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The Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark – Tea Clipper

Britain has a long and proud history as a great ship-building and seafaring nation. One of its most notable and famous old ships is the tea clipper, The Cutty Sark. This traditionally constructed, commercial sailing ship was built in Scotland in 1869, using a composite construction of wrought iron framework lined with teak planks. One of the fastest ships in the world at that time, the Cutty Sark was designed to carry tea from China to England – a highly competitive and lucrative trade route. Unfortunately though, in the same year of the ship’s launch, the Suez Canal opened.

This important new waterway enabled steam ships (or steamers) to make shorter, and therefore faster and more cost-effective, journeys. As a consequence an alternative function was needed, and the ship began transporting wool from Australia, breaking many sailing speed records in the process. Eventually though, steamers conquered this market too, and in 1895 the owners sold the ship to a Portuguese company, who renamed her ‘Ferreira’. She spent the subsequent years, including the WW1 period, ferrying cargoes (including coal) around the globe to and from Portugal.

By 1922 she was last surviving operational clipper in the world, but her seafaring days were coming to an end. She was purchased and brought back to England to be used as a cadet training ship, finding a new permanent home in Falmouth harbour, Cornwall and reverting to her original name. There she remained until 1938, when she set sail for the last time, having been bought by the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College. Fittingly, she was crewed by cadets for this final journey, being steered by a 15 year old boy.

For the next few years the Cutty Sark remained on the Thames, operating as a training vessel alongside HMS Worcester. In 1950 she was deemed to be redundant as a training ship and underwent a refit, after which she took part in the Festival of Britain. A later collision with a tanker damaged the ship with the figurehead losing an arm. Luckily the arm was eventually retrieved and the damaged repaired!

The clipper was moved to dry dock in Greenwich in 1954, where she has remained on public display ever since. Preserved as a museum ship, she has since undergone extensive restoration, but suffered a major setback in 2007 when a catastrophic fire broke out. Fortunately, much of the original timber fixtures and fittings were saved due to having been removed whilst work was being carried out. This meant that damage was less than originally feared.

Fifty years after first opening the historic ship to the public, Queen Elizabeth II reopened the attraction on April 25th 2012, following a £50 million renovation. The exhibit now attracts visitors from all over the world and is one of the most iconic images along the route of the world famous London Marathon.

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