lancelot took 84 days between Foochow and the Lizard and in 1871 the Titania did the same voyage in 93 days. The success of these ships was due to being able to maintain relatively high speeds in light winds and being able to beat to windward in a stiff breeze.

A Painting of the "Titania" (PM Wood)

However, aside from the glamour of winning the first home premium and constructing beautiful ships the underlying consideration was always money, the ships had to be profitable. The shipbuilders were competing against each other for orders and, consequently, construction costs, or control of them, was important. Robert Steele & Sons were probably quoting no more than £18 per ton which would have meant building a composite hull: iron frames with wooden exterior planking. The Cutty Sark is a perfect example of this type of construction which enabled extremely long lives as the planking could be easily replaced.

Races between the 'full bloods', as the crack clippers were affectionately called, were a regular event, the most famous being in 1866 between the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Serica, the Taeping and the Taitsing. The ships left the Padoga Anchorage at Foochow, China, in that order, at the end of May to race to the London Docks, a distance of some 16,000 miles. After 20 days the Fiery Cross arrived at Anjer first having beaten down the China Sea. The Taitsing having left Foochow a day later than the others made up some time as they caught the favourable trade winds on the run down the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. At the Azores the first four ships were within a day of each other but on the approach to the English Channel the Fiery Cross dropped back. Logging 14 knots the Ariel and the Taeping ran up the channel within sight of each other for most of 5th September. The Serica, at this time was out of sight near the French coast. At 8.00 am on the morning of 6th September the Ariel signalled her number to the signal station at Deal, 98 days 22.5 hours after dropping the pilot at Foochow. Ten minutes later the Taeping did likewise. Both ships docked later the same day as did the Serica who just managed to squeeze in before the lock gates closed. The tea dealers were furious. While the rest of England celebrated the dealers had a glut of tea which led to depressed prices. The first home premium was later abandoned to prevent a repetition.

The Ariel and Taeping racing for home
Contemporary lithograph by TG Dutton



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