History explorer: the golden age of sail

Andrew Lambert and Spencer Mizen visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich to explore how a new class of sailing ship, the clipper, transformed global trade

The Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London. (Photo by Dreamstime)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The humble cup of tea has been credited with all kinds of health benefits down the centuries, from strengthening bones to boosting the immune system. But could it really have been the driving force behind one of history’s greatest pieces of maritime engineering? It sounds rather unlikely – until you spend a couple of hours aboard the Cutty Sark.

The Cutty Sark’s golden years are well behind her now. Today she sits regally in historic Greenwich, a unique, endlessly fascinating yet entirely motionless relic of an era when Britain did, to all intents and purposes, rule the waves. But a century and a half ago she was anything but motionless, slicing through the oceans at higher speeds than virtually any other vessel on Earth to bring back to these shores her precious cargo of – yes, you guessed it – tea.

To a landlubber layman, the Cutty Sark looks much like any other sailing ship – a tangled, if elegant, mass of timber and rigging. But to those in the know – such as naval historian Andrew Lambert – she was the acme of sailing-ship design, a state-of-the-art piece of maritime engineering that helped redefine the way that Britain moved goods such as tea around the world.

The Cutty Sark represented a new breed of sailing ship: a clipper. This small, rapid class of vessel emerged in the 1840s, crossing the world’s oceans at previously unheard-of speeds and revolutionising the process of trade.

“The traditional merchant ship – which dominated the world’s sea lanes in the early 19th century – was slow and capacious, often loaded down with bulky, low-value goods,” says Andrew, as the vessel’s towering masts loom over us. “Clippers changed all that, almost overnight. They combined the virtues of a merchant ship and a racing yacht, boasting a very fine hull form designed to slice through the water quickly, and a massive sail area.

“These were highly sophisticated wind-catching machines, and their speed was phenomenal. A standard merchant ship would make 10mph on a good day, whereas the fastest clippers could hit speeds of over 17 knots – 20mph. So in effect you’re trans-forming the transit van into a Formula 1 car.”

Britain may have ruled the waves but it was the Americans who pioneered this ultra-rapid class of vessel – spurred on, to a great extent, by the Californian gold rush. When gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, north-east of San Francisco, in 1848, there was suddenly a powerful incentive to travel from one side of the US to the other very quickly. So a fleet of clippers was soon racing from New York round Cape Horn to California in record times. One such ship, Flying Cloud, completed the voyage in 89 days and 8 hours – a record that would stand for well over 100 years.

It goes without saying that Britain wasn’t about to sit around and watch another nation steal her maritime thunder. Yet when a phalanx of ever more streamlined and rapid clippers began emerging from British dockyards throughout the 1850s, it wasn’t because of some deficit in national pride, but an economic imperative.

Tea and capes

“Sometime in the late 18th century, Britain became a tea-drinking nation,” says Lambert. “Everyone was drinking it – from the elite, who were buying particular high-end brands, to those at the other end of the social ladder, who were drinking more humdrum varieties. The upshot was that there was a massive demand for tea grown in China, and a huge amount of money to be made by those who could deliver that tea to the shores of Britain – and, importantly, deliver it before everyone else.”

Enter a canny Scottish businessman by the name of Jock Willis. He was quick to spot the money-making potential of swiftly delivering a high-value cargo to Britain from the tea-growing fields of China, and commissioned the building of a ship in Dumbarton, Scotland, capable of doing just that. Rather bizarrely, he named her after a short nightdress worn by a witch in the Robert Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter: the ‘cutty-sark’.

The Cutty Sark bankrupted the company that built her. But it wasn’t long after she started plying the tea trade in 1869 – racing down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope and then on up to China, returning home in a round trip of about eight months – that she was making her owner vast amounts of money.

“The Cutty Sark cost about £16,000 [roughly £1m in 2016 terms] to build,” says Lambert. “That sounds like a lot of money – until you consider that a full cargo of tea was worth close to £300,000, or about £18.5m in modern money. It’s safe to say that she was turning a handsome profit almost immediately.”

And it wasn’t just Jock Willis who was doing very nicely out of the Cutty Sark.

“The British government imposed a 100 per cent import levy on tea. It’s been calculated that this levy alone covered the entire cost of running the Royal Navy in the first half of the 19th century. Ships such as the Cutty Sark were serious money-spinners.”

They were also seriously famous. Such was the demand for tea that the first clipper to arrive back in London each year would fetch a premium price for its cargo. Every shipbuilder wanted their vessels to win this honour, so they began to race back from China, their progress recorded by Lloyds of London and wired back to newspapers in Britain.

“The tea race was a great public event,” says Lambert. “The fastest clippers such as the Thermopylae, the Taeping and, of course, the Cutty Sark became household names. People were genuinely on the edge of their seats, waiting to see which ship would be the first to unload her cargo in East India Docks – many because they’d gambled considerable amounts of money on the outcome.

“As just about the last – and, probably, the best – clipper ever built, the Cutty Sark was arguably the fastest of the lot, but she never won the tea race. One year she was leading by miles when her rudder gave way, and she eventually limped home in second place.”

Almost as remarkable as the speed with which these ships crossed the world’s oceans was the fact that they could do so unimpeded by pirates or enemy ships. This was a sign of Britain’s dominance of the oceans, says Lambert. “The Cutty Sark had no armaments, it couldn’t defend itself, and could easily be captured. But Britain controlled the oceans. There was no one to threaten its pre-eminence on the seas and, therefore, its ships.”

Such was British maritime dominance in this period that by the middle of the 19th century its sailing ships – notably, vessels such as the Cutty Sark – had forged what Lambert calls the “first truly global economy”.

“The ability of ships to sail around the globe regularly and reliably, carrying people, cargo and mail to India, China, Australia and the Americas, linked up the world for the very first time,” he says. “The British were able to refine this system by creating submarine telegraph networks, enabling them to control their shipping better, wiring messages across the globe that enabled them to react quickly as market conditions changed.”

This ability to control the global trading network was the key to the success of the British empire. “It was an empire of finance, not of territory,” says Lambert. “The centre of Australia is just desert, and much of Canada is white desert. Britain didn’t rule that, and it wasn’t important. What was important were the sea lanes that connected Britain to the empire and the market that Britain dominated.”

Suez crisis for sail

But for clippers such as the Cutty Sark, things were about to change. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and in doing so triggered the long, slow decline of the age of sail.

“Sailing ships were always more suited to going round Africa to reach China than steam ships, because the latter had a limited range and needed to refuel,” says Lambert. “The Suez Canal changed all that. Sailing ships found it hard to navigate the Mediterranean and had to be towed down the Red Sea. They found themselves up against steamships that were getting faster and faster, more economical – and that were now travelling on a quicker route.”

The rise of the steamship was too relentless even for a ship of the pedigree of the Cutty Sark. By 1878 she was forced to ply alternative trade routes, from 1883 bringing back wool from Australia to feed the massive mills in the north of England – and, incidentally, smashing the record for the quickest return journey between Sydney and London by 25 days. But soon that route, too, became economically unviable, and in 1895 Jock Willis sold the ship to a Portuguese company, who renamed her Ferreira.

For the following half-century this symbol of British imperial might served in obscurity. Damaged by numerous storms, in 1954 she was moved to a custom-built dry dock at Greenwich, where she was preserved as a museum ship – a memorial to the seamen who lost their lives in the two world wars.

Apart from a brief hiatus after fire ravaged the ship in 2007, the public’s enthusiasm for this maritime treasure has been unwavering. Some 250,000 visitors descend on Greenwich each year to explore the only British-built clipper that survives today – one that boasts 90 per cent of her original hull, the world’s largest collection of merchant navy figureheads and a museum exploring her colourful past. It is, as Andrew Lambert asserts, “an exceptional interpretation of a unique period in the design of the sailing ship”.

Historical advisor: Andrew Lambert, Laughton professor of naval history at King’s College London. Words: Spencer Mizen.

Golden age of sail: five more places to explore

1) Chatham Historic Dockyard (Kent)

Where Britain’s navy was born

The shipwrights of Chatham prepared Queen Elizabeth’s ships to face the Spanish Armada, and in the 17th century this port on the Medway became the Royal Navy’s primary dockyard. Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was one of the finest to be built here, while vessels such as the frigate HMS Unicorn (now in Dundee) were constructed to re-equip the navy after the Napoleonic wars.

Visit thedockyard.co.uk

2) HMS Trincomalee (Hartlepool)

Where Nelson’s navy was restored

Built in 1816–17 in the Wadia Shipyards at Bombay (now Mumbai), this Leda-class frigate was one of several constructed with Malabar teak when English oak was in short supply. Later used as a training vessel before being transported to Hartlepool, the Trincomalee is now the oldest British warship afloat.

Visit hms-trincomalee.co.uk

3) Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Where the largest warship was built

Nine years before the Cutty Sark first set out for China, Britain’s first iron-hulled warship was launched on the Thames.

The pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet, HMS Warrior was the world’s fastest, largest and most powerful ship of her day. She now rests, with Nelson’s Victory, at Portsmouth.

Visit historicdockyard.co.uk

4) Kathleen and May (Liverpool)

Where British trade docked

Even after steamships succeeded clippers on international trade routes, sailing vessels still plied the waters around Britain. Built in north Wales in 1900, Kathleen and May, Britain’s last working three-mast wooden-hull topsail schooner, carried cargoes between Cardiff, Liverpool, Scotland, Ireland, south-west England and the Channel Islands. She is now based at Liverpool’s Albert Dock.

Visit kathleenandmay.co.uk

5) RRS Discovery (Dundee)

Where the era of sail ended

A new ship was required to carry the great Antarctic expedition of 1901, whose members included Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Using the basic design of the great Dundee whalers of the 19th century, the RRS Discovery was the last wooden three-masted ship built in Britain. She can now be visited at Dundee’s Discovery Quay.

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Visit rrsdiscovery.com