Cutty Sark Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

 John 'Jock' Willis was a former sailing ship master who had set up as a fleet owner in the port of London, where he became better known as "White Hat Willis" for the white top hat he always wore.

White Hat's ambition was to be first home in the annual tea race from China, but none of his ships were fast enough to beat the great Thermopylae, which had been launched in 1868. Willis approached a young Dumbarton designer, Hercules Linton, who had recently gone into partnership as a shipbuilder, on the Clyde, with a man named Scott and asked him to produce a winning vessel.

Linton designed a hull with the bow lines of Willis's earlier vessel, The Tweed, and the midship profile of the Firth of Forth fishing boats, creating a beautiful new shape that was stronger, could take more sail, and be driven harder than any other vessel to date.

Scott had never built a ship of this size and the new partnership was keen to accommodate their client's every wish. Willis stipulated that only the best labour and materials were to be used and the contract price was limited to £16,150.

The Cutty Sark was to be the first and last ship built by Scott and Linton. By the day she was named by Mrs George Moodie, wife of her first captain, on November 22, 1869, the company was near bankrupt and the ship was eventually towed to Greenock to be finished by William Denny and Brothers.


The Tea Trade

Cutty Sark never won the Race she was built to take, possibly because – unlike Captain Kemball of the Thermopylae - Captain Moodie was too conscientious a seaman to take the necessary risks.

Cutty Sark and Thermopylae only met on equal terms once, in 1872. Both ships loaded at Shanghai and left Woosung on the 2l July. Two days out, after they had been delayed by fog, the fore topgallant sail of the Cutty Sark split in a gale, but all down the China Sea the two clippers were in sight of each other, one leading and then the other. Thermopylae was just 1.5 miles ahead at Anjer, the entrance to the Indian Ocean, but when the strong trade winds which suited Cutty Sark sprang up she steadily pulled away from her rival. Despite splitting a number of her sails, on August 14 she was some 400 miles ahead when she lost her rudder in a heavy gale. Willis's brother, who was making the voyage for his health, ordered Moodie to put in at Cape Town for repairs, whereupon the latter threatened to put him in irons for  mutiny.

A jury rudder was made from spare spars and iron stanchions by the ship's carpenter, Henry Henderson, who had been a master shipwright on her construction. With the gale still blowing and heavy seas sweeping over the decks making the rudder was no easy task and there were six days of drama before it was complete. On one occasion, the captain's son was covered in embers when the brazier, whose flames he was keeping going, overturned, on another the blacksmith was swept off his feet and nearly hit the sailmaker with a red hot iron bar. Cutty Sark steered surprisingly well with her jury rudder but, by this time, Thermopylae was 500 miles ahead. Even so, there was only 7 days in it; despite losing two more days, when the rudder had to be hauled on deck for emergency repairs, Cutty Sark passed Gravesend on 18 October, 122 days out from Shanghai. Thermopylae had reached home in 115 days. Despite pleas from Willis, Captain Moodie resigned, because of the row he had had with Willis’ brother, and began a new career in the steam ships which were beginning to take over the Tea trade. Henry Henderson was rewarded for the jury rudder with a testimonial and a cheque for £50, by the grateful owner whose ship and cargo had been uninsured.

One week before Cutty Sark had been launched, the Suez Canal opened and, by 1875, steamships were providing stiff competition for the clippers. In that year, her new master Captain Tiptaft brought Cutty Sark home from Shanghai in 108 days but the SS Glenartney took only 42 days through the canal. The clippers could no longer compete on these terms and, in 1877, Cutty Sark brought her last from Woosung, in 127 days, then nearly perished on the Goodwins. A large fleet of ships were sheltering off Deal, from gales which raged from November 10 to 12. Among them was Cutty Sark who dragged her anchor and went careering through the fleet before stranding. Flares summoned the tugs Macgregor and Benachie and, together, they managed to tow her off and take her into the river Thames where she was repaired and refitted.

With the tea trade now firmly in the hands of steamships, Willis sought other cargos for his ship which was to go through a low time in her history until, in 1883, she began what was to be the glorious phase of her career. Under Captain F.W. Moore, Cutty Sark made two voyages to Australia and back, in 1883 and 1884, showing what the ship could really do, even with cut down spars and a crew reduced from 28 to around 20. When Moore was promoted to command Willis’ flagship Tweed, hheh was replaced by Captain Richard Woodget, from the Coldstream; the son of Norfolk farmer who had first gone to sea as a hand in East Coasters. Under his command, Cutty Sark came into her own; not as the tea clipper that Willis had intended but as a wool clipper.

A tea clipper made her name in the Doldrums, where the ship that could carry the greatest sail area reigned supreme. For the wool trade, the thing that mattered was being able to keep going in the huge wind and waves of the Southern Ocean, whilst lesser ships lay 'hove to, under bare poles. It was in these icy waters that Linton’s superb design became ‘Queen’. Cutty Sark eft East India Dock on April 1, 1885, crossed the equator in 20 days and arrived in Sydney 77 days from   passing Start Point. On June 4, despite a wind slightly ahead of her beam, she had made 330 miles in 24 hours. Her voyage home was even faster and she was in the English Channel 67 days after she had left Sydney. It took her a further 5 days to complete the remaining 305 miles, in almost no wind, but she still beat her old rival Thermopylae by 7 days.

Under Woodget’s command, Cutty Sark won the race, from Australia to England, for ten consecutive years. The last voyage was not from Sydney, but from Brisbane, where she had arrived after being partly dismasted whilst outbound. There, she loaded 5304 bales of wool – worth well over £100,000 – and left on December 9, 1905, with her Plimsoll line 2 inches under water. When she arrived back, 84 days later, Willis told Woodget that he had sold Cutty Sark to the Portuguese firm Ferreira Brothers. Woodget made only one voyage, in his next command, Coldinghame, before retiring to farm and breed collies in Norfolk.

The Portuguese, who had paid £2100 for Cutty Sark, changed her name to Ferreira, but to her crew she        remained Pequina Camisola. She continued to trade, mostly between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, until 1920, by which time she was the only surviving tea clipper. The Ferreiras maintained her as well as they could, given the difficulty of making a sailing ship pay in that era, but, eventually, gave up the struggle and sold her to another Portuguese company who renamed her Maria do Amparo. It was to prove the luckiest thing that had    happened to her in a long time, for her new owners sent her to England.

In 1922, Maria, now in a somewhat sad state and rerigged as a barquentine following a dismasting in 1916, had to seek refuge from a gale in Falmouth. There she was seen by Captain Wilfred Dowman, who had never forgotten a day when, as an apprentice on the Hawksdale, he had watched the glorious Cutty Sark sweep past his ship under full sail. Dowman contacted the Portuguese owners and bought Maria for £3,750 and, two years later, Captain Woodget returned to his beloved Cutty Sark, now restored, re-rigged as a clipper and flying the red ensign, for a nostalgic coastal voyage to Fowey. In 1938, Dowman’s widow presented Cutty Sark to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College. She was towed to the Thames by the tug Muria and moored alongside HMS Worcester, where she was used to train both Royal and Merchant Navy cadets, until after World War II, when the college acquired a much larger, steel ship.

There followed lengthy discussions about her future and, in 1951, she was towed to Green & Silley Weir's Blackwall yard for a brief refurbishment prior to being moored above Greenwich, where she could be admired by visitors to the Festival of Britain.

The Cutty Sark Society was formed by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and the ship gifted to the society. In 1954, she was returned to Green and Silley, to undergo a thorough overhaul, whilst Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons built the drydock, at Greenwich, where she now lies as a permanent memorial to Britain’s sailing merchantmen. Since her official opening, in 1957, by HM The Queen, Cutty Sark has been  visited by over 15 million people from all over the world.


The construction of the tea clippers varied between all wood, all iron and composite, and Cutty Sark is of     composite construction. She has an iron frame consisting of an iron flat plate keel which is laid on top of the wooden keel and is swept up at the ends, being inboard of the wooden stem and stern posts. She has iron frames and bulwarks, reverse frames, floors, box keelson, side and bilge keelsons, longitudinal and diagonal tie plates, sheer and bilge strakes main and 'tween deck beams, deck stringers and mast partners. Below the keel plate there is a wooden keel of American Rock Elm, and below that a false keel of softwood. The garboard strake and strakes up to a height of 8 ft above the keel are of Rock Elm, while the ship side and main deck planking are of East India Teak. The 'tween deck is planked in yellow pine. The fastenings are of yellow metal (Muntz metal), a material which was also used to sheath the keel. The lower masts and bowsprit were iron, with the course yard being of steel. The remaining spars were timber.


In 1990 it was realised that Cutty Sark was beginning to show her age. Her running rigging was in poor repair, with many pieces missing. Her wood keel was compressing and there was much evidence of water having entered the hull through the main deck and also via the waterways and between the iron sheer strake and the sheer plank. Investigation of the keel, by removing the Muntz metal sheathing, revealed that it was totally waterlogged through water accumulating in the bilge and then being trapped by the sheathing. Samples of the rot were analysed by Imperial College, London University who identified the decay as electrochemical. The combination of yellow metal sheathing and fastenings, iron of the flat plate keel, frames and keel bolts with an electrolyte of brackish water had set up a battery action that was destroying the timber. Additional 12" x 12" bilge shores were inserted to prevent further compression of the keel and all the Muntz metal was removed to allow the keel to dry out.

A survey of the masts and rigging showed that action was urgently required, especially in the case of the fore mast. The lower mast was one of the remaining Victorian spars. It was built of iron plate, three plates in       section and was found to be completely rusted through or very wasted for a third of the circumference at the hounds. The Maritime Trust's rigger was lowered down inside the spar and he reported that there were numerous pinholes through which daylight could be seen, and also that many doubling plates, which had been fitted at some time, were being forced off by the pressure of rust at the interface. The survey also showed that the jib boom had suffered from rot and the Victorian iron bowsprit was heavily corroded.

With the aid of a £160,000 loan from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the unremarkable lower mast was replaced. Harry Spencer of Spencer Rigging, was commissioned to measure and draw the mast and build an exact replica, but using steel instead of iron plate. The Trust's own restoration team made the new jibboom and carried out the repairs to the other spars. The topmast and top gallant masts, crosstrees, trestletrees and spreaders had been replaced in steel in the 1950's restoration. The heels of the masts were found to be heavily corroded and had to be rebuilt and the crosstrees, trestletrees and spreaders were found to be full of water. The tops of these were cropped, the insides scaled and coated and the tops refitted. They were then filled with foam to prevent future ingress of water. They had been so over engineered, initially, that although severely rusted they could be re-used. The yards were in good condition and needed little in the way of repair, but all standing and running rigging was replaced. The blocks that were fitted in the '50s were donated by the Admiralty, and were iron bound and fastened. The shells all needed to be replaced, and when rebuilt they were copper fastened.

Although it had been hoped to save original deadeyes, they proved to be so damaged by rust build up under the bands that they were condemned, and new ones were made from lignum vitae. Standing rigging should have been replaced with galvanised iron wire of 6 x 7 construction. This was not possible, so steel wire of similar construction was used. It proved very difficult to turn in the deadeyes properly using steel rope, so a hydraulic cramping system was devised in order to get the wire to lie snugly round the deadeyes.

Work needed

The floors are heavily corroded, and the build up of rust at the faying surfaces between wood and iron, and between iron and iron, is forcing the structure apart.

 The rust is causing rivets to sheer and the yellow metal bolts to fail. Of course, the very damp British atmosphere also encourages rust to grow. An experiment is being carried out by Portsmouth Museum Service to see if it will be possible to halt the corrosion using electrolysis. This method has worked well on the all steel monitor Minerva, but it is not known whether the system will work with the combination of wood and iron, especially as the wood is heavily impregnated with iron salts. If electrolysis will not work, then the ship will have to be dismantled a bit at a time in order to clean the faying surfaces before refitting. This can be achieved by either removing a couple of strakes at a time, or by removing frames one by one. It is the Trust's intention to retain as much of the original material as possible.

At present the ship is docked down on a continuous concrete plinth, which will have to be removed and proper keel blocks inserted in order to allow work on the keel and the iron keel plate. The majority of the main deck is not original. As far as can be ascertained at the moment the deck under the monkey fo'c's'le and in the officers' accommodation and lazarette are teak, but the rest of the deck appears to be softwood with plywood on top, which is then covered by thin teak planks. If possible, it is the Trust's intention to replace the deck in teak.

Before any work is carried out, a computer model will be built to ascertain what residual strength remains and to determine the effect of removing any structural member. The ship has been classed by English Heritage as a Grade 1 Listed Structure, so where ever possible like must be replaced like with like. Three Quays Marine Services, part of the P&O Group, has given a provisional cost of £10 million to carry out the work and it is estimated that the work will take two years to complete.

A bleak future?

Captain Simon Waite, her curator, told BYM of Cutty Sark’s most urgent   problems.

The non-original deck—of sandwich construction—must be replaced soon, to prevent further ingress of fresh water. This will cost £1 million in wood alone.

A test of the Minerva treatment resulted in softening of the wood and, although this hardened up again, Captain Waite fears the results of treating a large area. He believes the only way to restore the ship is to remove stages of planking, one at a time, remove the rust (up to 2 inches thick in places), clean and treat the iron and repair and replace the planking.

Ray Little, who gave permission to use his photographs of ‘Cutty Sark’ in dry dock, is pessimistic about the future. Little told BYM ‘The authorities have stopped coaches bringing visitors right up to the ship, causing numbers to plunge. Hoped for money from the National Lottery has not been given. Her future doesn’t look good. I fear that, if funds are not forthcoming she could be closed to the public on safety grounds.’

If ‘Cutty Sark’ is left to deteriorate further, it will be an appalling indictment of the authorities of the nation that built her.



Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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