Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark is the world’s only surviving extreme clipper with a proud history stretching back over 150 years. Peter Gray reports.

Explore the incredible history of the Cutty Sark, the world’s last surviving tea clipper, at the vessel’s permanent home in Maritime Greenwich. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to take the ship’s wheel, meet a cast of colourful characters from the Cutty Sark’s history, and discover how the clipper got its distinctive name.

Meet the Crew

Kids will particularly love the colourful characters who roam around the ship. There’s Captain Woodget, the Cutty Sark’s longest serving master. The captain is only too happy to give visitors an insight into life on board a tea clipper.

Then there’s poor Mrs Ray, who’s pining for her son, ship apprentice Clarence. You’ll find out more about the old woman and her family as Mrs Ray discusses her son and the letters he sends her.

There’s also James Robson, the Cutty Sark’s chief cook. Robson likes nothing better than taking visitors through a typical 18th century seaman’s diet.

Visitors should note that the museum’s characters vary from day to day, and visitors should call ahead to find out which character is appearing on a given day.

The History of the Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark was built in Dumbarton in 1869. The vessel embarked on its maiden voyage a year later, in February 1870. The destination was Shanghai. So began a period of going backwards and forwards between China and England. On the way out the hold was typically full of wines, beers and other foodstuffs but on the way back, there was likely only one thing onboard: tea.

Contrary to popular belief, the Cutty Sark’s career as a tea clipper was not a long one. The arrival of steam ships soon put paid to that. The ship’s last trip to China occurred in 1877. From then on, the ship’s cargo was a much more varied one.

Under captain James Wallace, the ship traded in coal, while also occasionally carrying the mail. However, after several years, the owners of the ship settled on the transportation of wool. This ushered in an incredibly successful period for the vessel and the work, although dangerous, was incredibly lucrative.

By the 1890s, however, income from the transportation of goods was fast declining as steam ships muscled in on the wool business. After several more years of worsening business, the ship was sold to the Portuguese.

Renamed the Ferreira, the Cutty Sark was now commissioned to transport goods from Portugal’s overseas possessions to the mainland.

Fate intervened in 1922, however. Docked in Falmouth for essential repairs, the famous old ship was spotted by a local boat yard owner called Wilfred Dowman. Dowman recalled the Cutty Sark from his youth. While an apprentice on a ship called the Hawksdale, the young man remembered seeing the famous clipper roar by, “in a manner which could not fail to impress”.

Now, years later, with the memory still etched into him, Dowman determined to buy the ship for himself. Indeed, so keen was he to complete a deal that he offered a staggering £3750 for the ship, vastly more than anyone could reasonably expect for a vessel of the Cutty Sark’s age and physical condition. The deal was completed in October 1922 with Dowman quickly installing the ship in his boat yard where he planned to use it to help train sea cadets. The Cutty Sark’s future was finally secure.

Restoration and transfer of ownership

Once the ship was in his possession, Dowman began the expensive process of restoring the ship to its former glory. It was a long and arduous process but Dowman was not to be detered and in time, the Cutty Sark began to more closely resemble the ship which Dowman knew from his youth. When the old man passed away, the ship came into the possession of his wife. Mrs Dowman immediately donated the ship to the local training college. There it stayed until the 1950s.

To Greenwich

In 1952, the Cutty Sark Preservation Society was formed, with the aim of completing the restoration that Dowman had begun. With the help of their patron, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, the Cutty Sark was fully restored and once the process had ended, the ship was moved to its new home in Greenwich. The Cutty Sark opened to the public as a museum ship in 1957.

In 2007, the ship was once again in urgent need of restoration after a fire had damaged the clipper’s decks. This time the Heritage Lottery Fund came to the rescue with the fully restored clipper reopeing to the public in 2012.

More information about the Cutty Sark can be found here.

If you’d like information on other great museums in London, please click here.



--Places of Interest--
What: historic cargo ship
Why: the last surviving tea clipper
Where: Maritime Greenwich
Website: Cutty Sark