Captain John Keay desperately waited for a tugboat to take his ship, the high-speed clipper Ariel, up the Thames and into dock at London. Victory in that year’s tea race, and the prize money that went with it, was within his grasp, but a rival had been in sight not far behind for hours now. Even after 99 days at sea and nearly 16,000 nautical miles, the winner was going to be determined by mere minutes, and good luck, on 6 September 1866.


For just over a decade, clipper captains like Keay had competed in an unofficial annual race: to load the first crop of tea in China and sail as quickly as possible to be the first to unload it in Britain, where thirsty tea drinkers were waiting to have their cups filled with the freshest leaves. Originally introduced to the British en masse in the mid-17th century, tea had grown into one of the nation’s biggest imports by the 1800s. The hot drink was beloved at all levels of society and tea houses had proliferated, partly thanks to members of the temperance movement who encouraged the beverage as a healthy alternative to alcohol.

Such was the demand for tea that once the East India Company’s monopoly on the trade ended in the 1830s, competition among merchants got heated. They developed and refined designs for faster ships able to handle the conditions on the voyage between Britain and China. Clippers were the elegant result. Slim, streamlined and with a huge number of sails across their three masts to catch every gust of wind, they could reach high speeds even when laden with goods, making them ideal for transporting tea (as well as the opium being sold to China).

Merchants began racing their clippers to ensure their cargo would be first on the market in Britain each year. To up the ante, a financial incentive was introduced so that by the mid-1850s, the winner received a premium price of 10 shillings per tonne. There was also prestige to be won as the ‘tea races’ were covered in newspapers and bets made on the result.

The race is on

The most dramatic and closely contested race would take place in the summer of 1866. Of the nine clippers that gathered at the Pagoda Anchorage on the Min River, near Foochow (Fuzhou) in southeastern China, there were five with the best chance of winning. The recently launched Ariel, captained by John Keay, was the fastest – despite also being the heaviest – able to reach 16 knots due to more than 2,400 square metres of sail canvas. But it had to contend with fellow newcomer Taitsing; the proven speedster Taeping; the 1864 winner Serica, which, unlike the other wood-and-iron-framed clippers, was only built of wood and thus light; and Fiery Cross. Captained by Richard Robinson, the latter had won four of the last five races.

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The famous tea clipper Cutty Sark, restored in Falmouth harbour.
The Cutty Sark, built in the same year (and seen here in c1925), was regarded as the last great vessel of its kind. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Ariel got the better start, loading and stowing its 12,000 tea chests – overall, totalling 560,000kg – the quickest and being ready to depart by the evening of 28 May. But the tugboat assigned to tow it across the river was not powerful and Keay was forced to drop anchor and wait for high tide. On the Fiery Cross, Robinson had been so concerned about Ariel’s speed that he had set off as soon as the cargo was loaded, without clearing customs or completing the relevant paperwork. The other captains were furious, but his clipper opened up a 14-hour head start. Ariel could not get to sea until the morning of 30 May, with Taeping and Serica close behind. The race was on.

While ship records do not reveal much about life onboard, the need to maintain speed would have made for exhausting work. The captains would have driven them hard, regardless of the weather, and the cargo would be carefully shifted to optimise weight distribution.

Just 20 days in, Fiery Cross left the China Sea still in the lead. From there the route went across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up Africa’s western coast. Yet despite the distances covered, the clippers were occasionally so close that the crews could see each other. Taitsing had ended up departing a day too late to be in contention, especially as the other four made such good time. There were some days when they logged more than 300 miles. The weeks passed and the lead changed several times. With each fresh sighting and report in the newspapers, it was increasingly clear that this year’s race was going to be extremely tight. After three months at sea, all four clippers passed the Azores – a group of Atlantic islands west of Portugal – on the same day, 29 August.

Fierce pursuit

By the time England was sighted after 97 days at sea, the race could still have been won by anyone, as they approached the Channel practically in a line. At the front was Ariel, with Taeping in fierce pursuit. Throughout the day of 5 September, both logged speeds of 14 knots as they raced with all sails, aided by a strong wind. The unofficial finish line they aimed for was Deal, on the Kent coast, as that was where they had to signal for a tugboat to guide them into the Thames. It was early the next morning that Ariel got there, just minutes ahead of Taeping.

A picture of people transporting tea in the London Docks.
Tea was a main import for Britain, with merchants racing to transport it as quickly as possible. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Captain Keay was thrilled, but knew the race was not finished. The clippers needed to reach their respective docks. And much like at the start of the race, Ariel lost out by being towed by a weak tugboat and getting caught up in low tide, and it cost Keay and his crew the victory. While Taeping had further to go to reach London Docks, its shallower draft and more powerful tug meant it got there at 9.47pm on 6 September – just 28 minutes before Ariel completed its voyage at 10.15pm at East India Dock. Serica arrived under two hours later and Fiery Cross, unluckily held up by the tide, showed up on 8 September.

The race had taken 99 days, a week shorter than the previous year. No other race would be as hotly contested either. Taeping pipped Ariel to the docks, but Ariel had reached the point of calling in tugboats first. It was therefore agreed the prize premium would be split.

As it turned out, the 1866 thriller race was the last time the premium was given, and although the clippers performed superbly, their days were numbered. For Taeping and Ariel did not bring the first cargo of tea to Britain that year: an auxiliary steamship named Erl King had left China after the beginning of the race but took just 77 days to make the voyage. Soon, even new clippers could not keep up in the age of steam. In 1869 – the same year the last great tea clipper, the 17-knot Cutty Sark launched – the Suez Canal opened, slashing the journey between Asia and Europe by thousands of miles. But the route was unsuitable for the famous, and now obsolete, three-masted sail ships, and while the British love of tea continued to grow, they never again went to such lengths for a cuppa as the Great Tea Race of 1866.


This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.