History of the Merchant Navy

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.

John Willis now faced the fact that the tea trade was finished and the Cutty Sark had to be deployed in other trades. This also brought about the beginning of a very unhappy and luckless period for the Cutty Sark. For a voyage to the East in the summer of 1880 Wallace had the misfortune to engage a ‘bucko’ or rogue mate called Smith, a belligerent coloured seaman named Francis and an old doom merchant with the apt name of Vanderdecken. During an argument Smith, who was being provoked as he was being threatened with a capstan bar, struck Francis so hard that he killed him. The captain managed to control the near mutinous crew and put Smith under close arrest and then made for Anjer. But Wallace was kind-hearted and let Smith escape to avoid possible indictment for willful murder. This incensed the crew and the incident preyed on Wallace’s mind so much so that, four days after leaving Anjer, he threw himself overboard. Lifebelts were thrown into the sea and a boat was lowered but, as these were shark infested seas, no trace was found of Captain Wallace. The ship was left temporarily in the command of the incompetent second mate who nearly wrecked her on Thwart-the-Way Island before limping back to Anjer. The ship was then taken to Singapore and the mate of the Hallowe’en, which was lying in Hong Kong, was dispatched by Willis to take command.

The new captain, Bruce, was incompetent, obese, hypocritical, a bully and physical coward; a supposedly religious man who found more comfort in a bottle. His time in commend was un eventful except for the fact that he carried the first cargo of Indian tea from Calcutta to Melbourne. Finally, in New York after carrying a cargo of Jute from Cebu, Bruce and his mate had their certificates suspended. Bruce had refused to discharge the second mate who, in turn, made a complaint to the local Consul. An investigation ensued during which the misdemeanors and malpractices of Bruce and his mate came to light. The entire crew were paid off leaving John Willis with a problem; what to do with Cutty Sark.

Accommodation for 12 crew

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich

Willis solved the problem by transferring the captain, FW Moore, and most of the crew from the Blackadder. Moore found the ship in a deplorable condition bordering on criminal neglect but, by the time Cutty Sark returned to London in 1883 she was ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’ once again. Captain Moore made two round the world voyages to Australia, in 1883 and 1884, during that time showed what the ship could really do under all weathers. Her spars had been cut down and the crew reduced from 28 to 22,21 or even 19 and she thrived. Taking 79 days from the English Channel to Newcastle, NSW and 82 days on the return in 1883 she beat all rivals, making the fastest passage of the year.

The wool trade was completely different from the tea trade. Whereas, with tea the first ship home brought the freshest tea, with wool the aim was to be home in time to catch the January and February wool sales. Consequently, the slower ships departed first with the fastest clippers remaining in Australia to pick up the later shearings. The Cutty Sark came into her own as a wool clipper and consistently outstripped all rivals including the Thermopylae.

After his two hugely successful voyages Captain Moore was promote to the command of the Tweed, flagship of the fleet. He was replaced by Captain Richard Woodget who had, since 1881, commanded the Coldstream and had achieved some remarkable passage times. Woodget’e salary was £186 per annum; Moore had earned £200.

Captain Richard Woodget

Captain Woodget had learned his seamanship skills the hard way, he had gone to sea as a hand in the East Coast billyboys and coasters. The son of Norfolk farmer he had learned how to get the best out of a ship and his appointment could not have been more fortuitous for the Cutty Sark. Apart from being a superb seaman he was also a brilliant leader of men. He would never let a crewman do anything that he could not do himself and this attitude brought the best out of his crew. His apprentices worshipped him. He spent his spare time, what there was of it, breeding prizewinning collies and was an avid photographer. Man and ship were perfectly matched.
The wool trade route round Cape Horn and through the Roaring Forties suited the Cutty Sark far better that the tea run and Captain Woodget was eager to put her through her paces. Leaving the East India Dock on 1st April, 1885 she crossed the Equator 20 days later, passed the Cape 26 days later arriving in Port Jackson, Sydney 77 days from passing Start Point in Devon. On one occasion, on 4th June, she made 330 miles in 24 hours with the wind still ahead of her beam. She was the winner of the race out beating the Samuel Plimsoll by one day. The voyage home was even faster. From Sydney to the Channel took only 67 days but calm conditions meant that she took 5 days to complete the remaining 305 miles to the Downs. With a total time of 73 days she was the easy winner beating her rival Thermopylae by 7 days.

“Old White Hat” was thrilled by this performance and decided to have another go for a tea cargo. In 1866 the Cutty Sark took scrap iron to Shanghai but, on arrival, found that the steamships had the monopoly of tea cargoes. After waiting 3.5 months Woodget sailed in ballast to Sydney arriving too late to load wool for the wool sales. He waited until March, loaded wool and raced back to London in 72 days, the Thermopylae taking 87 days. In 1888 Woodget did it again with a record passage of 71 days .from Newcastle, NSW to Dungeness; Thermopylae took 79 days from Sydney to London and Loch Vennachar 80days fro Melbourne. In 1889, although completing a fast passage in 82 days she was beaten by the Nebo who took 82, the Thermopylae taking 95 days. The two rivals had had their last race for, in 1990, Thermopylae was sold to Canada and spent the next 5 years carrying rice across the Pacific fro the East.

A photograph of the Cutty Sark taken by Captain Woodget
The photograph was taken in the open sea with a camera supported on a plank of wood fixed between two of the ship’s boats.

The Cutty Sark won the wool race in 1891 with a passage of 93 days and on 5th November, sailed from Sydney to make the fastest passage of 85 days to the Lizard with Cimba a close second in 87 days. In January 1893, Woodget was unable to obtain a cargo for London and had to load for Antwerp leaving Sydney on the 7th. During this passage home the Cutty Sark encountered a large ice-field and also lost two men when they were washed off the flying-jib boom. The boats could not be lowered as the sea was too rough but Woodget searched for two hours to no avail. Woodget noted in his journal that, at no time during his seven years in command, the Cutty Sark had never put the jib boom under water.

Her next cargo was for Hull and she left Australia on 24th December 1894 with 5,010 bales of wool worth about £100,000. 87 days later, on 21st March 1885 she sighted the Scilly Isles but took a further six days to reach Hull where she became the object of great interest by the locals. That was her last voyage from Sydney. After being partially dismasted on the next outward passage she put into Brisbane to load an incredible 5,304 bales of wool which put her two inches below her Plimsoll marks. On 9th December, 1894 she left Brisbane on what was to be her final voyage under the ‘Red Duster’. When she arrived back in London, some 84 days later, on 26th March, 1895, Woodget was infuriated when he found out that “Old White Hat” was selling the Cutty Sark to the Portuguese. Willis gave him the Coldinghame but a unhappy Woodget only made one voyage on her before he retired from the sea. Returning to his native Norfolk he bought a farm at Burnham Overy and farmed there until he died on 6th March, 1928, aged 82 years.

The Portuguese Ferreira brothers changed her name to the Ferreira of Lisbon and she continued to trade round the world for the next 26 years. Although times were hard for sailing ships the Ferreira brothers did their best to maintain the ship and keep her in good condition. Some credit must be given to them for enabling her to become, by 1922, the only clipper ship left in the world. However, the Ferreira’s found it difficult to make her pay and sold her to another Portuguese company who renamed her Maria do Amparo but only for a few months.

Captain Wilfred Dowman

In January 1922, the Ferreira, having left London for Lisbon, had to seek refuge from a storm in Falmouth. There she was spotted by Captain Wilfred Dowman who had always admired her since passing in 1894 her while on the Hawksdale during his apprenticeship. Captain Dowman, negotiated her purchase from the Portuguese and had her towed back to Falmouth. Together with his wife, who also shared his enthusiasm for the Cutty Sark, Captain Dowman began the task of restoring the old ship to her former glory and thus began the chapter in the history of the ship which still continues today at Greenwich.

In 1924 Captain Woodget made a nostalgic coastal voyage to Fowey 29 years after leaving the ship as master.

The Cutty Sark alongside HMS Worcester

Captain Dowman died in 1936 and in 1938 his widow generously presented the Cutty Sark to the Thames Nautical Training College so that she could be used to train both and Royal and Merchant Navy officers. She was towed to the Thames by the William Watkin’s tug Muria to be moored alongside HMS Worcester. From that day on her teak covered hull would only respond to the ebbing and flowing of the River Thames.

In 1951 she was moved to Green & Silley Weir’s Blackwall yard for a modest refurbishment prior to the Festival of Britain, during which time she was moored above Greenwich to be appreciated by visitors to the Festival. She returned to the Blackwall yard to be fully overhauled and reconditioned in 1954 and while she was there Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons built the drydock at Greenwich for her final resting place. Now safe from the ravages of the sea which she did her best to conquer the Cutty Sark rests at Greenwich as a permanent memorial to the sailing merchantmen who were the backbone of British supremacy at sea for so many hundreds of years

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich (The English Tourist Board)

When John “Old White Hat” Willis asked Hercules Linton to build him a ship could he ever have imagined that his dream, the CUTTY SARK would, 131 years later, be proudly resplendent in her former glory alongside the Millennium Dome still with an indefinite future ahead of her.

The story of the Cutty Sark has been extracted from a booklet published many years ago called ‘The Cutty Sark and the Days of Sail” by Frank G.G. Carr, M.A. F.S.A for the Cutty Sark Preservation Society. Our thanks are given to the original contributors.

For further information about sailing ships and the Cutty Sark consider-
Clipper Ships and the Cutty Sark
by David Johnson
The Log of the Cutty Sark
by Basil Lubbock

The Cutty Sark Preservation Society is engaged in continual restoration work that fine vessel. If you would like some information on what they are up to at the moment and how you can help visit; www.cuttysark.org.uk or E-mail them at info@cuttysark.org.uk They will be pleased to hear from you.