10 January 2016


The Royal Borough of Greenwich. Home to many grand old buildings and establishments, great markets, quirky shops and loads of history, there is so much to do, to see, atmosphere to soak up, something for everyone. 

My most recent visit was towards the end of November, I had my grandson with me, I was anxious about security, but I wasn't going to change my plans and my daughter shared my feelings.

Perhaps one of the oldest and most famous residents is this lovely old ship.  

The Cutty Sark was once the most famous of the great clippers - the fast sailing ships of the nineteenth century that traversed the world’s major trading routes. 

She was built on the Clyde in 1869 for the Jock Willis Shipping Line, commissioned by shipping magnate Jock "Whitehat" Willis who operated the shipping company founded by his father. The ship was named after Cutty-sark, the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns's 1791 poem Tam o' Shanter

The ship's figurehead, attributed to carver Fredrick Hellyer of Blackwall, is a stark white carving of a bare-breasted Nannie Dee with long black hair holding a grey horse's tail. In the poem she wore a linen sark (a short chemise or undergarment), that she had been given as a child, which explains why it was cutty - far too short. The sight of her dancing in such a short undergarment caused Tam to cry out "Weel done, Cutty-sark". Originally, carvings by Hellyer of the other scantily clad witches followed behind the figurehead along the bow, but these were removed by Willis in deference to 'good taste'.

The white painted metalwork is part of the original iron framework. Almost all of it dates back to 1869 when the ship was built. The grey metalwork has been installed to support the original structure. The Cutty Sark was a masterpiece of sailing ship design. Her hull of timber and iron was sleek and strong and her three canvas masts propelled her to speeds of up to 17 knots. As a result she spent the 1870's speeding across the high seas, establishing a reputation as one of the fastest ships afloat. Speed was a major advantage to a merchant ship and created prestige for the owners. As well as prestige her speed also secured handsome profits, bringing the new tea crop from China to the fashionable tearooms and parlours of Victorian Britain.

So precious was this new commodity that when it was first brought to Europe it was kept under lock and key in tea caddies.

The skilled Chinese stevedores could load more than 10,000 tea chests in two or three days. Bamboo matting covered with canvas made sure that the tea was kept dry if water seeped through from the main deck.

The annual tea race was a Victorian sensation, the progress of the ships was  reported by telegraph and could be followed in the newspapers. Huge bets were laid on the outcome. The Cutty Sark was never first to the finish line, but she was still one of the fastest. In 1872 she was involved in one of the most famous tea races of all time, against the Thermopylae. The two ships were neck and neck until the Cutty Sark lost her rudder in heavy seas in the Indian Ocean. The accident meant Thermopylae beat her back to London by 7 days, but the Cutty Sark’s performance was nevertheless remarkable.

Whilst the opening of the Suez Canal offered steamships a shorter route to the Far East, cutting approximately two months off their journey time, the winds of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were not suited to the clippers. Consequently, the increasing speed and cargo capacity of steamships soon rendered sailing ships unprofitable. By the late 1870s, the Cutty Sark had been pushed out of the tea trade and her future looked bleak. In 1880 she set off on a voyage to Japan delivering coal for the American Pacific fleet. She never completed the voyage though. A fight amongst the crew left one man dead, and when the man responsible was allowed to escape by the captain, the rest of the crew mutinied. The ship’s captain, realising his career was ruined, committed suicide by stepping off the ship’s stern into the sea. 
These dark events gave the Cutty Sark a new reputation amongst sailors, as a ‘hellship’ and a cursed vessel. The worst possible reputation for a ship. Determined to turn her fortunes around, in 1885 Jock Willis hired an excellent, eccentric clipper captain named Richard Woodget. Captain Woodget recognised that the Cutty Sark’s commercial advantage now lay in the dangerous wool run to Australia.

In this arena the Cutty Sark once again excelled, setting speed records between London, Melbourne and Sydney. 
She also carried whisky at least once as part of a general cargo from London to Sydney in 1890. 
The Cutty Sark brand of whisky was created in 1923. 

It's thought that she also carried coffee and silk and private cargo.

In 1886 in Shanghai, Captain Woodget acquired a bicycle like this one which he learnt to ride on the tween deck. 
He also learnt to roller skate!

For a decade Cutty Sark established her fame through her lightning voyages, but by 1895, she was approaching the end of her life expectancy and had ceased to be profitable. After her heyday, she was sold to a Portuguese company, who renamed her the Ferreira. The ship spent 25 years transporting cargoes between Portugal, Africa and the Americas, and managed to avoid German U-boats during World War I. 

In 1922 she was purchased by Captain Dowman, a former clipper who remembered her from her glory days. Dowman renamed her the Cutty Sark and brought her to Falmouth, where she was restored and opened to the public. 
Upon Dowman’s death in 1936, the ship passed to the navy Training College at Greenhithe to be used as a training ship by British naval cadets. Aboard her, a generation of Royal and Merchant Navy cadets were trained on how to work a sailing ship. 
Time finally ran out for the Cutty Sark after World War II, when the College got a new training ship. Now facing the scrapyard, the Cutty Sark was once again rescued from obscurity. 
In 1951, the Cutty Sark Society had been established by her admirers. With the support of the public and the Society’s patron, the Duke of Edinburgh, funds were raised to rescue her. 
In 1954, she was placed in dry dock in Greenwich, London where  she served as a unique example of breathtaking ship design and as a symbol of Britain’s proud maritime heritage. She also became the memorial to the Merchant Navy and its losses in two world wars.
Over the decades, the same timbers that were once pounded by the storms of the Cape Horn came under new threat. Years of exposure to the elements took their toll. Her wooden hull was waterlogged and rotting and the iron frame that supported them was rusting. In 2007 comprehensive conservation of the ship was started. 
She has been damaged by fire twice, firstly in May 2007. Thankfully, she was undergoing restoration work at the time, and about fifty per cent of the ship had been removed, including the iconic figurehead, the masts and rigging, the coach house, and a significant amount of planking, so the damage could have been a lot worse. She was restored and reopened to the public on 25 April 2012. Secondly, on 19 October 2014 she suffered minor damage in a smaller fire.
In her long life she has faced the scrapyard many times. But thanks to good fortune and the hard work of her admirers, today she is the last tea clipper to survive. For fifty years she has stood in dry dock in Greenwich, where she has become a top tourist attraction and famous London landmark. 

She is, not least, a unique link to Britain’s proud maritime past.

She has been beautifully renovated

A bit of fun steering a virtual ship from Australia to England. 
Captain Woodget did it in 73 days.

                           My grandson did it in 84 days            I took 94 days, I went the wrong way round!!

         Master's Cabin                Captains dining room

“Heads” seems a strange description for a toilet! 
It derives from the fact that the toilet on a marine vessel was located at the front of the ship (the head), so that water from the sea that splashed up on the front of the boat would wash the waste away.  The term is thought to have been used as early as the 17th century. 

As an army marches on its stomach, so too I imagine sailors sail on theirs. 
Everyone on a ship is important but probably one of the most important people is the cook. 

As we were looking around on deck I was suddenly aware that I could hear animal noises -  pigs to be precise, then I spotted it, no not a real pig, a pretend one. Livestock were taken on board for food.


Now I suspect you're going to have a bit of a chuckle here. For years I thought that short bunks were an indication of short sailors!! I know I know, shame, but the real reason didn't occur to me. A very nice man acting as Jock "Whitehat" on the ship explained that they were designed that way so that the men would repose with their legs bent thus ensuring that their sleep wouldn't be disturbed by constant rolling around - simple. I wonder if they wore knee pads!

The Long John Silver Collection of Figureheads was given to Cutty Sark in 1953 by Sydney Cumbers, also known as Long John Silver because of his eye patch and his love of all things maritime.

Does the figure in blue holding the flower remind you of anyone?

Thank you for reading, hope you've enjoyed this little bit of history. 
Don't miss the next installment - the brilliant Maritime Museum :-)


  1. Hello Polly,
    Thank you for the great pictures and the great information. It was very interesting.
    Big hug

    1. Hello Giac, many thanks for your comments, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Very best wishes for the new year x

  2. Hi Polly, enjoyed the history of the Cutty Shark I give up with the lady in blue with the flower, you're going to have to tell moi :)

    1. Hi Grace, glad you enjoyed it. I'm very sorry I've just realised that some of my visitors would be from overseas and might not know about our previous Prime Ministers, its Margaret Thatcher, our first female PM from 1979 to 1990 x

  3. Glad to meet you! I listen to audio books, at least three a week. I love history and mystery (hey, that rhymes!) and listen to a lot of authors from "across the pond". I could hear the accent as I read your post, so lovely. I have already shared the history of the "head" with He Who loves me.

    1. Hi Kathy, it's good to have you visit and read your comments. I had to laugh at your sharing the "head" history.

  4. I've been to London several times but I have never made it to Greenwich. It was on our list of places to see when we were in the UK back in March but our day there got completely rained out. I hope to be back in 2018 and I'll get there then I hope! I love that collection of figureheads. SO jolly and so colourful!

    1. Hi Bronwyn, it's nice to see you. There is so much to see and do in London, I hope you make it to Greenwich on your next visit.

  5. I have a back-log of posts to work through. This was fascinating and well written. I have not seen the restored Cutty Sark but hope I might have a chance to visit soon.

    1. Thank you Mike, I had a little help from the web:-) It's well worth a visit


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