Robert Steele's ships weren't the
only ones striving for supremacy of the seas, there were other
splendid clippers plying the oceans. At Sunderland, William
Pile had designed and built the Maitland and the Udine, in
Glasgow Charles Connell built the Taitsing, the Spindrift
and the Windhover. William Rennie designed the Norman Court
and the Black Prince, and the Caliph had be produced by the
Aberdeen yard of Alexander Hall & Sons. Also in Aberdeen,
the yard of Walter Hood & Co built the Leander and the
Thermopylae, both designed by Bernard Waymouth. Finally, over
in Dumbarton, Scott & Linton built the best remembered
clipper of them all, the Cutty Sark.
iron ship "Hesperus", built for Anderson, Anderson
& Co (the Orient Line) by Robert Steele & Co, Greenock.
She was purchased by Devitt & Moore in 1890 and then sold
to Russia in 1899.
From a painting by J Spurling.
(The Blue Peter)
The ships ranged in size from
750 tons to 950 tons, were commanded by highly skilled ship
masters with handpicked crews of about 30 men so they were fairly
evenly matched. Many seamen considered that the Thermopylae
was the fastest all-round clipper. Launched in 1868 she was
registered at 948 tons. With a green-painted hull, white masts
and snow-white canvas sails she must have looked magnificent
setting sail in the Downs at the commencement of her maiden
voyage in November 1868. Her first voyage was momentous. The
duration between Lizard Point and Cape Otway, near Melbourne,
Australia was only 60 days and the Australian press marvelled
at her speed. From Melbourne she proceeded to Newcastle where
she loaded coal and, 28 days after leaving New South Wales arrived
in Shanghai. On 3rd July, 1869 she left Foochow with a cargo
of tea and was back off Lizard Point 89 days later. The records
for all three legs had been broken but Captain Kemball's elation
was short lived as, 12 days later, the Sir Lancelot made the
voyage between Foochow and Lizard Point in 84 days.
"Cimba" from a painting by J Spurling. (The Blue Peter)
Another fast clipper was the
Lothair built by the Walker yard on the Thames for Killick Martin
& Co in 1870, and one of the last composite vessels to be
built. On one occasion she was observed to be travelling at
around 17 knots and she made some exceptionally fast passages
with tea to New York. By now, steamships and the newly opened
Suez Canal had started to force the clippers out of the tea
run to London.
Also in 1870, the Greenwich yard
of Maudslay, Sons & Field built the Blackadder and the Hallowe'en,
both constructed in iron, for John Willis. The Hallowe'en achieved
some remarkable speeds from Shanghai, 91, 92, and 91 days for
the first three voyages.
White Hat" John Willis, the original owner of the Cutty
In the previous year, 1869, John
Willis had had the Cutty Sark built in Dumbarton with the intention
of beating the Thermopylae. In 1872 the ships had a very close
race but only to the Cape of Good Hope where the Cutty Sark
had the misfortune to lose her rudder but still managed to arrive
in London only a week behind. Although constructed with a sharp-bodied
hull and and capable of high speeds with a large spread of canvas
the Cutty Sark never made the voyage from China in less that
100 days. The fast passages achieved by clippers were, in many
respects due, to the temperament of the captain. Fast passages
were attained through daring, nerve and the skill to push the
clippers to their limits. Clipper captains could be bullies,
hell-fire preachers, pious, or even strong and silent, but they
could all drive ships.
When the Suez Canal opened in
1869 steamships could bring home the tea much quicker than clippers
and therefore received higher freight rates. The races continued
until 1875 but with freight rates as low as £1.50 to £2
per ton it was no longer economical and they were switched to
other trades. The Cutty Sark, built too late for the tea trade,
was switched to the Australian wool trade, where, under the
command of Captain Woodget, she was fast and virtually unbeatable.