Iconic Ships 4: The Cutty Sark

June 2021

The fourth episode in our Iconic Ships series features three members of the curatorial team of the Cutty Sark arguing for the iconic status of their ship. At the time of her launch in 1869 the Cutty Sark was a state-of-the-art Tea Clipper designed to bring manufactured goods to China and return with Chinese tea as quickly as possible. She could carry well over 1,300,000 million lbs of tea. Soon the advent of steam and the opening of the Suez Canal changed her fate and she began to take a variety of goods all over the world. She was purchased for the Nation in 1922 and became the first historic vessel to be opened to the public since Drake’s Golden Hind in the sixteenth century. She was moved to a specially-constructed dry dock in Greenwich in 1954 where she can still be seen today, having escaped the ravages of a terrible fire in 2007. The team bring this history to life with the unique passion of those who work with her every day, preserving her for us…and the generations to come.

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    Louise Macfarlane

    Hello. My name is Louise Macfarlane and I have been Curator of Cutty Sark since May 2016.

    When asked to consider whether and why Cutty Sark is an iconic ship, I thought I would start at the very beginning: by looking at the definition of ‘icon’. There are slight variations in the definition, depending on where you look, but all share the sense that an icon is representative or a symbol of something and worthy of veneration. Is Cutty Sark representative? A symbol and worthy of veneration? I would say an emphatic ‘yes’ but explaining why warrants a little unpicking.

    Fundamentally, Cutty Sark is an iconic ship, perhaps one of the most iconic ships in the world, because it is a survivor. It is the sole surviving tea clipper ship in the world. It wasn’t the first or the biggest; it wasn’t the fastest or most successful; it wasn’t even its owner’s favourite. But it is the last one left. And it is because of its survival that it becomes both representative and symbolic of things not necessarily originally intended or imagined. It has become a sort of palimpsest, a thing to which we attach other meanings. And there is nothing wrong with that, in fact is that not the very essence of an icon? But crucially, the ship’s survival wasn’t simply down to just chance and good luck (though there can be no denying that the ship seemed to be a lucky one!), it was because it had forged a reputation that people cared about, that they could invest in and it is this which ensured its survival on three main occasions: in 1922; in 1954 and again in 2007.

    So, how did Cutty Sark establish this reputation which would ensure its longevity? Firstly, its design. Does an icon have to be beautiful? Probably not but there can be little doubt that Cutty Sark’s elegance and grace plays a fundamental role in its reputation. There is romance there, a sense of beauty and function coming together to create something lasting and special. The ship’s first Captain, George Moodie said of Cutty Sark ‘I never sailed a finer ship. At ten or twelve knots she did not disturb the water at all. Although a very sharp ship, just like a yacht, her spread of canvas was enormous…she was the fastest ship of her day, a grand ship, a ship that will last forever’.

    Clipper ships themselves were pioneered by the Americans in the early nineteenth century. These small, fast and agile ships, able to zip along ‘at a clip’, put an emphasis upon speed rather than cargo space. The gold rushes in California and then Australia in the middle of nineteenth century meant that orders for vessels flooded the American market. Spurred by the need to obtain even a slight advantage in speed, American designers were bold and inventive, developing clippers which seemed to turn ship design on its head. In contrast, Britain was at risk of stagnation. The Navigation Acts restricted British trade to British ships; strict laws were imposed upon ship tonnage and the East India Company’s monopoly on trade in the east did little to encourage innovation. The Company’s ‘East Indiamen’ ships remained large and slow, mostly unchanged and unchallenged for two centuries. In 1834, however, the East India Company’s monopoly finally came to an end. Trade in the east was now open to all. In 1849, the Navigation Acts were also repealed. And so it was that in 1850, the American clipper Oriental sailed into London with a cargo of tea, causing a sensation. It was the first foreign ship to do so and having completed an impressive passage of just ninety-one days from Hong Kong, British shipowners had been set a challenge. The first British clipper ship Stornaway ­was built in Aberdeen later that year.

    By 1861, a premium of ten shillings for each ton of tea began to be rewarded to the first ship of the year to land its cargo in London. Even though it is a dry product, the premium established a fashion for drinking the first tea delivered by the fastest ship. The tea race of 1866 was so close and so intense that the premium ceased soon after but this spirit of speed and competition continued to flourish.

    Cutty Sark was late to the party. It was not until 1869 that it was launched in Dumbarton, Scotland. As one of the last tea clippers to be built, it had some claims to be the pinnacle of a design, already at its apex. It was what’s known as an ‘extreme clipper’, having all the design characteristics of clipper ships but with extra abundance. Clippers, typically, have three main design traits: a long, narrow hull; a sharp bow at the front of the ship for cutting through the waves rather than riding atop and a huge sail area. Cutty Sark had these and some. When the ship was surveyed by Lloyd’s Register while it was being built, they were shocked by the knife-like sharpness of the bow. Its topsails were divided into upper and lower which, though carried by ships since the 1850s, was still uncommon and would have been one of the many things to make Cutty Sark look to be a very modern ship. By the 1860s, composite construction, combining wood and iron to make a ship strong but lighter and with greater cargo space, was the favoured method of construction. Naturally, Cutty Sark was a composite ship. So, there was already a sense in which Cutty Sark could be special.

    But there was also a sense in which the ship’s beginnings were very unlikely. The year before Cutty Sark was launched, George Thompson launched Thermopylae, with grand claims that it was to be the fastest afloat. John ‘White Hat’ Willis, who had captained a ship at the tender age of eighteen before eventually taking over the shipping firm his father had founded, was duly engaged. Famed for wearing the white top hat which earned him his moniker, Willis had already entered a number ships in the tea trade with limited success. Cutty Sark was to be hot on the heels of Thermopylae, chasing record passages. But Willis’s choice of ship builders was an unusual one. Unlike Thompson who had chosen Bernard Weymouth of Lloyd’s Register to design his ship and Walter Hood, a very-well established firm, to build his ship, Willis selected relative unknowns. Scott and Linton had entered into a shipbuilding partnership little over eight months before they would be employed to build Cutty Sark. The eager, young firm agreed to build the ship at £17 per ton, when the going rate was £21. Part-way through the build, following disagreements over materials and costly delays, they were declared bankrupt. There was nearly no ship at all. It would only be completed with the aid of a list of creditors, William Denny & Sons, perhaps the most prominent among them. Yet Linton, who had previously been employed by the pioneer of composite construction and is also have said to have designed yachts, built a ship that would outlive all of its contemporaries. Close shaves and triumphs against adversity became a bit of theme in Cutty Sark’s career.

    The second important point in the formation of Cutty Sark’s reputation was its purpose: as a tea clipper. Cutty Sark played its role in converting tea from exotic leaf to national staple. It would deliver almost 10 million lbs of tea to Britain in just eight years. Yet, really, its tea career was pretty unremarkable. No races were won and no records were set. Overall, the ship played only a minor part in establishing tea as part of our national identity and yet it is completely bound up in this, it is a physical reminder, a symbol of when, why and how tea became so very British.

    Simon Thompson

    My name is Simon Thompson and I am the Shipkeeping Manager at Cutty Sark. It is my responsibility to implement the maintenance programme and look after the historic fabric of the ship. I have been working on the ship for the last 7 years.

    I think primarily, Cutty Sark is iconic for the simple fact that she is still here. She is a true survivor, whether that be by good fortune, the manner in which she was looked after during her active life or by the passion of the people who rescued her from the breakers yard. She is the last example of a ship that is truly evocative of the beauty, grace, speed and power that is brought to mind when people think of the square-rigged sailing ship.

    If you want an iconic totem of the British, one thing that usually springs to mind is a cup of tea. The fact that Cutty Sark was built to serve this trade in tea from China has helped to anchor her to the nation’s psyche. The fact that she was on the way to becoming obsolete even at the point of launch gives us a chance to consider not only the wider history but technological advancements of the day. The romance and grace of these fine tea clippers, racing each other in hotly contested voyages back to port with the premium tea harvests was to be replaced by the plodding, dirty mundanity of the steam ship. Square rigged cargo ships obviously carried on plying their trade for years to come but the writing was on the wall, the days of sail were numbered.

    The ship for me fulfils many roles and provides gateways for further interest. This is something that maritime history as a whole does, but I feel it can be summed up in one beautiful object like Cutty Sark. She is a great example of the Victorian ability to marry form and function but there is something more than that. There is something of interest for everyone. You could be interested in the design and lines of the ship, the technology and engineering involved in her construction, the social history of the men who sailed her, the biology and chemistry of the materials used, the physics and hydrodynamics of how these ships gained their great speed, the wider socio-economic structures that the ship was surrounded by and that is before you even get into the poetic, artistic and romantic aspect that ships like Cutty Sark fulfil. The desire for people to explore and cross the horizon to experience the new.

    I am fortunate that my job allows me the opportunity to walk the ships decks on a daily basis and over the years I have got to know every inch of her. Providing the care and maintenance for a ship like Cutty Sark is at times quite a challenge but being in a position to implement these works, as well as larger projects, has been an absolute honour. It is quite humbling being part of a long line of people who have looked after the ship. At times on board it is easy to imagine these past generations of shipwrights, sailors and custodians hard at work. The ghosts of the past are easily imagined, particularly when our rigging team are aloft, scrambling through the rigging and blacking down with pungent Stockholm tar. The fact that a ship like Cutty Sark can still evoke this sense of time and place is awe-inspiring.

    Louise Macfarlane

    Tea first came to Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century. The Honourable East India Company, awarded the monopoly on the supply of tea, delivered their first shipment in 1669. But thanks, in part, to an extensive smuggling network, tea soon became a popular beverage for all. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it is estimated that working families were drinking tea twice daily. New fashions and trends abounded. Porcelain, with its exotic delicacy and rituals, its expense and status-symbolism; a new daily routine of high tea with a sandwich and a gossip; tea gardens, tea shops and tea dances; the temperance movement’s promotion above alcohol…little more than one hundred years after the East India Company’s first shipment, tea was embedded in the very fabric of British life.

    But it wasn’t, of course, all plain sailing. China held the monopoly on the supply of tea and sought payment only in silver. With little interest in importing goods from the West, Britain needed to find a way of regaining this silver. So the Company began to grow and sell Indian opium to merchants for smuggling into China. The opium was paid for in silver which made its way back into the right pockets. Though the sale of opium was prohibited in China, the Chinese authorities struggled to enforce the ban, resulting in a huge addiction problem. In 1839, in a bid to control the situation, Chinese authorities seized and destroyed the year’s tea crop. Affronted by this perceived violation of free trade, the British government acted swiftly and decisively. The end of the First Opium War ceded Hong Kong to Britain and opened a number of Chinese ports to unrestricted trade. The Second Opium War, following a spurious accusation of piracy, resulted in a devastating defeat for the Chinese: compensation was demanded; and more ports were forced to open, including Hankow (Hankou), the capital of China tea, among them.

    Cutty Sark did not carry opium. Nor did it have any role in either Opium War for the ship wasn’t even built. Yet there is no doubt that Cutty Sark and ships like it, benefitted from China’s defeat. My two year old daughter has a ghastly electronic teapot which plays tunes and speaks. One of its tunes is ‘Rule Britannia’! – the link between tea and imperial expansion summed up for toddlers! In China, the Opium Wars retain an important place in the school curriculum. I have been told that for a certain generation of Chinese tourist, they will not visit Cutty Sark because of its associations. It would seem that even on an international level, for good or for bad, Cutty Sark really is the representative of Britain’s global expansion and thirst for tea.

    The third aspect which helped to form this reputation was Cutty Sark’s tendency to achieve fortune from failure. In 1872, two years after its maiden voyage, the ship had its first chance to really prove its mettle. It was the first and only time it would leave a Chinese port at the same time as its original rival Thermopylae, pitting them in a nail-biting head-to-head. The ships kept pace until they reached the Indian Ocean where Cutty Sark pulled away, gaining 400 miles on its competitor by the time it neared the coast of South Africa. But then disaster struck, the ship hit a heavy storm which ripped the rudder from its stern. Under the direction of carpenter, Henry Henderson, the crew somehow managed to build a temporary rudder from a makeshift forge on the main deck. But as the ship rocked and rolled, the forge overturned, burning and permanently scarring the captain’s son who was serving as an apprentice. After five days at sea, somehow the crew managed to lower and secure the rudder in still heavy seas (some 4.5 metres below water) and the voyage could continue. By now Thermopylae had built up a lead which couldn’t be overturned, it reached London first but still only nine days before Cutty Sark. Thermopylae won the race and yet Cutty Sark achieved the recognition. The feats of seamanship garnered much praise, even becoming the standard technique recommended by the Board of Trade for the construction or temporary rudders. Even in defeat, Cutty Sark was winning hearts and minds.

    Perhaps Cutty Sark’s greatest triumph over adversity concerned the Suez Canal. In a somewhat poetic twist of fate, the canal was opened just five days before Cutty Sark was launched. These two feats of engineering, one which would seal the fate of the other were inextricably linked, providing a marker in time, almost a ‘before and after’ in the world of shipping. The canal itself provided a ‘short-cut’ out to China and back. Rather than having to sail all the way around the continent of Africa, ships could now cut through the Mediterranean and Red Sea reducing the voyage by over 3,000 miles. But the challenging navigation of the Mediterranean and relative windless conditions and expensive tolls on the canal itself meant that it was only viable for steam ships. Ships like Cutty Sark would have to stick to the long-way. In 1870, the year of Cutty Sark’s maiden voyage, there were over fifty other sailing ships heading out to China and back. By 1878, there were just nine. Unable to compete, Cutty Sark was forced from the trade for which it had been built after just eight voyages, a tea clipper without any tea.

    So why did White Hat Willis commission the building of a sailing ship at this time? He would surely have known about the development of the canal. Was he simply an old man, stuck in his ways, impervious to technological advance? There is perhaps a tendency to think about progress as linear, taking us from sailing ship to steam ship but of course the truth is more complex. Sailing ships and steamers existed in tandem, even competing against each other into the twentieth century. For Willis and many shipbuilders like him, steamers were an unproven quantity. They required expensive fuel which needed hull-space which would otherwise been available for cargo, they were restricted to routes with access to coal stations. There was even a suspicion that these metal ships would cause tea to sweat and spoil. Instead, Willis had built a cutting-edge ship, based on proven qualities. It is perhaps our human tendency toward nostalgia that we look back upon these feats of engineering and regard the thing on the brink of extinction with a misty-eyed romance and as a symbol of simpler, purer times. And of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a real fork in the road. Yet the truth in 1870 was very different. A clipper ship was still a safer bet. In fact, even after Cutty Sark was forced from the tea trade, it was relied upon, as were many speedy sailing ships, to deliver coal to coal stations for steam ships. Cutty Sark would eventually carry more coal than tea in its career.

    Ultimately, the impact of the Suez Canal would prove to be an opportunity for Cutty Sark. After leaving the tea trade, it would spend the next few years tramping: taking whatever cargo it could from port to port with modest success. In 1880, unsure what to do with his ship and keen to reduce costs, White Hat Willis reduced the size of its masts and rigging. With less imperative upon speed, a reduced spread of canvas would need a smaller and cheaper crew. But when it reached Indonesia later that year, the crew had to wait for a telegram with instruction as neither the captain nor owner had expected that the ship not be slowed by these reduced masts. Likewise, Willis had been reluctant to place Cutty Sark in the Australian wool trade despite the fact that several ex-tea clippers, including the ship’s old foe Thermopylae, were successfully engaged. He was unconvinced it could adapt. But when he finally did it was as if, Cutty Sark had found its calling. The ship’s adaptability ensured its longevity, and made it iconic.

    During the ship’s tramping years, one of the most remarkable voyages occurred. It has become known, somewhat dramatically but no less accurately, as the ‘Hell Ship’ voyage. Lasting a mammoth 697 days, by the time the ship crawled into New York in 1882, one man had been killed, one had committed suicide, a further five had died from illness or injury and one was a fugitive of the law. Bound for Yokohama, Japan, the ship left Penarth on Friday 13th setting certain superstitious crew members a flutter. The First Mate, Sydney Smith, was tyrannical in his reign. In particular, he came into frequent conflict with American Able Seaman John Francis. Other crew members contended that Francis was probably not up to the job but they all loathed Smith’s bullying of him. It all came to a head on a stormy night when Smith perceived that Francis had deliberately defied him. Bounding forward, the First Mate threatened to throw Francis overboard, he in turn claimed he had a capstan bar (a heavy, wooden bar used to turn the capstan) waiting for him. In a fury, Smith grabbed a broken capstan bar and struck Francis over the head. The Able Seaman never regained consciousness and was later buried at sea. A foreboding mood descending on the ship as Smith retreated to his cabin and the young Captain James Wallace considered what to do. When the ship pulled in at Indonesia, Wallace permitted the unpopular mate to jump ship. Perhaps he thought it was the best way to recover his crew but instead they were enraged by the injustice and their Master’s complicity. Several crew members now refused to work and had to be clapped in irons. Desperate and all too aware of his mistakes, Captain James Wallace quietly stepped overboard and was never seen again.

    Smith managed to evade justice for a further two years until he was spotted and recognised in London and eventually brought to trial. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years penal servitude. The whole episode inspired Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’. Perhaps even such a desperate, tragic and ugly episode as the hell ship voyage has gone some way to securing Cutty Sark’s fame.

    Cutty Sark finally entered the Australian wool trade in 1883. And it was in this trade that the ship forged its reputation as the fastest afloat. Captain Richard Woodget was the ship’s longest serving and most successful master. He spent ten years on the ship, all in the wool trade and perfected getting the most from his crew and his vessel. The route also suited the ship. Travelling from Australia, it would sail around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America and into the Roaring the Forties: the fastest trade winds in the world. Under the right guidance, these would propel the ship through the Atlantic and towards home. In the tea trade the ship would have to cross the equator and thus encounter the doldrums twice on the journey out and twice on the journey back. On the wool run, this was halved. In 1889, when approaching Sydney, Cutty Sark overtook the P&O steamer Britannia. They didn’t realise it was Cutty Sark until they reached Sydney but recorded in their log ‘Sailing ship overhauled and passed us!’.

    Hannah Stockton

    I am Hannah Stockton, one of Cutty Sark’s curators since 2018 and I also work on a number of research projects exploring the ship’s crews and John Willis’ fleet.

    At Cutty Sark’s launch in 1869, there was little attention paid, just a small note in the local newspaper the Dumbarton Herald, and perhaps some local residents came to watch, but Cutty Sark was just one ship in the vast British mercantile fleet, not even her owner’s favourite vessel.

    However, the first inklings of the ship’s future status as an icon appeared soon after. Having been built right at a moment of transition away from sailing ships, particularly in the higher value trades like tea, Cutty Sark represented the peak of sailing technology at the time, soon gaining a reputation amongst observers and sailors alike, as one of the fastest ships in the trade, at a moment when speed was of the essence. An agent in Sydney where the ship traded as a wool clipper said ‘Cutty Sark was absolutely the fastest ship I have ever had to do with in my 35 or 40 years’ experience’, regularly reaching according to various captains peak speeds of 17 knots. While her fame was at that time mostly confined to sailors and those living and working around ports, this notoriety was at the start of her journey to become the iconic vessel of today.

    Cutty Sark’s fame in maritime circles is what ultimately ensured her survival far past the thirty years which might have been expected. By the 1920s, successive decades of little investment found Cutty Sark, or Ferreira as she was then, a shadow of her former self, in Falmouth awaiting repairs. An apprentice who, in the 1890s had been awed by Cutty Sark as his ship was overtaken, was now a retired merchant captain in Cornwall. His memories of the ship prompted he and his wife Catharine to spend a sizeable sum of money retrieving Cutty Sark from Portugal and restoring much of her original appearance.

    Contemporary press reported how the ship had been ‘saved for the nation’ marking the beginning of Cutty Sark’s transition from a working vessel to a national icon of the fast-disappearing and increasingly romanticised age of sail, which held a place in the hearts and minds, not only of sailors, but of the collective imagination of the nation as a whole.

    This iconic status was finally cemented in the 1950s when the threat of destruction caused a reassessment of what the ship’s survival meant to Britain. Her inclusion in the similarly iconic 1951 Festival of Britain, designed to celebrate the past, present and future of British achievement in industry, science, arts and design, marked Cutty Sark’s importance as one of the surviving symbols of British maritime technology and the consequent commercial successes of the nineteenth century. This was only enhanced when the ship’s permanent berth at Greenwich was created, and a memorial to the sailors of the ‘age of sail’ and the merchant navy of the first and second world wars was incorporated.

    For me, Cutty Sark is iconic because her survival is remarkable. Merchant ships are perhaps even less likely to survive than military ones, as they are generally disposed of as soon as they stop turning a profit. Cutty Sark’s rare survival grants her status as an icon; of an imagined romantic ‘age of sail’; of the peak of clipper ship design and technology; of both the exploitation and wealth of the British Empire; of the vital importance of merchant shipping to Britain, both then and now.

    Louise Macfarlane

    In 1895 John ‘White Hat’ Willis sold Cutty Sark to a Portuguese firm, much to the angry disappointment of Captain Woodget. But Willis was no sentimentalist, he was aging, had no one to pass his firm onto and Cutty Sark had served its purpose and so he was gradually selling off his fleet. Renamed Ferreira, the ship became a general cargo carrier traversing the Atlantic between Portugal, the West Coast of Africa and North and South America. It would do this for a total of twenty-seven years, longer than its time as a British ship. In 1906, the ship survived a devastating hurricane in which 134 people lost their lives. In 1916 the ship was dismasted, very nearly lost and had to be towed into Table Bay. Battered, bruised and much changed, it would have to languish in South Africa for two years where a scarcity of supplies due to the First World War meant it couldn’t be repaired. And yet it is said to have become a tourist attraction, curious sailors keen to catch a glimpse of the once famous ship.

    As I said at the beginning, there were three main occasions when Cutty Sark was rescued from adversity. In 1922, the ship was over fifty years old but was still serving as Ferreira. After departing London, it was damaged in a storm and had to call in at Falmouth for repairs. Here, the ship experienced astonishing good luck. Repairs were expensive and there was probably not much more working life left in the ship. Thermopylae, for example, had been sold to the Portuguese but regarded as being beyond its purpose, it was used as target practice for the Portuguese Navy and scuttled in 1907. So when the retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman, a resident of Falmouth, spotted Ferreira, the ship’s fortune was changed forever. In 1895, Dowman had been a sixteen year old apprentice, who watched as Cutty Sark surged past his ship, its fine lines and graceful drive through the sea left a lasting impression on the young man. Twenty-seven years later, Ferreira was a shadow of its former self yet Dowman’s memory had not dimmed, he knew it was a special vessel. Together with his wife, Catharine, the pair were committed philanthropists who paid well over the odds to bring the ship back to Britain, restore it and rename it Cutty Sark once more. Two years later, it reopened as a cadet training ship and visitor attraction.

    Following Dowman’s premature death, the ship was given to the Incorporated Thames Nautical College to serve alongside HMS Worcester as a cadet training ship in Greenhithe.

    With the outbreak of the Second World War, the cadets were evacuated and Cutty Sark suffered from a terrible lack of maintenance. By the end of the war, sail-training was no longer deemed necessary and the college’s priorities lay elsewhere. The post-war period was a precarious time for Cutty Sark, with no home and no future. But befitting of the ship’s story, it was thanks to a passionate individual and a stroke of good luck that it is here today. HMS Implacable had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 but by the late 1940s, like Cutty Sark, it was in very poor condition. Recognising the ship’s significance, a place in Greenwich was offered to it but its restoration costs were soon deemed to be too expensive in an age of austerity. Instead the ship was scuttled close to the Isle of Wight. Understandably, this caused an outcry which Frank Carr, then director of the National Maritime Museum, was able to utilise to save Cutty Sark. He persuaded the London County Council to give the Greenwich site to Cutty Sark; he engaged the support of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and together they formed a society which raised public funds to restore the ship and create a new dry dock for it. In 1954 the ship was floated into its new dock and final resting place. Three years later, after an extensive restoration, the ship was opened to the public by HM The Queen, an event which was shown on live television, narrated by Richard Dimbleby.

    The Cutty Sark Preservation Society were keen to preserve the last of the tea clippers but also to create a memorial to the merchant service, and in particular, the 44,000 who had died in both world wars.And so it was that Cutty Sark adopted yet another identity and purpose, it had been a tea clipper, a wool clipper, a general cargo carrier, a training ship and visitor attraction and now it was also a memorial and symbol for the merchant service itself.

    In 2007 a devastating fire broke out in the lower hold of Cutty Sark. The fire raged through all three decks and attracted international concern, the images remain vivid in people’s imaginations. But once again, a spot of good fortune and support ensured its survival. The year before the fire, an extensive restoration programme had begun. A main aim of the programme was to preserve the ship’s original fabric for the future. It is estimated that ninety per cent of the ship’s hull structure is original to 1869. For a ship of its age with such differing purposes over the years, this is pretty astonishing. To preserve this material, the ship was almost entirely stripped of this fabric which was to be treated elsewhere. So when the fire struck it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Less than five percent of original fabric is estimated to have been lost. Yet it was a disaster for the project overall. The site was now hazardous as the fire had released lead into the atmosphere and was also a crime scene. The subsequent police investigation concluded that the fire had probably been begun by a dust extractor that had been left on and had overheated. The scale of the project had now grown significantly. Generous donations from individuals, organisations, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local council allowed the project to continue and be completed. In April 2012, HM the Queen returned to open the ship once again.

    More than 600 men from 30 different nations served on Cutty Sark during its years as a British ship. It has visited nearly every major port in the world. It was built to last for just thirty years and yet now it is 151 years of age. There have been thousands of paintings, drawings and artistic impressions of Cutty Sark, innumerable family photographs feature the ship’s wheel or bow and perhaps a bad haircut or two, pubs and restaurants, as far as Cape Town and Ljubljana in Slovenia feature its name. Is it possible to buy some clipper tea without thinking about Cutty Sark? A world famous whisky is named after it. And could there be a more modelled ship than it? Seemingly every visitor has a relative who has attempted their own masterpiece. It has even been mentioned in an episode of The Simpson’s! It took its name from the Robert Burns’s poem ‘Tam O Shanter’ in which the beautiful witch, Nannie, is wearing a short nightdress or ‘cutty sark’ in old scots. In it Tam exclaims ‘weel done cutty-sark!’. After 151 years and as the last one left, well done indeed.

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