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London’s Maritime History: 10 Interesting Facts and Figures about the Cutty Sark You Might Not Know

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Clipper ships were the fastest merchant ships on the oceans back in the 19th Century and one of the most famous was the Cutty Sark. Built in 1869, she was amongst the last of the tea clippers as steam engine technology began to dominate the industry. Pushed out of the tea trade by the newer steam ships, she turned to the wool trade before packing it in in 1895 and being converted into a museum ship. Now a popular tourist attraction, it can be found in Greenwich near the National Maritime Museum and the Greenwich Hospital. Have a look below at ten interesting facts about this great naval vessel.

By the Numbers

The original cost to build the Cutty Sark was £16,150. Its overall length is 280 feet with 32 sails and 11 miles of rigging. Its top speed was 17 knots (roughly 19 miles per hour).

Bit of History

After being retired from the wool trade in 1895, it was sold to Portuguese merchants who renamed her the Ferreira and used it to transport other goods until 1922. In that year, she was recognised by Wilfred Dowman, who had trained on her and chased her back to Portugal to purchase the ship and restore her. To do so, he brought the ship to Falmouth, then it spent time in Kent before being moved to its current, custom-built dry dock in 1954.

We Don’t Need No Water

In 2007 while the ship was undergoing restoration, it caught fire. The Cutty Sark burned for several hours before the London Fire Brigade was able to bring it under control. Fortunately, at least half of the timber and other elements of the ship had not been on board because of the restoration process. The fire pushed the cost of restoration up by £5-10 million, ultimately making the cost roughly £30-35 million.

Slowing Her Down

During World War I, the Cutty Sark was caught in a bad storm and her masts were damaged. In the process of rebuilding the masts, they were shortened and the ship was turned from a clipper into a slower barquentine.

I’ll Drink to That

About the time the Cutty Sark was making it back to Britain, wine merchants Berry Brothers & Rudd wanted to make a whiskey to introduce to the post-Prohibition American market. They needed a name for their libation and with the ship in all the papers, it seemed natural to name a Scotch whiskey after a ship with a Scottish name.

Last of Its Kind

The Cutty Sark is the last intact clipper ship in the world.


Man Under-Board?

As part of its restoration and renovations, the Cutty Sark was raised above its previous dry dock and a structure built around the ship’s hull so that visitors can see the underside of the hull.

Final Voyage

The last voyage of the Cutty Sark was in 1938 when it moved from Falmouth to Kent, where it served as a training vessel for sailors in the Royal and Merchant navies.

What’s in a Name?

The Cutty Sark’s name has literary origins, coming from the poem “Tam O’Shanter” by Robbie Burns. The poem is about a farmer named Tam who is chased by the witch Nannie who was wearing only a “cutty sark”, or a short nightdress. Jock Willis, the original owner of the ship, may have given it this name out of a sense of Scottish pride, as his other ship was named Halloween after another Burns poem. Rightly so, Nannie is depicted in the ship’s figurehead.

Technology Marches On

It wasn’t just the steam engine that helped end the era of clippers such as the Cutty Sark, another engineering marvel helped as well—the Suez Canal. Clippers had to travel around the Horn of Africa to get to China for tea and couldn’t navigate the canal or find enough wind to sail the Red Sea.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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