History of the Merchant Navy

The Clippers

Since the days of Charles II tea had always been imported into Britain from China, carried for 150 years by the lordly East Indiamen. In London a year’s supply of tea was always kept in reserve in case the ships were captured even though they travelled in convoy. Thus the tea drunk was about twelve months old. After the Anglo-Chinese war of 1839-42 the restriction of trade by the Chinese to only Canton was lifted and additional ports, Hong Kong, Foochow, Shanghai and Hankow, were opened up for trade. Trade increased, the Honourable East India Company lost its monopoly and smaller ships were, by now, carrying the tea. With additional supply available the tea dealers in London had to find ways of increasing the sales of tea and one way was to advertise and promote its freshness. A newer tea had a better flavour and the demand grew for fresh tea.

The gathered tea was ready for shipment in June and July but this coincided with the south-west monsoon season which saw strong winds blowing up the China Sea. Square-rigged sailing ships cannot sail very close to the wind and have to tack their way to and fro across a head wind. This meant that, before they could enter the Indian Ocean, they had to beat their way through the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra against a head wind which increased the overall passage time. Consequently, by the end of the 1840’s several ships of around 400 tons had been designed to overcome this problem; ships that could beat to windward and reduce passage times.

A lithograph of the clipper "Sussex"A lithograph of the clipper “Sussex”
(Hamlyn Group Picture Library)

Up until 1849 Britain had protected its foreign trade through the Navigation Acts. Originally enacted in 1651 in an attempt to oust the Dutch from the carrying trade the Acts required that goods shipped between England and the newly established colonies and vice versa could only be carried in ships owned, commanded and substantially manned by Englishmen. Resentment by the Americans of this limitation of trade was the cause of the American War of Independence.

The Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849 which created opportunities for foreign owned ships to bring cargoes to Britain. At the same time gold was discovered in California which led to the Americans building numerous large clippers on the east coast to deliver the gold hungry prospectors to the gold fields. But, once this had been achieved, they could sail to China, pick up a cargo of tea and deliver to England before returning to America for another batch of prospectors. The Americans achieved a reputation which guaranteed them higher freight rates, £6-£7 against the £3-£4 per ton paid to British shipowners. There was obviously a lot of rivalry but it began to cool in 1855 when the gold rush fizzled out and when the American Civil War broke out in 1861 all competition was removed. Competition between the British owners continued for another decade or so.

The American clippers were large compared with the British ships and this, in fact, created problems at the Chinese ports who were only geared to load the smaller vessels. Also, larger clippers were not necessarily faster and not as manoeuverable through the hazards of the China Sea.

The iron barque "Killarney"The iron barque “Killarney”, built at Liverpool in 1892
From a painting by John A Speer of Auckland, New Zealand.


In the early 1850’s the British shipowners went to the Aberdeen shipyards for their ships and, as a result, the yard of Alexander Hall & Sons built some of the fastest clippers of that decade including Reindeer (1848), Stornoway (1850), Chrysolite (1851), Cairngorm (1853), Vision (1854) and Robin Hood (1856). All these ships full-rigged carrying four or five yards on each mast, deployed studdingsails on each side and had the distinctive Aberdeen clipper bow which were less ornate than the traditional practice. The design of the Cairngorm embodied the builder’s ideas of what a clipper should be and was built without a firm order from an owner. A big risk for the shipbuilder but Alexander Hall & Sons were proved right as the Cairngorm was purchased by Jardine, Matheson & Co for the tea trade and she proved to be one of the fastest clippers during the 1850’s. She cost £15,434 to build and was registered at 939 tons and was acknowledged as ‘ Cock of the Walk’ as she made many fast passages. In 1858-9 she made her fastest homeward passage from Macau to Deal in 91 days.

Originally, the term ‘clipper’ was applied to any fast ship but today’s researchers have laid down some conditions which must be met before a ship can be classified as a clipper. They must have the lines of a yacht and capable of high speeds at all times; cargo carrying capabilities are not a consideration. The larger American clippers achieved speeds of up to 21 knots but, even so, some smaller British clippers such as Cutty Sark and Thermopylae were capable of achieving 17 knots or 360 miles a day.

Alexander Hall & Sons weren’t the only shipyard building clippers. On the Solway Firth Benjamin Nicholson of Annan built the Annandale, the Queensbery and the Shakspere, and further south, at Sunderland, John Pile built the barques Spirit of the Age and Spirit of the North while his brother William built Crest of the Wave, Spray of the Ocean, Kelso and the Lammermuir. Further south on the River Thames Bilbe and Perry of Rotherhithe built the Celestial,the Lauderdale and the Wynaud.

The iron ship "Loch Vennachar"The iron ship “Loch Vennachar”, built by J & G Thompson, Glasgow for the Glasgow Shipping Company in 1875. After a mixed career she went missing on a voyage from Glasgow to Australia in 1905.

When gold was discovered in Australia in 1851 a number extremely sharp clippers were constructed entirely in iron. Although some were used in the tea trade they were viewed with suspicion as it was suspected that lack of ventilation in the hold damaged the quality of the tea. Two of the ships built in 1853, on the River Clyde, were the Gauntlet and the Lord of the Isles considered to be ‘the most perfect clipper ship ever launched on the Clyde, and she appears more like a yacht of large tonnage than a private merchant ship’. (London Illustrated News) The LIN’s accolade applied to the Gauntlet but it equally applied to the Lord of the Isles whose fastest passage from China to London was 90 days (87 to the Lizard) achieved in 1858-59. In those days the measurement of a passage time was inconsistent. It could mean either the time elapsed between losing sight of land and seeing it again on arrival or the time between dropping the harbour pilot on departure and picking one up on arrival.

In the 1860’s the shipbuilder Robert Steele & Sons of Greenock were to assert themselves as the builders of more stylised clippers. Although long established, having already built the Kate Carnie and Ellen Rodger, it was more likely the building of the Falcon launched in 1859 which brought the company to prominence as builders of tea clippers.

In 1860 the Fiery Cross, designed by renowned naval architect William Rennie, had been built by Chaloner of Liverpool and was fast and successful. 185 feet long, maximum breadth 31.7 feet with a hold depth of 19.2 feet she was registered at 695 tons and first ship home to claim the £1 per ton, first to dock in London, premium in 1861, 1862, 1893 and 1864, due in a lot of respects to the sailing skills of her first two captains, John Dallas and Richard Robinson.

The success of the Fiery Cross inspired other shipbuilders including Robert Steele & Sons who went on to build the Taeping (1863), the Ariel (1865), the Sir Lancelot (1865), the Titania (1866), the Lahloo (1867 and the Kaisow (1868). These ships were fast and in 1866-67 the Ariel took only 80 days from dropping the pilot in London to picking up the pilot in Hong Kong; in 1869 Sir Lancelot took 84 days between Foochow and the Lizard and in 1871 the Titania did the same voyage in 93 days. The success of these ships was due to being able to maintain relatively high speeds in light winds and being able to beat to windward in a stiff breeze.

A Painting of the “Titania” (PM Wood)

However, aside from the glamour of winning the first home premium and constructing beautiful ships the underlying consideration was always money, the ships had to be profitable. The shipbuilders were competing against each other for orders and, consequently, construction costs, or control of them, was important. Robert Steele & Sons were probably quoting no more than £18 per ton which would have meant building a composite hull: iron frames with wooden exterior planking. The Cutty Sark is a perfect example of this type of construction which enabled extremely long lives as the planking could be easily replaced.

Races between the ‘full bloods’, as the crack clippers were affectionately called, were a regular event, the most famous being in 1866 between the Fiery Cross, the Ariel, the Serica, the Taeping and the Taitsing. The ships left the Padoga Anchorage at Foochow, China, in that order, at the end of May to race to the London Docks, a distance of some 16,000 miles. After 20 days the Fiery Cross arrived at Anjer first having beaten down the China Sea. The Taitsing having left Foochow a day later than the others made up some time as they caught the favourable trade winds on the run down the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. At the Azores the first four ships were within a day of each other but on the approach to the English Channel the Fiery Cross dropped back. Logging 14 knots the Ariel and the Taeping ran up the channel within sight of each other for most of 5th September. The Serica, at this time was out of sight near the French coast. At 8.00 am on the morning of 6th September the Ariel signalled her number to the signal station at Deal, 98 days 22.5 hours after dropping the pilot at Foochow. Ten minutes later the Taeping did likewise. Both ships docked later the same day as did the Serica who just managed to squeeze in before the lock gates closed. The tea dealers were furious. While the rest of England celebrated the dealers had a glut of tea which led to depressed prices. The first home premium was later abandoned to prevent a repetition.

The Ariel and Taeping racing for home
Contemporary lithograph by TG Dutton



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