Iconic Ships 13: Thermopylae – The Finest All-Round Clipper of Them All?

December 2021

Clipper Thermopylae (foreground) in company with Cutty Sark beating down the South China Sea, 1872. Painting by Tim Thompson.

In this episode we hear about Thermopylae, one of the most magnificent clipper-ships ever built, and some claim the finest of them all. In 1879, before her second wool voyage from Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald eulogised: ‘The fastest and handsomest ship in the world is now lying at the Circular Quay loading for London, and those who take pleasure in seeing a rare specimen of naval architecture should avail themselves of the opportunity of doing so. Of course, we allude to the Thermopylæ, the celebrated Aberdeen clipper. [The] Thermopylæ has all the appearance of a yacht, and yet she carries a good cargo, is a beautiful sea boat, and stands up to her canvas well.’

Built in Aberdeen and commissioned in 1868, but long over-shadowed in public recognition by her rival, Cutty Sark (a ship built specifically to out-pace her in the China tea trade but only once succeeded in so doing), Thermopylæ lives on as arguably the finest all-round clipper of them all.

Clipper ships like Thermopylae were astonishing to behold, and were the culmination of centuries of refinements in sailing technology that led to some of the most beautiful and fastest merchant ships ever built. They revolutionised global trade tearing around the seas carrying tea, wool, luxury goods, and of course people as this era of migration changed the populations and economies of the world forever. Their heyday was short lived, however, as increasingly efficient steam engines and railways changed the way that goods were transported – all over again.

To find out more, Dr Sam Willis speaks with Captain Peter King. Peter recently retired from the merchant shipping industry after over 62 years of continuous service in a wide range of maritime disciplines. In the 1980s, while serving as Managing Director of one of the Christian Salvesen group companies in Aberdeen, he developed an interest in the George Thompson Jnr’s Aberdeen-based shipping enterprise leading to his researching and publishing the first definitive history of Thermopylæ.

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