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The Clippers (continued)

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.

The iron ship "HesperusThe 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.

The "Cimba"The "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.

"Old White Hat" John Willis"Old White Hat" John Willis, the original owner of the Cutty Sark.

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.

Interested in reading about the 400 or so sailing and early steam postal packets that operated out of Falmouth before 1850? Then visit Andy Campbell's website www.falmouth.packet.archives.dial.pipex.com

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