Cutty Sark–the last of the tea clippers

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After our trip round HMS Belfast we travelled over to Greenwich by tube and the Dockland Light Railway to tour round another ship – the Cutty Sark.

Built in Dumbarton in November 1869, this fast, streamlined sailing ship served as a tea clipper, bringing tea from China to London the long way, round the Cape of Good Hope. It made 8 voyages between 1870 and 1878, before steam ships sailing via the newly opened Suez Canal made the sailing ships uncompetitive. After that she was used to transport various cargoes, before concentrating on the Australian wool run between 1883 and 1895. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese firm J. Ferreira & Co., renamed the Ferreira. and used to transport various cargoes around the world.

In 1922 she was bought by a former sea captain, Wilfred Dowman, and after serving as a training ship in Falmouth and Kent, she was brought to Greenwich, restored and opened to the public in 1957. The ship was badly damaged by fire on 21 May 2007 while undergoing conservation – I remember watching it going up in flames live on BBC Breakfast news. But since then she has been restored and reopened on 26 April 2012.

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Since it’s been restored the bottom of the hull, below the waterline, has been enclosed under a glass roof, a little like the SS Great Britain in Bristol. Visitors can get right underneath and view the shiny new copper plating – a real “copper bottomed boat”.

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The ship’s hull is made of wood supported by an iron superstructure. This made it strong and relatively light compared to all wooden vessels.

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Visitors can explore the ship, accessing all areas, and there are displays telling the story of the ship and the teas clippers.

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I remember as a boy making up Airfix kits of sailing ships (you can purchase one of the Cutty Sark at the museum shop if you want), and fitting the rigging was always the most difficult part – a fiddly task using fine sewing thread pinched off my Mum. So I certainly wouldn’t have like being given the job on this full scale ship.

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Sleeping quarters for both crew and officers was rather cramped. I don’t know if the crew were small in stature. If they weren’t they would have had an incredibly uncomfortable time in these bunks which were just about big enough for a modern day pre-teen.

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This is the distinctive figurehead below the yard arm.

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It depicts the scantily-clad witch Nannie Dee, from Robert Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter, wearing the short nightdress or ‘cutty sark’ after which the ship is named. In her hand she holds a mare’s tail – grabbed from Tam O’Shanter’s horse as he made his escape over the bridge over the River Doon.

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3 thoughts on “Cutty Sark–the last of the tea clippers

  1. Two great, consecutive boat tours – one comment to cover them both. Good to see the contrast of them side by side. I’m really quite surprised to find sailors still sleeping in hammocks in the second world war. I’d walk past (not quite but near enough to see it) HMS Belfast before – if I’d realised you could go on board, I might have got a bit closer.

    • Thanks Sandy.
      Yes, sleeping in hammocks does seem rather primitive, especially as they would be hung up in all sorts of places as illustrated. Former sailors speaking on the audioguide commented on how they were actually quite comfortable and “the boat moved rather than the hammock”.

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