History of the Merchant Navy

The Evolution of Sail

There are very few sailing ships around nowadays and most of those are used for training purposes or, as here in the United Kingdom, for the enjoyment and pleasure of the disabled through the Jubilee Sailing Trust. Our sailing ships of note are the Royalist, the Lord Nelson, the Malcolm Miller and the Sir Winston Churchill, all built in recent years. The best known and only survivor of the days of sail is the Cutty Sark now permanently berthed at Greenwich, London as a living museum.

Before James Watt boiled his kettle to make a cup of tea and, with pure genius, decided that steam could be harnessed to drive ships the size of the Titanic and the first Queen Elizabeth, wind was the only method of propulsion apart from oars which were of no use for long voyages of discovery.

The use of sail over the years developed in line with the growth in size of the ships being built. In medieval time ships had one single square sail. The next step was to add extra masts, the foremast and the mizen mast. Fighting ships had a platform fixed to the top of the mainmast and it wasn’t long before this was converted to carry a topmast – a small upper square sail. This became the topmast and first appeared on the late 15th century carracks. In the very early 16th century a topgallant (t’gal’nt) mast and sail were added to the topmast and in 1637 a royal mast and sail were added to the topgallant as seen on the Sovereign of the Seas. Around 1812 a further sail was added, the skysail and a few East Indiamen and extreme clippers would set yet another sail which was referred to as flying handkerchiefs, skyscrapers, moonrakers, moonsails, stardusters or stargazers. The extra skysails were ineffective as far as adding to the speed of the ship but the studding sails (stuns’ls), which were set on booms run out from the yards, made a vast improvement when the wind was light and abaft of the beam. In the 1850’s as ships got bigger a labour costs increased the top sails were split in two to become the upper and lower topsails and eventually the topgallants followed the same trend. At the same time the skysails disappeared and, when stronger steel yards and rigging replaced rope, with studding sails were dispensed with. Finally, in the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, the upper-most royals were removed and the rig became known as the stump-topgallant rig, the bald-headed rig or even the jubilee rig.

Before the 19th century sailing vessels were classified according to their use, trade, hull type or to local practice so that there were many different types of ship; the flyboat, the frigate, the sloop-of-war etc. etc. Classification by sail arrangement occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries. A sailing vessel can have its sails either schooner rigged where the sails are set fore and aft along the vessel’s centre line, square rigged where the sails are set at right angles to the centre line of the vessel or a combination of both. Examples of some of the rigs are as follows:-

Square rigged ship < The Ship has three or more masts which are all completely square rigged

The Barque< The Barque has three or more masts all fully square rigged except for the stern-most one, which is fore and aft rigged. Although appearing at the beginning of the 19th century it only became popular after 1860.

The Barquentine< The Barquentine has three to six masts all schooner rigged except the foremast which is square rigged. The rig appeared in the 1840’s as it is more economical to run than a barque. Many barquentines were ships or
barques cut down for economy.

The Brig< The Brig has only a main and foremast both fully square rigged and was a successful coastal and deep sea trader during the 18th and 19th centuries being capable of calling at smaller ports with smaller loads.

The Hermaphrodite Brig< The Hermaphrodite Brig, sometimes called the brigantine, had the foremast square rigged and the mainmast schooner rigged. A useful rig for vessels of 60 to 120 feet in length.

The Topsail Schooner< The Topsail Schooner is basically schooner rigged but with one or more square rigged sails on the foremast.

The Clippers

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

The Cutty Sark

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.

Two Victorian Sailing Ships Captains Thomas Mitchell and Thomas Taylor

Two Victorian Sailing Ships Captains
Thomas Mitchell and Thomas Taylor

Thomas Mitchell was born in 1832 in Newburgh, Aberdeenshire to Thomas Mitchell senior, who was a grocer, and Margaret Thomson.  He had three sisters, the youngest of whom was my great-grandmother, Jane.  They were a very devout Non-conformist family.

He gained his Mate’s certificate in Newcastle in April 1851 and his first ship as mate was the Falcon, 226 tons, registered in Newcastle in 1840 and re-registered in North Shields in 1856.  It had a crew of eight: Master, Mate, Carpenter, Cook, 3 Able Seamen, 1 Boy.  In this ship he made two voyages from Sunderland to Stettin, Polonia, in June and August 1851.

Thomas then joined the Aberdeen Clipper Line, owned by Messrs G Thompson, Sons & Co of Aberdeen, later Messrs G Thompson, Junr & Co of  London.  The family firm included George Thompson, his son-in-law Sir William Henderson and his sons, Stephen, George and Cornelius.  It was also known as the Aberdeen White Star Line, not to be confused with the White Star Line of Titanic fame.

All Thompson’s ships were built by Walter Hood of Aberdeen, except the Thermopylae, and they were all registered in Aberdeen.  According to Basil Lubbock in ‘The Colonial Clippers’,  no ships that ever sailed the seas presented a finer appearance than the Aberdeen White Star Line fleet.

“They were always beautifully kept and were easily noticeable amongst the other ships for their smartness: indeed, when lying in Sydney Harbour or Hobson’s Bay with their yards squared to a nicety, their green sides with gilt streak and scroll work at bow and stern glistening in the sun, their figure-heads, masts, spars and blocks all painted white and every rope’s end flemish-coiled on snow-white decks, they were the admiration of all who saw them.”

The following are Thomas Mitchell’s voyages, all to Sydney.

Dates of trips Rank

Ship’s details

Ship’s No.

Date of reg

pages in Clipper book

John Bunyan   466 tons, about 16 crew: Master, Mate, boatswain, carpenter, steward, cook, sail-maker, 9 seamen/apprentices 1735 1848 131, 132
First Mate
Omar Pacha   1124 tons, about 65 crew and 30 passengers 12774 1854 126,131,138
Phoenician   478 tons, about 17 crew 13679 1854 131, 132
Transatlantic   614 tons, 25 crew, 5 passengers 18575 1857 126, 131, 138
Queen of Nations   846 tons, 27 crew, 11 passengers 29238 1861 127, 131, 132, 139
Centurion   1097 tons, 29 crew 60692 1869 131, 137-140

These ships were mostly used to transport wool from Australia to London but they carried other cargo and sometimes passengers.  This was particularly true of the  Omar Pacha, but it can be seen how much larger a crew was needed for passengers aboard the Omar Pacha compared to the Centurion.

There are Sydney harbour reports for all his voyages south on these ships, except John Bunyan.  (http://mariners.records.nsw.gov.au/)

There is a gap on his record between 1860 and 1865 which includes short trips in Australian waters.

Georgina Smith of Melbourne   44 tons, 4 crew sailing from Port Albert to Sydney
William Hill   of Geelong 109 tons, 7 crew sailing from Port Warnambool to Sydney and Melbourne to Sydney

In 1868  his sister, Jane, wrote in her diary that he had just managed to return from Sydney in time for her wedding to James Scroggie on 23 July that year.  But for the remainder of the year and the beginning of 1869 he was overseeing the construction of the Centurion before her maiden voyage in June which he commanded.

He is mentioned in ‘The Colonial Clippers’.

“The ship ‘Queen of Nations’, Captain Thomas Mitchell, belonging to Messrs G Thompson & Co, left Sydney on 21st September 1865 loaded with: 484 bales of wool, 44 bales of cotton, 1037 casks of coconut oil, 219 casks of tallow, 2602 ingots and plates of copper, 9452 hides. For ballast she had 30 tons of kentledge; dunnage, treenails and bones, 12 inches in the bottom, 18 in the bilges and 6 in the sides.  The hides were laid from two beams abaft the foremast to the mizen  mast; oil on the hides, with a tier of tallow between; the wool, cotton, gum, etc in the ‘tween decks.  Her best trim was 9 inches by the stern.  So laden she drew 18ft forward and 18.5 ft aft.  Pilotage in £14 2s; out £14 2s.”

“The second ‘Centurion’ was launched in the spring of 1869 and measured: length 208ft, beam 35ft, depth 21ft.  Captain Mitchell overlooked her building and was her first commander.  She was a very fast ship and he always hoped to beat the ‘Thermopylae’ with her, but never succeeded.  On her first voyage she went out to Sydney in 69 days.  It was a light weather passage and she never started the sheets of her main topgallant sail the whole way.   She also made some creditable tea passages but was mostly kept in the Sydney trade.  In 1871 she went out in 77 days and in 1872 in 78 days.” (Under Captain Taylor)

Thomas was married to Mary Elizabeth Alexander (1844, Swansea), daughter of George Alexander, also a master mariner, and Elizabeth Bennett on 15th April 1862 at 3 Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen by the Weslyan minister.

Thomas, Mary and one child, probably Thomas jnr

Thomas, Mary and one child, probably Thomas jnr

Thomas and Mary had four children: Thomas Alexander (1864-1930); George Bennett (1865-1941; Joseph F (1868-1873); Mary Elizabeth (1870).  They were all born in Aberdeen except George.

Mary and Thomas junior went on the voyage to Sydney when Thomas was Master of Queen of Nations in 1865.  George Bennett was born on board ship in the North Atlantic near Cape Verde on the return voyage.  She and two of the children went on the same voyage when he was Master of Centurion in 1870.  He died of a stroke on board ship in the North Atlantic near the Azores on the return trip, age 38.  His First Officer, Hugh Wright, took command and reported the death of his captain at sea.

Thomas Taylor

After the death of Thomas Mitchell, Thomas Taylor, born 1835, took command of the Centurion.  He was probably a friend of the family because Mary Mitchell, still only 29 years old, married him in May 1873.

They had three children: Edward  who was born on board the Centurion in the South China Sea off Vietnam in 1877; Thomasina (1880 Aberdeen); Cornelia (1882 Aberdeen).

Thomas Taylor made five voyages to Sydney in command of the Centurion, up to 1885.  In 1887 he commanded the sailing ship Smyrna to Australia and back but on his second trip out the Smyrna collided with steamship Moto in the English Channel just off the Isle of Wight in fog and he was drowned.  The wreck is still there after more than 110 years, in quite good condition, and is much visited by divers.  http://www.deepimage.co.uk/wrecks/smyrna/Smyrna_mainpages/smyrna_mainpage.htm

In 1901 Mary Alexander/Mitchell/Taylor was still living in Aberdeen, in Springbank Road close to her grandparents old home from which she was first married, with her unmarried daughter, Mary.  Thomasina, age 21, was a schoolmistress in London and her sister Cornelia, age 19, was a student at the same place.

Photo of Thomas Alexander Mitchell, from a public family tree

Photo of Thomas Alexander Mitchell, from a public family tree

According to the above public family tree, Thomas Alexander Mitchell married Maud Thorndick from Chelmsford but I can’t find any documentation on him after 1871.  I can’t find Edward Taylor after 1881, however, George Bennett Mitchell is well documented since he was a very successful architect in Aberdeen.

He married Margaret Ann Angus in Aberdeen in 1892.  Her parents were James Angus (commission agent) and Elspet Helmrich (teacher) of 7 Bank Street, Aberdeen.
Georgeand Maggie had two children: Meta in 1894 and George Angus in 1896.  George Angus became an architect like his father and they set up as George Bennett Mitchell & Son, a company which is still extant in West Craibstone Street, Aberdeen.

Days of Sail - Red- Duster
Omar Pacha in 1869 when it caught fire at sea, returning from Brisbane with a cargo of wool
Red-Duster Web

Phoenician 1847 Aberdeen, wood, 521 gross weight, barque – square rigged on two masts of three
Merchant Navy Association

Queen of Nations

Great Days of Sail

Sailing Ships of Old

by Wendy Furey
great-great niece of Thomas Mitchell