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The "Cutty Sark"
The Story of a Legend The Cutty Sark From a painting by J Spurling (The Blue Peter)
On 23rd November, 1869, at the Dumbarton yard of Scott and Linton, the 963 ton "Cutty Sark" slid into the Clyde for the first time to become a legend. She was a small ship, only 212 feet long, with a 36 feet beam and a depth of 21 feet, but with a large spread of sail, she was, with the "Thermopylae",the fastest ship that moved through water powered by sail alone.The sail plan, designed by John Rennie, gave her 32,000 square feet of sail capable of attaining a speed of over 17 knots, equivalent to an engine of 3,000 hp.

The ship was built for Scotsman Captain John Willis Jrn and the name was taken from the short chemise of Robbie Burns's witch Nannie who formed the subject of the figurehead carved by master craftsman, Robert Hellyer of Blackwall. The Cutty Sark was registered in London due to the fact that John Willis's father, also a sea captain, had settled there.

Officers Dining Room< The Officers' Dining Room

The Mate < The Mate

The Ship's Pantry< The Pantry


'Old White Hat' Willis's ambition was to be first home in the annual tea race from China; his rival, the Thermopylae had been launched in 1868. Willis went to a young designer, Hercules Linton, who a recently gone into partnership on the Clyde with a man named Scott. The Cutty Sark was their first and last ship. Only the best labour and materials were to be used and the contract price was limited to £16,150. At £17 per ton Linton & Scott went bankrupt and the ship had to be finished by neighbours, Denny Bros. She was launched by Mrs George Moodie, wife of the first captain, and towed to Greenock for fitting out. On 16th February, 1870 she departed from London on her maiden voyage to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, a week before she was launched the Suez Canal was opened and this spelled doom for the tea clippers. Although considerably slower, the steamships of the day could get from China to London through the canal and Mediterranean quicker than a clipper working the trade winds and going via the Cape of Good Hope.

The Cutty Sark never won the Tea Race and this disappointed 'Old White Hat'. Tea races were won by hard masters who drove their ships relentlessly in all weathers, taking calculated risks to gain an hour here and a minute there. Captain Kemball of the "Thermopylae" was such a master, but Captain Moodie, in "Cutty Sark", was not such a man. He was a competent and conscientious seaman but lacked the drive needed for a Tea Race winner. His times were good but not good enough to take first prize.

Captain George Moodie< Captain George Moodie

The Cutty Sark and the Thermopylae only met on equal terms once, in 1872. Both ships loaded at Shanghai and left Woosung on the same day. At the entrance to the Indian Ocean at Anjer the Thermopylae was ahead by 1.5 miles but 26 days later, on 16th August, 1872, when Cutty Sark was some 400 miles ahead, she lost her rudder in a heavy gale. Willis's brother was onboard at the time for the benefit of his health and tried to order Moodie to put in at Cape Town for repairs. After a blazing row, during which Moodie threatened to put Willis in irons for mutiny, a jury rudder was devised by the ship's carpenter, Henry Henderson, who became the hero of the occasion.

Hendersen came from Kincardine in Firth and was a master shipwright on the construction of the Cutty Sark. It was he who selected the timbers that went into her construction. He then sailed in the ship as ship's carpenter and served under the first three captains. He was a firm favourite of old John Willis. The jury rudder was made up of spare spars and iron stanchions in conditions which were severe. The gale was still blowing and heavy seas were still sweeping the decks but at the end of six days the job was completed but not without drama. On one occasion, while working the bellows on the brazier needed for forging the ironwork, the captain's son was covered in embers when the brazier was overturned in the force of the gale. On another occasion the sailmaker narrowly missed having his face burned by a red hot bar when the blacksmith was swept off his feet. The rudder was worked by chains linked to the ship's wheel and the whole operation was an amazing feat of seamanship. For his achievement Henry Henderson was awarded a testimonial and a cheque for £50 by the owner who recognised his genius. However, the owners had ample reason to reward Henderson's achievement. It later transpired that both the ship and the freight were uninsured. When the ship arrived home Captain Moodie, who was still furious with the owner's brother, resigned his command and transferred to steam.

The Cutty Sark In Dry DockThe "Cutty Sark" in dry dock showing her sleek lines.

Captain Moodie was replaced by Captain FW Moore who had been working ashore for Willis. Of mature years he was not a driver and in the tea race of that year the Cutty Sark took 117 days, 14 days longer than Thermopylae. Four months later the iron ship Hallowe'en took only 90 days. Moore came ashore once again to be replaced by Captain WE Tiptaft. Tiptaft, again, was not a driver but a quiet, competent master and excellent seaman who, in excellent conditions, achieved some fast times. On his first voyage in December 1873, with a general cargo, she sailed on her first voyage to Sydney. With a cargo of coal. She then went to Shanghai where her agents sent her to Hankow, which involved a 600 mile tow up the River Yangtze, to look for a tea cargo as the steamships were taking the prime cargoes. The return trip to London took 118 days, but in the next year Cutty Sark had the satisfaction of making the passage to Sydney in a record 73 days. However, after taking 1,100 tons of coal to Shanghai and loading tea in Hankow the return passage of 122 days was not noteworthy.

By 1875, steamships were providing stiff competition for the clippers. In that year Tiptaft brought Cutty Sark home from Woosung in 108 days but the SS Glenartney, one of Glen Line's steamers entering the tea trade, took only 42 days through the canal. The clippers could no longer compete on these terms and in 1877 Cutty Sark brought her last cargo of tea from Woosung in 127 days.

The Cutty Sark nearly met her end on the Goodwin Sands at the latter end of 1877. Between the 10th - 12th November a great winter gale raged and over sixty ships where sheltering in the Downs off Deal. The Cutty Sark's anchors parted and she drove through the anchorage causing damage to two ships before becoming stuck hard on the mud bank. Tiptaft set of flares to seek assistance and on the following Monday morning the tug Macgregor just succeeded in pulling Cutty Sark clear before she stranded. With the help of the tug Benachie she was towed into the River Thames where she was repaired and refitted. Claims by the other ships for damages could not be proved with thanks, in part, to Henry Henderson who had the foresight to throw a broken nameboard from one of the other ships overboard.

Apprentices Accommodation< Accommodation for 8 Apprentices

The Ships Upper Deck < The Upper Deck

The Bosun< The Bosun

After the near disaster on the Goodwin Sands Tiptaft took the Cutty Sark back to China and Hankow but had difficulty in securing a full cargo. This was his last duty as, back in Shanghai, Tiptaff died. He was replaced by his mate, Captain JS Wallace, a likeable man, a competent seaman and above all, a driver. Had he been in command earlier the Cutty Sark would, no doubt, have performed much better in the tea races.

Wallace was also unable to find a cargo in Shanghai so he took the ship to Sydney and, in doing so, had a remarkable run; 16 days to Anjer, 42 days to South Cape and 46 days to a position 40 miles southeast of Sydney. Returning to China from Sydney in 1879 Wallace again failed to secure a tea cargo and returned to Melbourne, Australia where he loaded Cutty Sark's first wool cargo for New York. After leaving New York for London on 14th February,1880 he drove the ship so hard that she beat all rivals and entered the Thames on 5th March after 19 days at sea.

Crew Of The Cutty SarkA photograph of the crew taken by Captain Woodget.
The chap on the right in the round hat is Tony Robson the Cutty Sark's famous Chinese cook who had been picked up as a baby alone on a raft in mid ocean. Nobody knew who he was, potential prince or pauper, but he grew up on English ships and became an excellent seaman and cook.

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