Cutty Sark was ordered by shipping magnate John Willis, who operated a shipping company founded by his father. The company had a fleet of clippers and regularly took part in the tea trade from China to Britain. Speed was a clear advantage to a merchant ship, but it also created prestige for the owners: the 'tea race' was widely reported in contemporary newspapers and had become something of a national sporting event, with money being gambled against a winning ship. In earlier years, Willis had commanded his father's ships at a time when American-designed ships were the fastest in the tea trade, and then had owned British-designed ships, which were amongst the best available in the world but had never won the tea race. In 1868 the brand new Aberdeen-built clipper Thermopylae set a record time of 61 days port to port on her maiden voyage from London to Melbourne and it was this design that Willis set out to better. The ship was named after Cutty-sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns's 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter. The ship's figurehead, the original of which has been attributed to carver Fredrick Hellyer of Blackwall, is a stark white carving of a bare-breasted Nannie Dee with long black hair holding a grey horse's tail in her hand. In the poem she wore a linen sark (Scots: a short chemise or undergarment), that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty, or in other words far too short. The erotic sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark", which subsequently became a well known catchphrase. Originally, carvings by Hellyer of the other scantily clad witches followed behind the figurehead along the bow, but these were removed by Willis in deference to 'good taste'. Tam o' Shanter riding Meg was to be seen along the ship's quarter. The motto, Where there's a Willis away, was inscribed along the taffrail.
On 16 February 1870, Cutty Sark left London bound for Shanghai, via the Cape of Good Hope, on her first voyage. Commanded by Captain George Moodie, his log mentioned that she carried ‘large amounts of wine, spirits and beer’. The arrival of the ship at Shanghai, with ‘manufactured goods’, is listed in the North China Herald of 2 June 1870. Departing with around 1,305,812 lbs of tea of tea on 25 June, she arrived back in London on 13 October 1870. This is the first of eight voyages the ship successfully made to China in pursuit of tea. Cutty Sark successfully collected her last Chinese tea cargo in 1877. In December of that year, the ship departed London bound for Sydney for a coal cargo, and then went onto Shanghai. Arriving at China in April 1878, the ship’s master, Captain Tiptaft, could not consign a tea cargo. Unable to find a tea cargo, Captain Tiptaft died at Shanghai in October 1878. His First Mate, James Wallace, was promoted to the command of Cutty Sark. With tea no longer available, the ship started to take different cargoes around the world. For example, she took coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. In 1880, the ship’s First Mate, Sidney Smith, by all accounts a bully and disliked by the crew, killed (with considerable provocation) seaman John Francis. Smith was confined to quarters, but at Anjer in Indonesia, Captain Wallace helped Smith escape. The crew, incensed, downed tools and refused to work leaving just six apprentices and four tradesmen to sail the ship. On 5 September the ship was becalmed in the Java Sea for three days. With the guilt, lack of winds, steaming heat and the realisation that his career was finished, Wallace jumped overboard. A rescue attempt was mounted, but there was no sign of Wallace – only sharks circling where he had last been spotted.
In July 1883, Cutty Sark left Gravesend bound for Newcastle N.S.W, arriving in October. After loading 4289 bales of wool and 12 casks of tallow, she departed in December 1883 and arrived back in London in March 1884. Her return passage of 83 days was the best of the year, beating every ship sailing at about the same time by 25 days to over a month. This was a remarkable feat, considering that Cutty Sark was now 14 years old, almost halfway through her expected working life of 30 years. Captain Moore left the ship in 1885, and was replaced by the most successful Master who ever commanded Cutty Sark: Richard Woodget. Captain Woodget’s skill lay as a successful man-manager and fearless navigator, getting the best out of both the ship and his crew. In order to catch the Roaring Forties trade winds, encountering some of the most violent gales and seas on earth, Woodget would travel further south than any previous commander. This was perilous, as the ship came into frequent contact with icebergs around Cape Horn. Woodget was also a keen photographer and he has left many striking images of the ship passing icebergs as well as shots of her in Sydney harbour. Fortunately, the ship survived and produced stunning passage times. On his first voyage in command, the ship sailed from England to Sydney in 77 days, and returned to the UK from Australia in 73 days. This was the start of ten years domination by Cutty Sark in the wool trade. The ship soon established herself as the fastest vessel, the ‘last chance’ ship to make the English January wool sales. In July 1889, Cutty Sark was involved in a famous incident with the crack P&O steam ship Britannia. On the night of 25 July, Britannia, doing between 14.5 and 16 knots, was overhauled by Cutty Sark doing a good 17 knots. Robert Olivey, Second Officer on Britannia, watched the lights of the sailing ship overhauling his vessel with amazement and called Captain Hector. Neither could have known it was Cutty Sark, and Britannia’s log read with great amazement: ‘Sailing ship overhauled and passed us!’. Children under 5 are free. Note: Both Cutty Sark DLR and Thames Clipper have step-free wheelchair access and guide dogs are welcome. The Cutty Sark is wheelchair accessible (lifts to the main deck) but it is limited to three wheelchair users at one time. Toilets and baby change facilities fully accessible. Tactile exhibits at Cutty Sark have braille and embossed labels, and braille and large print guides are available from the admissions desk.
Location : King William Walk, Greenwich SE10 9HT
Transport: Cutty Sark (DLR). Thames Clipper. London Buses routes 129, 177, 180, 188, 199 and 386 stop nearby.
Opening Times: Everyday.
Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00
Last Admission 16:15
Tickets : Adults £12.15, Children £6.30
Concessions £10.35, Carers Free
Combination Tickets (Royal Observatory/Cutty Sark) available.
Tel: 020 8312 6608.